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Skidmore's Island: The Real Downton

...When she felt the urge for horizontal gardening she had an arrangement with one of the gardeners at Highclere. She later told a friend how she would stand away from her desk in one of the windows and that was the signal to summon him....

Ian Skidmore, after pondering on Count Dracula and his ways, reveals surprising facts relating to a certain blue-blood lady.

I am not writing to the Jockey Club, nor even the Guinness Book of Records, but the Ferret is claiming to everyone who will listen that I am the first man in history (here she usually adds ‘it would have to be a man’) to overdose on Furosemide, the well-known diuretic. My point is that I cannot make a claim because it was accidental and not carried out under supervision or in the presence of authorised time keepers under racing conditions. .

Anyway, I have things to ponder which are rather more worrying. I think I got the wrong blood in the transfusion of recent date. I think they filled my tank with the Rhesus Negative of Count Dracula. I haven’t slept for a week, I have gone off garlic sausages and I cannot see a window without wanting to fly through it. Either that or the man in the next hospital bed who howled all night was at my windpipe in the wee small hours of the morning. I have been on E-Bay but not an ounce of Transylvanian soil is to be had, even for ready money.

Talking of people eating, Julian Fellowes, the chap who wrote Downton, the TV series, enjoys nothing more than a quick snack on the hand that feeds him. He has had the grace to apologise for his latest rebuke of fans of the series who have pointed out anachronisms, but the sin remains.

Time, I think, for the hand to bite back. The whole wonderful series is based on a massive misconception. The eldest daughters of the landowning classes are not human beings: they are bargain tokens to be exchanged for land/money/rank. No horny young man would have attempted to seduce one when there were younger daughters on hand. True, there was a Turkish diplomatic mission in Britain at the time in which the play is set. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling. One of the Sultan’s personal guards, an Albanian, had declared Egypt an independent state. Two America missionaries started a literary society in Beirut where the only subject on the agenda was nationalism. There were secret societies by the dozen. The Sultan urgently needed an alliance with a Western power and England was the first choice. But for the intransigence of Churchill an alliance could have gone ahead and possibly World War One avoided.

There is no way a young diplomat would prejudice the outcome of those talks by seducing his host's unmarried eldest daughter.

A new chum of mine William Cross has just published a fascinating biography of Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere at about that time. Now there is a lady crying out for a series. And that is not all she was crying out for.

She was fond of a Mellor Moment. When she felt the urge for horizontal gardening she had an arrangement with one of the gardeners at Highclere. She later told a friend how she would stand away from her desk in one of the windows and that was the signal to summon him. She was nothing if not ecumenical. Shortly after her marriage to the 5th Earl she began an affair with his best man, an Indian Prince.

Almina was the natural daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who bought her an aristocratic husband, the earl, with a dowry of £400,000. The Prince, who was at Eton with the groom, came at no extra charge.

In fairness, Almina was a generous lady. As in the TV series, she established a hospital for wounded officers at Highclere. She was very strict. When she caught a nurse in bed with an officer in the Scots Guards the nurse was given a severe reprimand. She told her: “That sort of thing puts a severe strain on the patient’s heart and he might have died as a result.”

The hospital had a profitable sideline. Socialites could use it for abortions. No wonder the king sent along a gift of 120 bottles of port, sherry, claret and burgundy.

Anyone was fair game for Almira, even friends of her son. Her most public affair was with Colonel Ian Dennistoun, the husband of her best friend Dorothy, whom she stole and married. Almina insisted that she had sought permission from her husband to start the affair (he at the time was busy excavating the tomb of Pharaoh Tut).Dorothy responded by suing her ex-husband for £13,035 and 18 pence in alimony. In court she claimed he had made her sleep with General Sir John Cowans, the Quartermaster General of the British Army who was involved in a number of similar scandals and must have had a busy war. In return Cowans promoted her husband. The new Colonel wrote to her: “Oh girlie, I hate you using that lovely body of yours as a gift.”

The jury found for Dorothy but in a reserved judgement the Judge dismissed their findings. Despite winning, Almina was ruined by the publicity. Things went from bad to worse. When she died in Bristol in 1969 all Almina’s money had gone and she was renting a terraced house in a semi slum.

Now I reckon if Fellowes had used that for a plot it wouldn’t have mattered if the houses in Downton had been festooned in TV aerials. No one would have noticed.


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