Friday, January 27, 2017

The Real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle

When Rick and I first started a couple of years ago to plan our long awaited trip to England, we weren't sure whether we'd include a visit to Highclere Castle, the majestic backdrop for Julian Fellowes's epic drama series, Downton Abbey.

At the time, I was still grumpy at Mr. Fellowes for not letting Mary and Matthew have at least five minutes happiness before creating a nasty accident for Matthew. So, seriously, I wasn't sure I wanted to visit the Grantham family home. However, with the passage of time to dim that memory from my mind, sense prevailed, thankfully, and happy was the day when our final travel arrangements included a whole day to snoop around the Downton Abbey filming sites, including the stately Highclere Castle.

So, what shall I tell you, dear beautiful friends, about our day here? The weather was glorious. The skies were blue and sunny when we arrived. No need to carry rain coats or brollies -- it was a perfect day for walking around the grounds, strolling through the gardens, and admiring the castle from every angle.

I knew we would enjoy our day here, but I really didn't expect to feel the magic. Yet when I came around the corner from the carpark and suddenly found myself standing on this very spot of that oh-so-familiar pathway ... oh my ... I felt the magical zap-tingle inside my stomach.

In that instant, I knew I was happy, happy, happy we came. Even with all the people around, for a brief moment I was in my own little world thinking to myself, Girl, you are here, really here, on the very same path that you see every week when the opening credit scenes roll by with Pharaoh ... or is it Isis ... trotting up the path.

What makes it all so special? I don't know ... I guess we fell in love. I remember early in the series, a dear blogging friend, Vee, once remarked that she'd gotten so connected she almost prayed for Lady Mary during a most dramatic episode. I could relate -- somehow their stories became our stories and now they've entered our cultural consciousness, Lady Violet Grantham's witticisms and all.

Seriously, when you get close up you can only stand and gape. The castle really is stunning. And, no doubt, I wasn't the only one imagining Carson coming out to greet us in his Butler-ish, formal manner.

In case you need a little background, Highclere Castle is set in the midst of 1,000 acres of parkland, and is the home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and the seat of the Carnarvon Family for over 300 years; the Carnarvon Family has lived here since 1679.

A magnificent family home, it is often described as 'the finest occupied Victorian mansion in England'. Major rebuilding work was carried out in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in 1838, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon brought in Sir Charles Barry to transform his home into a stunning mansion.

Photo Source: Palace of Westminster, London /

Sir Charles Barry was also the architect of the Palace of Westminster--also known as the Houses of Parliament--you might recognize the many similarities that exist between the styles of the two buildings.

Highclere Castle was transformed into a hospital during the First World War, and became a private home again in 1922. Downton fans, you will remember when the Grantham family, too, saw their beloved Downton Abbey being turned into a convalescent home for wounded officers during the same Great War. An example of art imitating life, perhaps?

To this day the current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon live partly in the Castle and partly nearby. They remain closely involved in the Castle's day to day life and future. Lady Carnarvon has authored several fiction and non-fiction books; you can find out more about them here.

You might also be interested to learn the Countess has a blog where she invites readers behind the scenes of her life and home, and shares anecdotes from her everyday life at Highclere. Here is the link:


When Rick and I visited Great Britain last summer, I loved collecting the souvenir guidebooks from the various places we visited. They not only turned out to be a wonderful reference when I started my overwhelming task of organizing my collection of more than two thousand trip photos, but they were chock-full of interesting details that, upon reflection, deepened and enriched our experiences.

Highclere's full colour official souvenir guidebook (left above) is a little treasure. You see, we weren't allowed to take photos inside the castle, and I surely wanted some memento of those divinely gorgeous rooms where so many Downton Abbey scenes took place. I would have loved to show you some of those lovely rooms up close ... not wanting to infringe on copyrights, the next best thing is to suggest a visit to their website where they highlight a few with photos. 

The souvenir guideline is available through their online gift shop (if you are willing to pay the exchange and postage). It's a lovely keepsake whether you've been there in person, or not.

In the midst of all this grandeur, our tour guide reminded us that we should find lunch before taking the house tour. I thought, who wants to eat, but when we saw what they were serving, we realized lunch was a very good idea indeed.

We sat under the shade of an umbrella at a table that overlooked hilly pastures filled with grazing sheep. As we tucked in, I marveled that we really were here enjoying all this English loveliness. How blessed, blessed, blessed I felt as we sipped our tea and drank in the panorama.

With lunch done, we came around to the front of the house, er, castle, and to our chagrin, we found a long line up of people waiting at the front door. Obviously they'd finished their lunch too and were eager to get on with the real business at hand.

But who cared? We were all here to enjoy the same thing. And grace seemed available for us all ... people weren't impatient ... everyone had a chance to be as meandering and slow as they needed to be in order to enjoy the many fascinating details of architecture, art, furnishings, and photographs.

We entered through the grand front door, no servants' backdoor for us. And yes, we saw the stunning gothic entrance hall with its marble columns and vaulted ceiling. We were guided to our left which took us into the Library; it was impressively decorated in dark mahogany, gilded bookcases, and rich red curtains. Its collection boasts over 5,650 books. Oh look, there's Lord Grantham's desk, and those big red couches with the high backs set beside the fireplace. You know what, the cushions actually look comfortable but, no, we mustn't sit down to check them out.

You must remember the Drawing Room where the Downton family often gathered before dinner? The room with those gorgeous green walls and how the ladies seemed to be dressed in complementary outfits to match. A lovely south-facing room, Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, used green French silk to cover the walls and make curtains; her father gave the silk to her as a gift. Now that is some gift! It was also Almina who turned the Castle into a hospital during the First World War, and from all accounts, she was adored by her patients for the little touches that made their stay a 'haven of rest'.

It was all so beautiful. Going upstairs to peek into the bedrooms that had been used as Lady Cora's and Lady Edith's was a delight. We imagined some of the unforgettable scenes as we walked along the upstairs gallery. And, finally we found ourselves at the top of the stately Oak staircase -- where over the centuries countless ladies in elegant dresses and brides beautiful in lacy gowns must have come down.

And, I was about to do the same thing. Heavy walking shoes on or not, for me, that was another magical moment. I imagined Lady Edith who, in the final episode, walked down to finally meet her happily ever after. And there I was walking that same staircase. In our feminine heart of hearts, we, too, are the elegant ladies and blushing brides gliding down those stairs.       

Now, some people have asked if we got to see the servants' quarters Downstairs. No, we did not. As you may know, all the kitchen and below stairs scenes were shot elsewhere, not at Highclere Castle. Originally the Downstairs would have been the kitchen and servants' hall; in real life, it has now been transformed into a museum for an Egyptian exhibition. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, with his colleague Howard Carter, discovered in 1922 the Tomb of Tutankhamun, and the Exhibition in the cellars celebrates the Earl's story and achievements. A fascinating tour with so many items on display. Emerging out into the sunlight, I felt like I'd been away in the desert on an archeological dig.

Time for a wee walk through the wild flower meadow. I should first mention the postage stamp photo you saw at the beginning. The stamp was commissioned by the British Royal Mail to celebrate the 18th century landscape architect Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Much of the sweeping park at Highclere Castle Garden is the result of collaboration between Capability Brown and the 1st Earl of Carnarvon.

My British blogging friend, Tracey, was the one who contacted me one day soon after we arrived home from our trip. She wanted to know if I would like her to mail the new postage stamp to me. Oh yes, please, said I. Now displayed on my desk, it's one of my little treasured treats.   

There's nothing like a good garden map to help a person find what she's looking for; it gives her an idea how everything relates to the other. Once I figure which way is North, I feel 'placed' and can  explore with abandon. Well, not too much abandon, when the tour bus leaves a certain hour, you won't want to be missing it.

Looking in every direction from the Castle, a person gets a sense of the grandeur and the vastness of the land around us. What we saw is just a small bit of that thousand acre park which belongs to Highclere Castle.

Walking through the wild flower meadow on the side of a hill

Catching sight of the Castle towers

Weren't we excited to find this photo online of Lady Edith--it was probably taken during one of her photo shoots--right there in the middle of the wild flower meadow. How cool is that!

Photo source: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films

There still was so much we didn't get to see, it was time to leave, but what a day, what a day! We caught a glimpse of the Secret Garden but by that time we had to hurry. So I didn't have the chance to take some decent photos of my own. Below is one that I 'borrow' from the website.

Photo source: Secret Garden from Highclere website

One last look. One last photo.
Bye-bye, Downton Abbey ... thanks for all the wonderful memories!

Now here's wishing you glimpses of heaven in unexpected places
and a wonderful weekend ahead,



Friday, January 20, 2017

Five on Friday: Living the Dream

Hannah Wei /


I love to enjoy a companionable visit over coffee with a good friend. Sharing those threads from our daily experiences add such colour, richness, and depth to the tapestry we call our life.

"Coffee and friends make the perfect blend."


It only takes a sprig or two of fresh flowers on the dining room table to make me think happy thoughts. Nestled against the reddish purple wax flowers, these fragrant freesias have filled the dining room with sweetness for days now -- I take a delightful sniff every time I walk past. 


I stand at my window to watch the sun stain the morning sky in pretty peaches. Isn't it what everyone mentions in those ever popular books that talk about how to live closer to our dream life? So, why do we need to remind ourselves that taking time to watch a sunrise or sunset IS part of living the dream? Just 30 or 60 seconds of my time can change how I feel about my whole day.

“If you want to be reminded of the love of the Lord, just watch the sunrise.”
~ Jeannette Walls, Half Broke Horses

We can only appreciate the miracles of a sunrise
if we have waited in the darkness
~ Unknown

jonasvincentbe /


There is something almost dream-like about playing with one's kitty cat. A cat certainly knows how to live in the present moment and relax into it. Whether she's chasing a fuzzy ball around the room or batting those little pipe cleaner rings under the stove; whether she's snoozing on the bed where the sun has left her a sunbeam or playing patty-cake with her soft paws against your hand ... I have often come away feeling so happy for this furry gift of love.

RhondaK /


Colour makes me feel alive and I rejoice that my eyes see the wild beauty of colour portrayed everywhere in my world. I take a wild pleasure in noticing how colours play with each other in paintings and jewelry and fashion ... on teacups and dishes ... in bouquets and gardens and sunsets. On book covers and greeting cards and postage stamps.  I just love all the colours in that picture above; somehow I feel completely satisfied when I see it.   


Today, a fellow blogging friend, Joy, wrote a delightful post in which she offers her thoughts on living the dream. You'll find it here ... by the way, it's where the idea for this post came.

As I think about it, yes, I am living the dream ... are you?

Wishing you glimpses of heaven in unexpected places,


Joining Amy at Five on Friday

Monday, January 09, 2017

January Edition: The Simple Woman's Daybook

Alexander Filonchik /

Happy New Year to you -- I hope it was a good holiday season for you and all your loved ones.

Since Christmas, our days have been quiet and peaceful. I must say I love this time of year. After the busyness of the holidays, I enjoy this downtime when a person is free to read, snooze, watch a movie, sip tea, eat leftover chocolates, ponder plans for the new year, visit friends ... to generally put one's feet up and take it easy for a few days. I know not everyone has that option and some might think it a little boring, but for the two of us, even though we're both retired from careers and jobs, we do appreciate this lull in our normal day-to-day schedules.

Funny, people will often ask why we don't go away on a winter holiday to the tropics. Sorry, not interested. I like winter, even the deepest, darkest days of December and January. I like snow days. I like crisp, sparkling days where tree tops glisten with Alberta sunshine. I like early evenings and late sunrises. I like frosty nights where we can be cozy by the fireplace, nestle under heavy quilts, and sneak toe warming opportunities with a nearby warm body.

In the New Year, I will carry on my tradition of monthly posting The Simple Woman's Daybook, and so I offer my January edition, with open hands and heart warm wishes that 2017 will be a very good year for you.

With love,


Looking out my window... It was gray and moody out there this early morning. Cold at -20C ( -4F ), but as I work away on my post, the sky brightens with shades of blue appearing. ... Oops, now it's back to gray and moody with hints of snow flurries.

You know the wind's been blowing in the night when snow on the roof tops slide over the edges like fondant icing on a layer cake. I love how it does that. The photo below was taken a couple of years ago, but it looks pretty much the same today. We added sparkles using the PicMonkey editor in case you're wondering.

I am thinking... that I'm turning the big 6-0 later this Spring. It isn't anything I haven't already been pondering for the past ten or twelve months. For though I have wondered in disbelief that I could have reached such a decade so quickly -- surely I'm only 37, okay then 47, but not really 60 -- I have  also been feeling an excitement about the whole thing.

I'm finally old enough to have a history of my own, to have a wealth of experience that shapes my thoughts and emotions and beliefs, to have knowledge about things I could never have known as a 20-year-old, and maybe even offer a little hard-won wisdom to anyone asking, even be a role model or mentor for a newer generation instead of feeling I still need one for myself. There is something about it all that I like, I feel happy about it.  

I read Agatha Christie's fascinating, very conversational autobiography last year. It seemed important for me to read it now, at this stage of life. Imagine my delight to learn, then, that Ms. Christie was sixty when she started this book. She once said, "So what I plan to do is to enjoy the pleasures of memory -- not hurrying myself -- writing a few pages from time to time." It took her some fifteen years to complete, but all that time she had the pleasure of reliving old memories and capturing them on paper.

I was surprised at how many of her stories and accounts I could relate to in some way, being of a completely different generation, but an idea grabbed hold and I've started gathering the bits of pieces of my own history ... for who knows if a young woman some years hence mightn't stumble upon it and find it a fascinating read about someone who grew up and lived during the 20th and 21st centuries.

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I am so thankful... for a husband who reminds me a little of Mary Poppins ...  for like her, Rick is 'practically perfect in every way'.  He really is.

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One of my favorite things... a big floral scarf in my wardrobe. It reminds me of our trip to England last summer. Lovely scarves like this were at most garden gift shops, but even though I took real pleasure in admiring and touching, I'd put them back, thinking maybe I was too short to wear swathes of fabric around my neck.

But then, upon meeting my dear blogging friend from Cornwall later in the trip, I was completely delighted to find the very scarf I'd been longing for tucked into my gift parcel from her. I realized then I would just quit being silly about worrying about my height. And, ever since I've been wearing it just about everywhere. Even in the dead of winter, it adds such colour and cheer to my otherwise sombre outfits. And, I love how it makes me feel pretty.

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I am creating... order out of chaos on my desk today, joining National Clean Off Your Desk Day as delightfully demonstrated in the cartoon below by artist Sandra Boynton.

The Christmas miscellany is now off my desk and restored to its proper place. Paper continues to gravitate into small piles and books taken down for quick browses still await being re-shelved. There are notebooks, photos, used postage stamps too pretty to throw out, quotes written out on cardstock ... not to mention a newly minted British £5 note with Sir Winston Churchill's familiar face on it (it was sent recently to me by my friend in Cornwall).

For such a small surface, my beautiful antique table can hold a lot. Which is why it all needs a thorough shaking out on this National Clean Off Your Desk Day. After which, I hope to once again enjoy its marvelous wood grain patterns polished to a sheen ... at least for a couple hours before the new piles start all over again.

I am wearing... a cozy long-sleeved black shirt, blue jeans, and slippers. Forgot the lipstick today.

I am reading...  An intriguing murder mystery by Argentine mathematician and writer Guillermo Martinez. The Oxford Murders is the story of a professor of logic and a graduate student who investigate a series of bizarre, mathematically-based murders in Oxford, England. So far, nothing too gruesome. Thankfully. And, I get to envision some of Oxford's streets and buildings through the narrator's eyes.

I am watching ... Season Six of Downton Abbey with hubby. We started last night as if another season was just beginning Sunday night on PBS. Haven't seen it since last January so what fun to watch it all again. Most entertaining to catch glimpses of the scenes and say, 'We saw those. We walked down that grand staircase. We saw the paintings and those red deep couches by the fireplace. We stood there and soaked in all the grandeur.' BTW, I'm working on a post about our visit last summer to Highclere Castle complete with photos. It will go up later in the month. Stay tuned.

I am hoping... to get some decluttering and sorting done this month. Time to go through the books and music CDs again to see what I can cheerfully let go. And, put order in the pantry cupboards after all the rooting in there during the holidays. Last January (post here) I did a major clean out of my house, so it's much easier this year.

I am learning... to pay more attention to those comments my mild-mannered husband says, which I sometimes assume are just comments made in passing. Maybe it's learning to better listen with the heart as well as with one's ears. For he rarely asks for something, so I need want to listen more with the heart for those little things that will add to his comfort and happiness.

For instance, we had toast the other morning for breakfast and when I mentioned all the toast crumbs in the sheets (yes, we have toast and coffee in bed most mornings), he kind of joked, 'We could have muffins tomorrow, less crumbs.'

I don't know why I suddenly heard that -- I mean, really heard it. Now, the man was a bachelor for a good many years before we met and married, so he's very good in the kitchen. But he loves it when I cook and bake treats for us to enjoy. So I happily whipped up a batch of muffins as a surprise for the next morning's breakfast.  

In my kitchen... Tea with bread and jam, anyone? I made homemade bread the other day, trying out my new Christmas present, a Kitchen Aid complete with dough hook. Oh my, how easy. And how delicious was the turnout.

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In my garden... The snow is blooming very well this season. All the ground is covered and bare patches have been transformed into snowy mounds. I'm reminded of a few lovely lines Anne Shirley wrote to Gilbert Blythe in L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Windy Poplars.

“January so far has been a month of cold gray days, with an occasional storm whirling across the harbor and filling Spook’s Lane with drifts. But last night we had a silver thaw and today the sun shone. My maple grove was a place of unimaginable splendors. Even the commonplaces had been made lovely. Every bit of wire fencing was a wonder of crystal lace."

Shared Quote... A little more than a quote, it's a whole poem. I had a good chuckle when I read this poem by British poet Wendy Cope. I used to feel slightly irritated when people would ask me 'what's new?' I'd think to myself, what do you want from me? I haven't gone to the moon or walked the great wall of China. My days for the most part are ordinary. I do simple things; I peel an orange and relish its orange-y fragrance and savour its sweet juicy pieces. Shall I tell you that? Will it be interesting enough? ...  I enjoyed Ms. Cope's delightful response.

Being Boring

'May you live in interesting times.' Chinese curse

If you ask me "what's new?" I have nothing to say
Except that the garden is growing.
I had a slight cold but it's better today.
I'm content with the way things are going.
Yes, he is the same as he usually is,
Still eating and sleeping and snoring.
I get on with my work. He gets on with his.
I know this is all very boring.

There was drama enough in my turbulent past;
Tears and passion--I've used up a tankful.
No news is good news, and long may it last,
If nothing much happens, I'm thankful.
A happier cabbage you never did see,
My vegetable spirits are soaring.
If you're after excitement, steer well clear of me.
I want to go on being boring.

I don't go to parties. Well, what are they for,
If you don't need to find a new lover?
You drink and you listen and drink a bit more
And you take the next day to recover.
Someone to stay home with was all my desire
And, now that I've found a safe mooring,
I've just one ambition in life: I aspire
To go on and on being boring.

A moment from my day... My heart fills with the words of an old prayer by St. Francis of Assisi as this new year begins: "Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. ..."

Closing Notes... The day is gone, the evening's come, This post at last is finally done. The End.

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