Commemorating the First World War Centenary: Downton Abbey

2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War.

Here, Vivian Vassos shares, in the second part of a four-part series, how England remembers, this week from Highclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey, where the hit television show, which airs in Canada on VisionTV, is filmed. www.visitengland.com

Standing in the shade of one of the magnificent Cedars of Lebanon planted here more than a century ago, I take a breath. It’s rarefied air, the same air that has filtered through Lady Mary, the Dowager Countess, Mr. Bates and Mrs. Patmore – all actors of course, but it’s hard not to imagine them all strolling the grounds, or inspecting the herb garden for the next feast. This is Highclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey, but it is also home to the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. The filming of the hit TV show has been quite the boon for the couple: “It is quite expensive to upkeep,” says Lady Carnarvon. “It’s a house still for conversation; not so much WiFi, radio for the most part. Jordie [the Earl] opens up for the cast at 7 am and I will close up at night, so yes, we live here while filming.”

heroes-at-highclere2But it’s not so much the TV show that’s on her mind right now. On August 3, the couple will mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War with Heroes at Highclere, a special one-day event. “A day of all nations,” she says, “a celebrity football match against Germans and Brits, remembering the game played in no man’s land during the First World War, the one little moment of humanity in the terrible time, so why not commemorate that?”

“We are recreating the 1914 operating theatre,” describes Lady Carnarvon, of the day’s events, including the fact that the house, like in the TV show, was a hospital during the First World War. “Viking river cruises are sponsoring the stage. At 11 am, there will be a church service.” The poem, In Flanders Field, will be read and some of the guests may include Sophie, the great granddaughter of Archduke Ferdinand and Lady Grantham, aka Elizabeth McGovern, and her rock band Sadie & the Hotheads will perform live. “We’re doing this to raise funds for orphans of war and for new soldiers. Music, planes, vintage cars, the December Christmas Eve re-enactment of the football match.” The key word here, is unity.

“I wanted an event that used Highclere as an icon to remember the day,” she says. Legacy, also: there is a collection of 100 Centenary objects online; Christie’s will curate it; and also a live auction online for charity (www.HeroesatHighclereAuction.com). Bid for a private tour of the castle; a night in a London gatehouse, and more. “We’re hoping to sell more than 8,000 tickets,” she adds. Along with the performances and the online auction, there will be an air show, featuring a Canadian owned B17, vintage fairground rides and classic and military vehicles and, although the house will be closed, the grounds will be open to the public.

opens up for the cast at 7 am and I will close up at night, so yes, we live here while filming.”

heroes-at-highclere2But it’s not so much the TV show that’s on her mind right now. On August 3, the couple will mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War with Heroes at Highclere, a special one-day event. “A day of all nations,” she says, “a celebrity football match against Germans and Brits, remembering the game played in no man’s land during the First World War, the one little moment of humanity in the terrible time, so why not commemorate that?”

“We are recreating the 1914 operating theatre,” describes Lady Carnarvon, of the day’s events, including the fact that the house, like in the TV show, was a hospital during the First World War. “Viking river cruises are sponsoring the stage. At 11 am, there will be a church service.” The poem, In Flanders Field, will be read and some of the guests may include Sophie, the great granddaughter of Archduke Ferdinand and Lady Grantham, aka Elizabeth McGovern, and her rock band Sadie & the Hotheads will perform live. “We’re doing this to raise funds for orphans of war and for new soldiers. Music, planes, vintage cars, the December Christmas Eve re-enactment of the football match.” The key word here, is unity.

“I wanted an event that used Highclere as an icon to remember the day,” she says. Legacy, also: there is a collection of 100 Centenary objects online; Christie’s will curate it; and also a live auction online for charity (www.HeroesatHighclereAuction.com). Bid for a private tour of the castle; a night in a London gatehouse, and more. “We’re hoping to sell more than 8,000 tickets,” she adds. Along with the performances and the online auction, there will be an air show, featuring a Canadian owned B17, vintage fairground rides and classic and military vehicles and, although the house will be closed, the grounds will be open to the public.

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If you’re in England, it’s well worth the trip, and not too far from London. Visit for lunch, as the Tea Rooms are a civilized spot to take a rest, and take in the beautiful grounds. Aside from the special event on August 3, the Castle and grounds will be open to the public Wednesday August 6th to Wednesday September 17th, with closures on Fridays and Saturdays. www.highclerecastle.co.uk

This post is part two of a four-part series. Read part one: Commemorating the First World War – How England Remembers

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Highclere Castle welcomes visitors

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A closeup of the architecture

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Visitors enjoy tea in the garden

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Earl Carnarvon

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Lady Carnarvon

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Scenes from the series, Downton Abbey, hang on the wall within Highclere Castle