I was a bit late to jump on the Downton Abbey bandwagon but quickly caught up as I raced through the first 4 seasons of the popular English drama before heading off on my trip through Europe for a year in 2014. I had long planed to visit castles and the great country estates whilst in England. But now Downton Abbey, otherwise known “actually” as Highclere Castle, moved to the top of the list.
While staying in the Cotswolds, I decided to head to Berkshire for a daytrip to visit Highclere. Pulling into the estate, the gate is a rather non-descript white gate. But within a few minutes driving down the road with lush grass on either side… I saw the stunning Georgian castle.
First up was a walk around the castle to view the stunning architecture from all sides. Like most things in Europe… it’s layers of history. A quick history:
- The estate is built on the remains of an Iron Age hill fort with the first building record in 749 AD. It was remade throughout the centuries to Elizabethan, Georgian and Jacobite buildings.
- In 1679, the Herbert family acquired the property and they were later granted the hereditary title of Earl of Carnarvon in 1793 giving stature to the country estate.
- The most significant constructions occurred in 1769 when Lancelot “Capability” Brown redesigned the gardens as he did many other English estates.
- In 1793 when the third Earl hired Sir Charles Barry to replace Highclere’s Georgian manor house exterior into a Jacobean style structure. Sir Charles Barry also created London’s Houses of Parliament which is in the same style as Highclere.
- Finally in the 1860s Thomas Allom designing much of the interior including the dramatic entryway with its oak staircase.
The current estate is over 1,000 acres of parkland (about the size of New York’s central park). Highclere castle sits like a jewel on all the lush green grass. It was just amazing to see it…Especially the walk out to the Jackdaws Castle (A roofless rectangular classical temple erected in Highclere Park c1740) built to create amazing views… and it does.
Next I went inside the castle. There are over 250 rooms with 50-80 bedrooms, cellars and exquisite ground floor state rooms. Almina (an illegitimate daughter of the very wealthy American Rothschild’s) married the 5th earl of Carnarvon in 1895 bringing with her a dowry of 500,000 pounds (which is about 30 milion pounds today) plus annual income. One of the many American heiresses who married into the English aristocracy with exchanges of title and money between England and America. Almina’s money really kept the estate going and took Highclere into the luxury seen today.
Walking up to the front doors, there were unfortunately no servants or relatives waiting in perfect lines to greet me and even more disappointing… Carson did not answer the door, but the estate is absolutely breathtaking inside.
There are no pictures allowed inside Highclere, but there are tons of pictures on their website and of course you can watch Downtown Abbey. From talking to the staff, most of the ground floor (State rooms) scenes are filmed in Highclere. The upstairs bedrooms have been largely recreated in studios after Season 1 though.
Ground Floor: See pictures here
- The Saloon – This is the first room you will see in the estate. By the time of the final construction in 1793, the Earl’s had been traveling and you will see touches of Europe throughout the interior. The Saloon has a gold-embossed, tool-leather Spanish wall hanging from 1631 that was brought back from Cordova to specifically sit in the cathedral inspired Saloon.
- The Library – This was my absolute favorite room in the estate (actually in most estates as it seems the most lived in). The room is huge with 5,600+ books, several sitting areas, writing desks and of course the gorgeous red velvet settee’s by the fireplace. You are immediately transported to the 1920’s English aristocratic life and can only hope to ring for tea.
- The Music Room, Drawing Room, Smoking Room are all on the tour and offer further glimpses into the treasures of this house acquired through the centuries including Napoleon’s writing desk and chair & 15th century Italian embroideries.
- The Dining Room – This room was another favorite given all the dining scenes in Downton Abbey. The great equestrian portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck’s dominates one end of the table and the room is filled with 2 more Van Dyck’s and several family portraits.
Upstairs: See pictures here
- There are 11 bedrooms on the first floor, some of which can be seen by visitors, and another 40-50 rooms on the next floors which are no longer used and cannot be viewed by visitors. They have been gradually refurbished but also looked lived in.
- At this point of the tour which is a slow snake like stream through the pre-determined path, there was a couple behind me with the woman being a TRUE Downton Abbey fan. Her husband was clearly not and just tolerating the tour. She gasped as she said “I think this is where the Turk died”. It is so much more fun to go through a property with a fan… so I joined in and said “She died in Mary’s bedroom – But I do agree … I think this is where they dragged him back to be found by Thomas”. The girl and I quickly began gushing over the other details of Downton … I mean Highclere.
- From the second floor, there are also views down into the Saloon. It is really just a feast of sights as you will see the ancestral coats of arms surrounding the gallery and many other treasures.
- Heading back to the ground floor… you will descend the great oak staircase. This is the place where many small conversations take place at Downton but probably most memorably where Mary descends in her wedding gown to the approval of Lord Gratham and Carson.
- Heading down to the servant’s downstairs, the entire area is no longer a kitchen, scullery and boot room. The downstairs has been transformed into the Egyptian Exhibit. The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon financed the Howard Carter expedition into Egypt that resulted in the discovery of none other than King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Much of the Egptian treasure were sold to pay death taxes, but a later Earl found a secret cabinet with many more Egyptian treasures from that dig. The exhibit is very informational with replicas of many of the finds for veiwing.
- For Downton Abbey, the “downstairs” has been partly recreated at Ealing Studios.
Next was a walk out to the gardens. It was considerably foggy and typical English wet weather, but the gardens were lush and charming. The garden is called the Monk’s Garden. As you wander through manicured hedges, there are beautiful flowers and plants with little entrances to the Walled Garden, the Secret Garden and the Woods.
Finally to the gift shop. Lots of fanciful English treats and treasures. There was a large tour group in, so I was about to leave and come back later when a voice cheerily said “We are open until 5 if you want to come back” and I turned to see the REAL Lady Carnarvon. I had read up on the estate and the current Lord/Lady Carnarvon and this woman seemed to be quite a go-getter embracing her new family. She has written two books about her husbands female ancestors who also married into the family and seems to be taking on the responsibility of the estate with charm. She graciously started signing books for the adoring tour bus fans.
A last contemplative moment on the estate was sitting on the infamous bench where many a Downton conversation has occurred. The current owners and many other English Lords seem to follow the motto “We are not the owners, but the caretakers”. This seems both a blessing and a burden. While inheriting beautiful houses, object, and land, there seems to be a great financial burden to upkeep the estates, pay taxes and create new sources of revenue. Would I have wanted this life which was largely pre-determined? On one hand, these people have a great sense of history and purpose. On the other hand, that might not be their purpose.
Regardless, this was my FAVORITE estate in England. Not just because of Downton Abbey, but because of the spirit of this estate. It is very grand, but not like the larger Duke’s property that can feel cold with their grand marble rooms. The estate of this Earl FEELS like a home due largely in part to the owners and their ability to embrace the past & the future while living in the present.
- Website: Click here
- Limited Visits: Highclere is only open between 60 and 70 days each year (two weeks over Easter, for each of the May Bank holidays, and for two months (Sunday to Thursday) over the summer months, and a few days in December). Check the website for open days.
- Other Downton Abbey film Locations (ie the town village) found at OxfordshireCotswolds.org or Download the Downton Abbey film locations leaflet