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The real Downton

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Step into the days of Downton Abbey and Upstairs,
Downstairs with a new exhibition that takes visitors behind the
scenes of 1930s Leeds Castle. Mara Podaru

Leeds Castle became a playground for the rich and famous after
Lady Baillie bought it in the late 1920s, entertaining the likes of
the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson, Charlie Chaplin, Errol
Flynn and Ian Fleming. But the castle also housed more than 30
servants and a new exhibition tells stories of life at the
“loveliest castle in the world” through the eyes of the butler,
housekeeper, footmen and maids. And most sound like plotlines
straight out of Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs.

Like Downton’s Lady Mary, Lady Baillie was the eldest daughter
of an English aristocrat. Born Olive Cecilia Padget in 1899, she
and her younger sister Dorothy inherited a significant fortune when
their mother died in 1916. And just like in Downton, it was this
considerable fortune that restored the ageing Leeds Castle.

Lady Baillie bought the estate in 1926 with her second husband,
Arthur Wilson Filmer. She kept the castle after their divorce five
years later and it became renowned for her weekend house parties.
With a guest list worthy of 165 Eaton Place, the castle saw British
politicians, Hollywood stars, royalty and the great and the good of
London high society pass through its doors throughout the Baillie

Lady Baillie and guests at Leeds Castle
Lady Baillie and guests at Leeds Castle

In one incident during the Second World War, government
officials, including the Minister for War, are said to have been
sipping champagne and enjoying themselves at the castle instead of
concentrating on the conflict.

Unlike in Downton, the lady of the house did not mix with the
help. Members of staff had plenty of doors and long curtains to
hide discreetly behind should the master walk past. But their
stories are just as fascinating as what went on upstairs. The
housekeeper lived in the middle of the staff floor to prevent
anyone sneaking around and the menservants’ rooms above the garage,
known as The Bothy, were popular with local girls looking for
husbands. Maids would be locked out of the castle as punishment if
they missed their curfew, even on their days off.

But upstairs and downstairs mixed during Christmas, when Lady
Baillie would organise children’s parties. There was also a coming
together during the New Year’s Eve servants’ ball, when she and her
third husband, Sir Adrian Baillie, would dance with the butler and
the housekeeper.

During the Second World War, Lady Baillie turned Leeds into a
hospital and, with the help of her two daughters, cared for injured
servicemen. Sound familiar? In Downton’s second series, the abbey
is turned into a convalescent ward during the First World War.

Leeds Castle chief executive Victoria Wallace said: “As we
watched the plots of Downton and of Upstairs, Downstairs unfold, we
were gripped by the extraordinary similarities.

“We wanted to show people the rooms where people like the Duke
of Kent really drank cocktails and where Noel Coward played the
piano or croquet. We hope this exhibition will help bring to life
the amazing 20th century history of our 900-year-old castle.”

Explore life behind the walls of Leeds Castle at the exhibition
What The Butler Saw, with photographs and memorabilia. showing how
television’s highs and lows are mirrored in real life.

What The Butler Saw runs from Thursday, May 1 to Sunday,
October 21 at Leeds Castle, near Maidstone. Open daily 10.30am to
5pm, last entry 3.30pm. Grounds open from 10am. Entry to the
exhibition is included in the price of the ticket. Adults £19.75,
concessions £17.50 and children (four to 12 years) £12.50. Tickets
are valid for one year so you can visit the castle as often as you
like. For more information call 01622 765400 or visit www.leeds-castle.com

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