With only one day left in England, Lady Jessica finally found her way to Highclere Castle, the real life setting and filming location of the wonderful television series, Downton Abbey. Highclere Castle is an elaborate Jacobethan style castle set amidst 1,000 acres of gardens and parkland in Hampshire, England. The Carnarvon family have lived at Highclere since the 17th Century, with George and Fiona Herbert possessing the titles of 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. I was fortunate enough to meet them during my visit, and found them to be generous and philanthropic people who do a lot of wonderful charity work.
I have watched every single episode of Downton Abbey and grew to love the characters, the fanciful plots, and of course, at the very heart of the show, the house itself. Most of the show 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 (strictly no photos were allowed inside). While the show was predominantly filmed on location at Highclere Castle, 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 fashion 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 also designed the Houses of Parliament in London (hence the resemblance) to create the impressive castle that we all recognise today. Highclere has also been put to use in more functional ways – as dramatised in season two of the series, Almina the 5th Countess of Carnarvon transformed the castle into a hospital during the First World War to tend to wounded soldiers coming in from the battlefields. The castle also became a home for children who were evacuated from London during the blitz of World War Two.
The family has a long and interesting history. George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, discovered and excavated the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922, one of the most phenomenal historical and archeological discoveries of the modern age. Lord Porchester (nicknamed Porchey), the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, was a lifelong friend of Queen Elizabeth II. Porchey served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Horse Guards and later became the manager of the Queen’s racing stables. The Queen is an avid lover of horses with a particular interest in breeding purebred race horses, which she worked closely on with Porchey over the years.
After a guided tour of the castle I took a long walk around the beautiful grounds with a professor that specialises in landscape gardening at Bristol University, a very fun and informative way to learn about the 1000 acres of parkland that famous landscape gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed in the 18th Century. I had no idea that every hill and tree was perfectly planned and landscaped, thinking that they were a natural element of the property I was shocked to learn that Capability Brown had them manually built to create a more aesthetic landscape, which was a popular method at the time.
The castle and gardens are open in July and August and for special occasions, as well as literature and garden themed days throughout the year. Unfortunately, the tickets do sell out almost a year in advance, so do not turn up at the property without a pre-booked ticket or 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 website for tickets and annual events.