Tales From a True Downton Abbey Thoroughbred

After being felled by a brutal bug (which I picked up in my doctor’s office while waiting for my flu shot) last week, I was glad to be back at 55th and Fifth today where I embarked on the second leg of my own personal trifecta of reporting on every aspect of my television obsession, Downton Abbey. I interviewed cast member Lesley Nichol two weeks ago and am planning a very special Downton lunch for December (No spoilers here! It’s top secret for now). Today I was thrilled to dine and dish with Harry Herbert, the second son of the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, who was in town on a whirlwind three-day visit to New York to meet a few Upper East Side swells and talk to them about his glamorous and highly successful racehorse syndication business, Highclere Thoroughbred Racing. As the company’s founder, Henry puts together racing syndicates — small groups of people with deep pockets — to share in owning a racehorse. So what’s Harry’s Downton Abbey connection, you ask? Harry’s ancestral home is none other than Highclere Castle, the stunning setting — and very much its own character — on Downton Abbey. I kid you not.

Alistair Morrison, Diane Clehane and Harry Herbert

If you’re like me and have watched the specials that have aired on Highclere on PBS and HG-TV, you’ve seen Harry’s sister-in-law Fiona, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, who is married to his brother George, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, giving behind-the-scenes tours of the great house and talking about what it’s like to have your home taken over by the cast of one of Britain’s most popular television programs. (They actually live in another home on the sprawling estate) Harry painted a fascinating picture for me of the real life cast of characters who have populated Highclere, worthy of their own PBS series. It turns out his parents’ love story mirror the one which plays out on Downton between the elder Grantham’s British-American union. Harry’s mother, Jeannie, was 19 years old when he journeyed from her home in Wyoming to England to visit friends and met his father, Henry. When she went back to the states, says Harry, “He chased her to Wyoming and wound up marrying her.”

The couple and their family didn’t live in Highclere, but instead resided in Milford House (“There was no way the family was going to move into the castle”), the stately carriage house behind the great house. Growing up, Harry and his siblings were often summoned by their grandfather to Highclere “for breakfast — until we proved we were mature enough for lunch.” The elder Lord Carnarvon lived a life much like the fictional Lord Grantham of Downton, complete with his own Carson (head butler). Remembers Harry: “Robert Taylor was the Carson of Highclere — impeccably dressed and he ruled with a iron sleeve. We were all quite intimidated by him.” When Harry’s grandfather died in 1988, and his father was charged with going through the house’s 300 or so rooms (But who’s counting?), Mr. Taylor provided the family with the shock of their lives. “Soethby’s came in and when they were through, my father said, ‘Well, thank goodness that’s done and they’ve taken everything (for sale)’ to which Mr. Taylor (just picture Carson saying this): ‘Everything apart from the Egyptian stuff, my lord.'”

It turns out the taciturn Mr. Taylor had kept a whopper of a secret. Behind several of Highclere’s paneled walls was a literal treasure trove of priceless Egyptian artifacts that were not sent to the Metropolitan Museum in New York after the widow of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, whose husband discovered the Tomb of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun, sold them to pay off  “death duties” in the 1920s.  Amazingly, the butler knew the treasures were there for decades, but failed to tell the master of the house about them. “I thought his lordship would have destroyed them or sold them, so I kept quiet about it,” said the butler to Harry’s awestruck family. “He took us the long route around (the hidden tunnels)” and the family discovered priceless pieces of art “left in the pockets of smoking jackets and tobacco boxes” marveled Harry. Today, Harry’s brother George presides over the exhibition in Highclere’s cellar, which is open to the public.