EXPLORING HIGHCLERE CASTLE – THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY


Highclere Castle in Hampshire, now famous for being the main filming location for the series Downton Abbey, is only open to the public for about three months of the year, with tickets often selling out far in advance. If you can get one though, it is well worthwhile visiting.


Unless stated otherwise, all photographs courtesy of Highclere Castle

Two people walking up the path to Highclere Castle.

(Writers own photo)


Famous not just for being the principal filming location of many of the scenes in the popular series Downton Abbey, but also for an Egyptology collection of items found by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who funded the expedition to find Tutankhamun, the privately owned Highclere Castle is on many people’s bucket lists of places to visit.


Situated near Newbury, 60 miles west of London, this vast 5,000 acre estate is an easy place to find just off the A34. On arrival, you pull off the main road and drive through abundant green fields filled with sheep as the narrow driveway takes you through the grand estate where stewards direct you to parking opposite the castle. Tickets are checked on the way in where you are handed a map of the grounds, before you head off to walk towards the castle and finally get to see it in all its glory.


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF HIGHCLERE CASTLE


The earliest occupation of the site for which there is evidence is an Iron Age hill fort on the southern part of the Highclere landscape, while a charter of 749AD records buildings on the site of the current castle. In the 12th century the site was home to a Medieval palace for the Bishops of Winchester, followed by a red brick Tudor house.


In 1692, Highclere was bequeathed to Samuel Pepys’ daughter Margaret, who was married to the Earl of Pembroke. The estate was inherited by their son, then his nephew, who was made the first Earl of Carnarvon by King George III in 1793.


In 1839, Charles Barry, who had designed the Houses of Parliament, remodelled Highclere in a similar Gothic revival style, turning it into a magnificent castle and a high level status symbol.


In 1890 when the 5th Earl inherited the title, he had huge debts and knew he would be unable to run the castle. This was solved by marrying a Rothschild heiress with enough to keep the castle going as well as fund an extravagant lifestyle.

A black and white photo of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon

Initially into the new motor cars, several accidents later and after a particularly serious one in 1903, he was advised to spend his time in warmer climes, which led him to Egypt. Developing a passion for antiquities and archaeology, he funded Howard Carter and his excavations in Thebes and the Valley of the Kings.


It was in 1922 that Carter sent the Earl a telegram saying he had found a ‘magnificent tomb’, and with remarkable restraint, recovered it and awaited the Earl’s arrival. Although the tomb was meant to be opened in the presence of the Egyptian authorities, the Earl and Carter made several secretive forays before the official opening.


It was on one of these, when Carter who had made a small hole in the chamber door, was asked by Carnarvon if he could see anything, Carter replied with the now famous words, “Yes, wonderful things.”


THE DOWNTON ABBEY CONNECTION

A cast photo of Downton Abbey outside Highclere Castle
The cast of Series One of Downton Abbey, in front of Highclere. Photograph © ITV/PBS

Highclere has been used as a location for several films and TV series over the years, but none more popular than the fictional Downton Abbey. First aired in the UK in 2010 and the USA in 2011, the series caught the public imagination in an unprecedented way, leading to six series in total, and a film.


An historical period drama telling the story of the Earl of Grantham and his family which starts in 1912 and continues through the 1920s, it is the most successful British costume drama for over 40 years.


The success was warmly welcomed by the owners of Highclere, who facing massive repair bills for the upkeep of the castle, now find that with the increase in visitors, they are able to start on some of the much needed work around the castle and the wider estate.


Several of the rooms on the tour are used for filming and are instantly recognisable to the show’s fans, of which there are many.


My own interest in the series came rather late in the day, when I got pneumonia in 2016 and had to spend 2 weeks off work. Not ill enough for hospital but too ill to get out of bed, I binge watched the entire six series in that time, feeling as if I was actually living in that fictional world by the end of it, but at least I finally understood what the appeal was.


Highclere doesn’t shy away from its famous connection, putting photos of the filming on display in the rooms as an aide-memoire to visitors. It helps to provide context and I should imagine is very popular with the shows fans.


A SELF GUIDED TOUR OF HIGHCLERE CASTLE


The self-guided tour starts in the magnificent double library. With the wood panelled ceiling and ornate wooden columns dividing the room, the library contains over 5650 books, some of which date back to the 16th century. Everything is subtly gilt edged, so the room conveys an impression of grandeur yet also looks comfortable and as if it would be easy to just pick up a book and relax in a chair.


The North Library in Highclere Castle.

Many scenes were filmed in here, particularly between the Earl of Grantham and Mr Carson the butler, and there were gasps of recognition from some of the visitors in the room.


This wonderful room leads on to the Music room, quite a contrast as it is very bright, with walls of pale yellow and gold yet with simple oak floorboards.


There is an ornate Baroque ceiling from the 1730s depicting Athene Rising, the walls are adorned with 16th century Italian embroidery from a castle in Rimini but the centre piece is definitely Napoléon Bonaparte’s desk.


Surprisingly modest, the desk and chair by Jacob Frese are stamped with ‘Palais des Tuileries 1804-1814’ and were bought by the family in 1827 when Napoléon’s effects were sold off from his estate in St. Helene.


The room also has antique embroidered chairs placed around the edges for visitors to actually sit on, an uncommon treat in a stately home, so visitors can take their time to appreciate the light airiness of the room, its contents and the wonderful views of rolling green hills outside.

The green Drawing Room in Highclere Castle
The green silk walls and sparkling chandelier, both supplied by Alfred de Rothschild for the Drawing Room

The next room is the formal pale green silk drawing room, dominated by a large 356 piece crystal chandelier from the 1890s which was a wedding gift to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon from his father in law, Alfred de Rothschild. The room contains many other treasures including a 1895 Steinway grand piano, a portrait of George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckinghamshire by Joshua Reynolds, a 19th century Chinese tea chest and rather unusually, two portraits that had gilded frames made of sea shells.


The very masculine smoking room follows this, with its plain white ceiling (so it is easy to keep clean), where the men of the house would retire after dinner. There is a rather lovely games chest filled with die, counters, chess pieces, cards and more on a table inlaid with games boards.


The highlight is a 17th century Florentine marble table inlaid with birds, fruit and semi-precious stones, although what I really liked were the mock Canaletto’s, brought back from a Grand Tour in the 19th century, and hung high on the walls like slightly embarrassing souvenirs.


The very feminine morning room, where the lady of the house would go to deal with her correspondence and think lady-like thoughts follows next, a stark contrast to the smoking room before it. Bright, sunny and very comfortable looking, this was a lovely room with sunlight streaming in and squashy sofas where it is easy to imagine escaping from the rest of the household under the guise of ‘writing letters’ when needed.


One thing I had noticed in the house is that in nearly all of the rooms, the blinds and curtains are kept open, which is such a rare pleasure to be able to see the rooms as the inhabitants would, and not with blinds and window coverings protecting the furnishings from the damaging effects of sunlight.


Here at Highclere, you actually get to see the rooms properly and it makes such a difference – in other stately homes you can’t help but imagine the gentry living in a perpetual state of gloom and shrouded darkness, cut off from their grounds, but here you see the rooms how they should be seen, with bright light reflecting off the ornaments and gilt, with sunshine pouring in, with magnificent views outside and with huge hot housed pot plants in every room, actually able to grow in the light. It was a wonderful surprise and something I truly savoured.

The saloon and ministrels gallery in Highclere Castle.
The truly impressive triple height vaulted ceiling over the saloon and ornate Minstrel’s Gallery

The tour continues upstairs, where you don’t get the opportunity to actually go in many of the bedrooms, but rather look through the doorways, so a queue had built up on the stairs while people patiently waited for their turn.

The Mercia bedroom in Highclere Castle.

I loved the bedrooms, particularly the Mercia bedroom which is Lady Grantham’s in Downton Abbey.


It was warm and inviting with a comfortable looking four poster bed, portraits on the walls and incredible views.


In fact nearly all of the bedrooms were similar, grand and elegant but still relaxed and calm, most of them with piles of modern novels on the bedside tables and chest of drawers to really give them a lived in and peaceful air. One even had a cheap plastic travel alarm clock next to the bed, which highlighted how this is a lived in home, not just a sterile historic environment.


The upstairs corridors of the Minstrel’s Gallery, which all overlook the saloon downstairs and which are lit by glass panes in the triple height vaulted ceiling, are lined with photographs and front pages of newspapers.