Highclere Castle has become one of England’s most recognisable homes, as the real life setting and filming location of television series, Downton Abbey. I have seen every single episode of Downton and grew to love the characters, their fanciful plots, and the centrepiece at the heart of the show – the house itself.
Highclere Castle is an elaborate Jacobethan style castle set upon 1,000 acres in Hampshire, England. George and Fiona Herbert are the current Lord and Lady, known more formally as the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.
Much of the television series was actually filmed inside the castle and I had a real spree exploring the staterooms and formal areas of the house, particularly the iconic oak staircase and the magnificent library that already felt so familiar after watching all six seasons of the show (no photos were allowed inside sadly). The set for Lady Mary’s bedroom and the whole downstairs staff area (kitchen and staff quarters) were all filmed at Ealing Studios.
The house has been rebuilt a number of times to match the architectural style of the period, first a medieval palace, then a red brick Tudor style house, a classical Georgian mansion, and now a Jacobethan castle. In 1838, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon commissioned Sir Charles Barry, the architect who designed the Houses of Parliament in London (hence the resemblance), to create the impressive castle.
A guided tour uncovered some of the castles secrets, some of which were implemented into the plot of the tv series. As dramatised in Season 2, Downton Abbey was put to good use as a hospital and refuge for injured soldiers during the first world war, which was heavily inspired by true events. Almina the 5th Countess of Carnarvon transformed the castle into a hospital during the war, opening her home to soldiers coming in from the battlefields. The castle was also a home for children who were evacuated from London during the blitz in 1940.
The family line has a long history with a range of interesting characters. George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, discovered and excavated the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922, a wondrous historical and archeological discovery of the modern age.
Lord Porchester (nicknamed Porchey), the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, was a lifelong friend of Queen Elizabeth, serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Horse Guards and later managing the Queen’s racing stables. The Queen is an avid lover of horses, with a particular interest in breeding. The relationship was so close that the Queen became the Godmother of Lord Porchester’s first son.
Afterwards, I took a long walk around the grounds with a professor that specialises in landscape gardening at Bristol University, who brought to life the 1000 acres of parkland designed by famous landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Every hill and tree was perfectly planned and selected to create an aesthetic landscape.
Securing a ticket to Highclere Castle can be difficult due to the popularity of Downton Abbey. The tickets sell out early and you cannot enter without a pre-booked ticket, you will be turned away at the gate.
Highclere Castle is close to Oxford in the north and Winchester in the south. I stayed in Winchester, a short drive away. Highclere Castle is approximately an hour and a half from London along the M4 motorway. You can also take the train from London Paddington to Newbury or a National Express coach service from London to Newbury, which is then a short 15 minute taxi ride to the castle.
Keep an eye on the Highclere Castle website for tickets and special annual events.