February 14, 2014
In a room packed with “Downton Abbey” fans, it was an irresistible opening line.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is … Carson.”
So historian Cary Carson began Monday night’s conversation with the eighth countess of Highclere Castle, the real-life setting of “Downton Abbey.”
Carson – who shares his surname with Downton’s inimitable butler – spent an hour interviewing Lady Fiona Carnarvon on stage in Colonial Williamsburg’s Hennage Auditorium. The current countess of Highclere Castle fielded questions from both Carson and audience members about the scenery and stories of the majestic estate where her husband’s family has resided for more than 300 years and which now serves as a shooting location for the wildly popular PBS series.
“It’s a home you can live in,” said Carnarvon, whose second book, “Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey,” was published in October. “At Highclere Castle, you can actually have a cozy conversation in the library.”
But not a shower, apparently. In this home of roughly 300 rooms, there is not a single shower head.
“As children we used plastic jugs to wash our hair. We’re back to that again,” Carnarvon said, adding that the 50-plus bedrooms lack heat.
Fans of the show know Highclere Castle to be an essential element of “Downtown Abbey,” the plotlines for which often bear more than a little resemblance to actual trials and triumphs of the Carnarvon family. Carnarvon, who is a friend of the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, said she regularly watches, too.
But it is the true inhabitants and stories of Highclere Castle that inspire her writing – for example, the title character of her first book, “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,” who became a nurse during World War I and transformed the palatial estate into an Army hospital. Her husband, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun with archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.
Hosting a TV crew at the ancestral home brings a degree of risk and irritation, Lady Fiona Carnarvon said; for instance, when parquet floor boards give way to heavy equipment. But she spoke frankly about the importance of “Downton Abbey” for Highclere Castle’s economic prosperity. The once-struggling estate now fills daily with visitors, and – as suggested by the long lines at her book signings on Sunday and Monday – the countess’s books about “the real Downton Abbey” are a commercial hit.
“It’s a wonderful position to be in, in difficult economic times,” she said. “We are lucky. I hope I don’t take it for granted.”
– Catherine Whittenburg
February 13, 2014
What was slavery really like for enslaved people and their masters? Students will have the opportunity to watch “Harsh World, This World” on Feb. 13 and be guided through true personal stories that demonstrate kindness, betrayal, trust, cruelty — all the emotions that govern complex human relationships.
The stories in this Electronic Field Trip are centered around traditional proverbs of both English and African origin, including:
“Harsh world, this world.”
“A hungry man is an angry man.”
“A river not controllable is bound to burst its banks.”
These provocative statements are the premise for the dramatic stories about everyday life for slaves and their masters.
“All of the stories featured in Harsh World, This World were based on first-hand accounts from enslaved people and their masters. These stories were very powerful… capturing the harsh realities of the time,” said Linda Randulfe, director and executive producer.
“The cast performed the scenes with a great deal of emotion, and after some of the takes the set was quiet, as the crew absorbed the intensity of the experience. Each of the actors did a wonderful job interpreting the outstanding script written by Abigail Schumann.”
Electronic Field Trips, which are broadcast monthly during the school year, cover civics and history topics — the Bill of Rights, the three branches of government, 18th-century trades and the Continental Army, the complicated relationships between slaves and their masters, Civil War ironclads, the War of 1812, and more.
Broadcasts air at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on participating public broadcasting stations and cable channels. Click here to view the live broadcast.
– Karen Gonzalez
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December 5, 2013
By Toni Guagenti
If you’re a history-loving pachyderm, you’re bound to be a frequent visitor at Colonial Williamsburg. And Ellis the Elephant, a creation of children’s book author Callista Gingrich, will be back for a book-signing on Saturday in Merchants Square.
Gingrich’s third Ellis the Elephant book, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” aims to teach children ages 4 to 8 about the American Revolution as seen through the eyes of the tricorn-wearing Ellis.
Traveling through time, Ellis has a front-row seat to the events and patriots that shaped our history, from the Boston Tea Party to Paul Revere’s one-if-by-land-and-two-if-by-sea ride, from the victory at Yorktown to George Washington’s spurning of the title of king.
The book signing will be held from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7 at the College of William and Mary Bookstore in Merchants Square in Colonial Williamsburg.
“These books are really about patriotism and our nation’s humble beginnings,” Gingrich said in a phone interview earlier this week. “They’re not meant to be Republican books or conservative books, but pro-American books.” Gingrich is married to Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House who campaigned for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
The previous Ellis book, “Land of the Pilgrims’ Pride,” starts in Virginia and explores America’s 13 colonies and their fight for freedom against England. Williamsburg served as the political, cultural and educational center of the colony and as Virginia’s capital from 1699 to 1780.
Gingrich game up with the idea for the series after determining that few books on American history had been written for a very young audience.
“There’s literally nothing like Ellis the Elephant series,” she said. “I write these books because I love America, and I truly believe America is an exceptional nation.”
Gingrich’s first book, “Sweet Land of Liberty” in 2011 looked at pivotal moments that shaped the nation, including the Wright Brothers’ First Flight in 1903. Each has been illustrated by Susan Arciero.
Newt Gingrich also will be at the bookstore on Saturday signing his latest novel, “Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate.” Both of the couple’s books are published by Regnery.
Callista Gingrich remembers last year’s visit to Williamsburg to meet fans and autograph books.
“We had a wonderful turnout, and we’re just thrilled to be back,” Gingrich said. “We have come to Williamsburg many times; it’s a favorite place to visit.”
Since 2007, Gingrich has served as president of Gingrich Productions, a multimedia production company. The couple resides in McLean, Va.
Gingrich’s fourth Ellis book, “From Sea to Shining Sea,” is scheduled for release next October and will cover the time from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 through the Lewis and Clark expedition from 1804 to 1806.
Toni Guagenti is a free-lance writer based in Norfolk, Va.
December 3, 2013
Historic Jamestowne is planning a special event on April 5, 2014 – the reenacted wedding of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, marking the 400th anniversary of the legendary nuptials. In a collaboration between Historic Jamestowne and the Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center, Pocahontas’ wedding jacket also will be recreated with help from volunteers.
Embroiderers of all skill levels are needed to help finish the garment.
“This is the first time Jamestowne has done this kind of project,” said Julie Zellers-Frederick, Preservation Virginia’s volunteer coordinator. “We are calculating 300 work hours to make the jacket.”
The replicated garment will be based on the Falkland Jacket in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. While the exact jacket piece is not known, the Falkland Jacket dates from the same time period and is representative of the kind of jacket Pocahontas might have worn for the occasion.
The jacket will be black embroidery on white linen, with depictions of mythical and realistic creatures, flowers, insects, fish and other animals specific to Virginia. The original Falkland Jacket is embroidered with pictures of mythical and realistic animals.
Applicants will be sent a sample swatch of fabric to complete, on which they will demonstrate the types of stitches required.
Volunteer embroiderers are invited to contact Julie Zellers-Frederick at email@example.com or 757-856-1259.
December 2, 2013
Colonial Williamsburg brings to life the founders and the everyday people who made the American Revolution. But what of the dead? Williamsburg also contains scattered cemeteries of various sizes. Watch some highlights in our new video tour. First, a little background.
Many eminent figures in Williamsburg’s history, including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, were buried on their own property. Other notables, including Francis Fauquier, Virginia’s lieutenant governor for a decade before his death in 1768, are buried under the floor of Bruton Parish on Duke of Gloucester Street. Outside, the church’s crowded cemetery dates to the 1630s. Time has dulled many markings, but there remains a trove of tributes and symbols, from angels and cherubs to family coats of arms.
Looking around, you’ll come across people of Williamsburg from all walks of life: John Blair, a signer of the Constitution; and John Greenhow, who owned the store bearing his name almost directly across the street.
Ordinary townspeople commonly would have had simple wooden crosses erected to mark their resting place, but wealthier residents are memorialized with stone markers or with elaborate monuments called table tombs. As with other burials there, bodies would have been interred four to six feet underground.
The Historic Area also includes seven family graveyards. At one, the top of a cross rises above a brick enclosure between the Capitol and the Secretary’s Office. Behind the locked gate are 10 members of the Jones family. Just north of Bassett Hall lies the Waller graveyard, where more than 30 descendants of that family are buried. A 10-foot tall monument labeled “Mercer” rises in the center of the yard. As with so many older cemeteries, this one marks the final resting place of children who succumbed to one of the deadly diseases that were such a normal feature of life for past generations.
Behind the Coke-Garret house at the east end of Nicholson Street, a brick wall conceals a single 1854 gravestone. In all likelihood, others also were buried in this family plot, but the markers have been lost.
Williamsburg’s cemeteries are just one more piece of the rich tapestry of this town’s history, and worth a few minutes’ reflection when you visit.
November 29, 2013
A premiere performance of “Advent Moon,” a newly commissioned work by Cecilia McDowall with text written by Angier Brock, will be offered by the music ministries of Bruton Parish Church on Sunday, Dec. 1, at the 9:15 and 11:15 a.m. services.
The piece was commissioned by Bruton Parish after the choir sang another work composed by McDowall last Christmas, “Ave Maris Stella,” according to Bruton Parish Music Director Rebecca Davy. Davy said choir members were struck with the composer’s style and wanted more works from her.
“The most exciting aspect of the project,” said Davy, “has been the commissioning of a new work by an internationally known composer, and to have her attend the premiere performance here.”
Davy noted that “Christmas musical works abound, but advent pieces are much harder to find than Christmas pieces. We particularly wanted to commission a piece for advent.”
The piece is written in the English Cathedral Style, which is, as Davy explained, “music that would be performed in places such as Westminster Abby, in the high English church style.” Optional hand bells add significant atmosphere to the piece, and will be used in the Bruton Parish performance as well.
Organ accompaniment and a four-part choir will round out the heavenly ambiance of advent in the “high church” English style.
Cecilia McDowall, who was born in London, has been described by the International Record Review as having “a communicative gift that is very rare in modern music.’” Several of her works have been recorded, winning her a Grammy award in February 2009 and securing a nomination for Best Classical Album for her “Three Latin Motets” on the Chandos label. She also was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of Portsmouth.
“Advent Moon” will be repeated at the “Holiday Choir and Orchestra Concert” at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5, along with other Christmas works.
There is no charge for the concert. Offerings will be collected at the program to ensure the continuance of this ministry.