NEWBURY, ENGLAND—When I walk into the library of Highclere Castle, I immediately notice something is amiss. Not only is Lord Grantham not here to greet me (most unlike him) but his desk has been moved from under the window to the other side of the room.
Like millions of others around the globe, I’ve become addicted to the antics of the Crawleys, the fictitious inhabitants of Downton Abbey. The real-life setting for this popular British period drama is Highclere Castle near Newbury, a 1.5-hour drive from London.
Visiting the location of a much-loved film or TV series is a surreal experience. As we wander through the castle, I keep expecting to stumble upon Lady Cora and the Dowager Countess taking tea. Or spot Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley exchanging smoldering glances across the dinner table.
It must be even more surreal for the castle’s real-life inhabitants, the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Not only do they have to relinquish their home for weeks on end to an army of film crew, but they then get to watch it inhabited by actors on TV each week.
Not that they’re complaining. Since the show started, visitor numbers have rocketed from 300 to 1300 people a day. All of which helps when you have a 50-bedroom castle and a 1000-acre estate to maintain.
While there has been a home at Highclere for more than 1000 years, the current building was designed in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, who also built the Houses of Parliament. Described by our guide as “Georgian with Victorian icing”, it is a solid, imposing structure with a flurry of intricately adorned turrets and a striking Italianate tower.
A tour of the castle takes you through many of the rooms that feature regularly in the TV series. We start in the mahogany-paneled library, an impressive space lined with more than 5000 books, the oldest dating back to 1538. From here, a concealed door leads into the music room, an opulent haven lined with Italian 16th-century gold embroideries. Look up and there’s an exquisite baroque ceiling painted by Francis Hayman, one of the founders of the Royal Academy. In the corner sits a mahogany desk and chair designed for Napoleon.
Fans will recognize the drawing room as the place where the Crawleys gather before dinner. Lined with lavish green damask silk and featuring an ornate crystal chandelier, it reflects the late Victorian fascination with French rococo design.
Perhaps the most impressive space is the saloon, a medieval-style hall in the heart of the house surrounded by a spectacular 50-foot-high vaulted gallery. Anchored by an impressive stone fireplace, its walls are lined with brightly painted heraldic shields and covered in 17th-century Spanish leather.
The stunning oak staircase that ascends into the house’s central tower took almost a year to carve and install. Leading off the gallery upstairs are the bedrooms of Lady Cora, Lady Sybil and Lady Edith (the scenes in Lady Mary’s bedroom are shot in a studio) and sharp-eyed viewers will recognize the staircase down which Mr Kemal Pamuk was unceremoniously dragged after his untimely demise.
Even if you’ve never seen the show, there are still reasons to visit Highclere. In 1922, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon together with archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the Egyptian boy pharaoh Tutankhamun. Descend into the castle’s cellars and you’ll find an Egyptian exhibition filled with artifacts from the dig and a mock-up of the tomb.
The eagerly anticipated third series of Downton Abbey airs in Canada on January 6. It’s set in the roaring twenties and it’s been revealed that a couple will get married, a baby will be born and someone will die. Having watched it all unfold in her own home, the Countess of Carnarvon knows exactly what’s in store. Her verdict? “It’s the best one yet.”
Rob McFarland is a freelance writer based in Sydney, Australia.
JUST THE FACTS
TOURING Entry to the castle costs and can be bought on the day or in advance from the website, highclerecastle.co.uk. Noteworthy Events can provide an exclusive package that includes two nights’ accommodation in the nearby five-star Vineyard Hotel, a seven-course dinner with matching wines and a day at the castle with the resident Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. After a tour of the property, they’ll join you for a lunch paired with wine from the Earl’s private cellar. person, based on min of 4 people, noteworthyevents.com
WEB SURFING visitengland.com