THE bronze bell pull triggered a door alarm - deep inside the cavernous house, far behind the massive double front doors. After a while, the doors opened, revealing the countess. This charming American woman from Wyoming apologized for taking so long to come, but it was a long way from the basement, she said.
Very few of us, the general public, have seen inside Highclere Castle, ancestral home of the earls of Carnarvon, an hour's drive west of London. Previous earls have had neither the need nor the inclination to throw open the great solid portals to plebeian curiosity.
But for many months, the Seventh Earl and the Countess of Carnarvon have been preparing the house for this month's opening.
Of the hundreds of stately houses in England open to the public, remarkably few, such as Highclere, are from the Victorian period. Fewer still have such architectural distinction and grandeur.
These qualities have earned Highclere the classification of ``heritage estate.''
Not practical for '80s
Lord and Lady Carnarvon have only recently taken possession of Highclere, upon the passing of the sixth earl last year. And with the old earl also passed the taste for living in so grand an ancestral home. The new earl and countess have no intention of moving in.
``The house simply is not practical for the 1980s,'' says the busy countess, who prefers to continue to live in a much smaller and older house on the estate, which has been their home for many years.
``Opening the house to the public is a business. It has to earn money to keep the roof on,'' says His Lordship.
As well as turning the house into a showplace for 60 days of the year, the castle earns its keep by hosting private receptions and product launches, and providing splendid settings for films and television. It was recently used as the location for an American video production of ``The Secret Garden.''
Highclere, however, is far from being a museum. Lady Carnarvon has managed to preserve its sense of continuity as a family home.
A spacious setting
Highclere Castle is a proud and self-confident building. Just to see the exterior alone would justify a visit.
Its great bulk rises majestically out of acres of uninterrupted lawn, commanding awe and respect. Numerous towers bristle with crenelations and turrets like so many dowagers glittering in family tiaras.
Five-and-a-half-thousand acres of lush landscape surround the noble Victorian pile, which is a dramatic ornament among them.
The house bears little resemblance to a castle. Indeed, it might easily be mistaken for a distinguished town hall that has retired to the country.
Highclere is something of a smaller version of the Houses of Parliament - which is hardly surprising, since both were designed by Sir Charles Barry, the leading architect of the early Victorian period.
Fortunately, the earls of Carnarvon have been too busy to make any alterations to Highclere, and it survives virtually as Barry conceived it.
Highclere was built in the midst of the romantic return to medievalism, one of the many waves of nostalgia that have periodically swept over Britain. Barry began work on castellating the original medieval and Georgian manor house in the year 1842.
While the castle is obviously much smaller, it is just as grand in concept and as rich in Gothic fantasy as the Palace of Westminster (Parliament buildings) in London. Preparations for opening
The brunt of the work of turning a very private house into a public attraction has fallen on Lady Carnarvon. This has involved much redecorating, regilding, and renovating of both rooms and furniture. The fine collection of Old Master paintings and family portraits by Van Dyke, Reynolds, and Gainsborough have been cleaned and rehung.
South- and west-facing windows have had to be fitted with ultraviolet ray filters. Also fire and security arrangements had to be made, guides employed and trained, roads resurfaced, the visitor's route planned, and a guidebook written and published.
``We shall have been going for nine months, flat out, to get it open,'' says the lady of the house.
Upon walking through the double entrance doors, whose great height is hard to believe, visitors are ushered through the quiet confines of a small vaulted stone hall into the soaring splendor of the two-story Gothic saloon, a reception hall about the size of a small parish church and worthy of a medieval owner of Highclere, William Wycombe, who was Bishop of Winchester.
The route that Lady Carnarvon has planned for the tour includes the main reception rooms that open off the saloon. The drawing room is a profusion of gilt rococo scrolls and French furniture.
The dining room is solid mahogany and lined with some excellent family portraits, including one by Thomas Gainsborough.
The smoking room contains Canalettos, and the library is furnished with a writing table and chair from Napoleon's home on the island of St. Helena.
Lord and lady cousins
All this is something of a far cry from Lady Carnarvon's upbringing in Wyoming, but in fact, her family originated at Highclere. Her grandfather - the fourth earl's nephew - had traveled to America to become a horse dealer. But he unexpectedly inherited the title and moved back to England, leaving behind a son, Lady Carnarvon's father.
This makes Lord and Lady Carnarvon distant cousins, a fact they did not discover until after their marriage. They realized that a marble statue of two children at Highclere depicted their common great-grandparents.
Highclere Castle will be the latest addition to an already substantial business in which almost all the family takes an active part. Lord and Lady Carnarvon are partners in the extensive farming and forestry enterprises on the estate, which are entirely ``in hand,'' or managed by the owner rather than let to tenants.
Lord Carnarvon is also a third-generation racehorse breeder of international repute. Both husband and wife are heavily involved in local activities - he in local government, and she as chairman of the annual Newbury Festival.
The Egyptian connection
Historically, the family is probably best known to the public for the fifth earl, patron of Howard Carter, who unearthed the tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamen, one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. The recent discovery of a collection of Egyptian items at Highclere could not have come at a better moment to publicize the opening of the house.
Last year, as Sotheby's valuers were nearing the end of their inventory of the contents of Highclere, Lord Carnarvon asked his father's retired butler, Robert Taylor, if they had seen everything.
``Yes, except for the Egyptian stuff,'' was the reply, which surprised Lord Carnarvon. Mr. Taylor led the way to two small cupboards in the space between double doors opening off the drawing room, which had been blocked up for years.
``I'd never seen them before in my life,'' says Lord Carnarvon, who had been brought up in the castle. In the cupboards they found dozens of small items of silver and faience beads, shabti figures, miniature bowls and ax heads, and numerous small carvings. Among them was a fine carved and painted wood head of King Amenophis III, grandfather of Tutankhamen.
``No one had known what they were, and no one had bothered about them,'' says Lord Carnarvon.
Further searching revealed more items in the earl's unused darkroom and a few stone pieces on the floor in the housekeeper's room.
An old safe in the estate office, however, contained a letter written by Howard Carter to the Bank of England in 1924. In the letter he itemized the fifth earl's collection of treasures from Thebes and the Valley of the Kings that were sent to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A postscript mentioned ``a few unimportant items left behind at the castle,'' proving that the items legitimately belonged to the family.
In comparison with the Carnarvon collection at the Metropolitan, and especially with the Tutankhamen treasures, the individual items are relatively unimportant.
But as Lord Carnarvon points out:
``They are historically famous and immensely exciting to Egyptologists all over the world,'' filling in many blanks in the record of finds that had puzzled scholars for years.
The collection also provides an excellent focal point to a display, which visitors can see on the tour at Highclere, recording the explorations of the fifth earl.