I have been having a busy old summer taking guests on trip all around London and southern England but ever since February, I had been looking forward to Thursday 24th July in particular because this was the day that I would finally visit Highclere Castle.
It was a long day out we I had collected my guests from a cruise ship in Harwich on the east coast, driven around London and all ready visited Hampton Court Palace on the Thames, home of the legendary King Henry VIII.
It was a hot day too, at least for humid London where it had been 30 degrees Celsius + / 90 degrees F for what seemed like several weeks now and we were all glad to make the drive down to Hampshire where Highclere Castle is.
Visiting Highclere means that for many people, it is almost two tours for the price of one as while we have Downton Abbey, we mustn’t forget that the castle itself is the home of the esteemed Carnarvon family. Nevertheless as we drove through the vast estate and through the front gates, it was the Downton Abbey theme tune that was being hummed in our car.
First off we had a delicious picnic under the branches of one of the iconic trees of the estate, the house beckoning to us through the leafy branches. It should be said that only one of my two guests were Downton fans but he was very much able to enjoy the amazing house for what it is.
Highclere Castle is just the latest in a series of buildings that have stood here for at least 2,000 years. Though it looks much older, the current building is only around 150 years and is built in the neo-gothic revival style that was popular in the House of Commons. Designed by Sir Charles Barry who built so many great buildings from our local All Saints Church in Leavesden to the much grander and more well known Houses of Parliament, the similarity between Highclere and Parliament can easily be seen.
As entry to Highclere is heavily restricted, the whole estate is very quiet even when open to visitors. Walking down the main gravel pathway through by the large field I remembered the garden party that Downton Abbey hosted on the hot summer day on August 4th 1914 when season 1 ended with Lord Grantham informing the guests that the country was now at war with Germany. I thought maybe it was just me, with my new WW1 history book but the weather was identical to that in the show and the actual day itself and before long we came to some signs stating there was going to be a WW1 charity event next week on this very spot.
After the obligatory photo ops of this magnificent house we waited for a while at the doorway, thinking of all the events of the show. No doubt Mr. Carson would be berating us for our dressed-down manner. Being boiling hot would be no excuse for dressing like tourists and of course he would be right even if today we were tourists, well my guests were. I was nominally working but nominally is the word here when you are visiting Downton Abbey, I mean Highclere Castle.
There are no photos allowed inside the house as it is still the home of the Carnarvon family but it was instantly familiar. It is a strange feeling to know your way round a house that you have never been to before but the layout and furnishings are identical to that seen in Downton Abbey. All of the fine furniture, artwork and architecture that we all assume belong to Lord Grantham are of course the property of Lord Carnarvon.
Immediately after the entrance hall we make our way into the library area which cleverly morphs its way into a seating area. There are over 5,000 old books on the shelves here and it is a marvellous place. Inevitably our attention drifts to the seated area where so much of Downton Abbey takes place. With just ourselves in the room and one room attendant, it is almost as if we were waiting here for one of the family to arrive. We stayed in that room longer than we expected before moving on to the next room.
To be honest, I didn’t expect to see rooms with which I was unfamiliar. Of course I didn’t expect that the show is filmed in every room but finding a room we had never seen was still an unexpected surprise. It is the room whose doorway is behind the sofa of the library on the left. All the actors come in on the doorway on the right.
This room is light and airy but quite small and leads onto a much larger but equally light room. This room is often featured on the show and is often where the Dowager Countess spends her time when visiting the estate. Though it would have been a treat, we were spared a writhing put down by Dame Maggie Smith. The room was decorated with family photos and a few other reminders of 21st century life but essentially we were 100 years back in time. The windows of the room looked out onto the fantastic lawns and the wooded hills beyond.
We then passed through two further rooms that have never been on the show. One because it is rather small and maybe to comfortably furnished but the other could make a great addition. The walls are filled with tremendous artwork and I had a great conversation with the room attendant on some of the paintings and the styles and themes in which they were painted. One of the paintings in the room is of Venice by Caravaggio and it is a scene that is familiar to anyone who visits gallery’s or grand houses. The original is thought to be owned by the Queen but this was no doubt a very good and faithful reproduction painting by one of the artists students.
It is funny how often you see some paintings. I have seen Breugel’s massacre of the innocents in more than one location in Britain but also in Bucharest, Romania, Berlin Germany and Paris, France. There were no printing presses then that could reproduce such artwork and so the original grandmaster painter would teach his students to paint by having them reproduce his artwork which would then go on and be sold around Europe. The room attendant sounded unexpectedly sincere when she said it was a real pleasure to meet me. Perhaps she was relieved to talk to someone about something other than Downton Abbey.
Next up we went upstairs by what must have been a servants stairway. From the landing that surrounds the lower hall on all sides, you can see the magnificent stone balustrades, gothic arches and roof. The bedrooms are all pretty much as we see them in the show except in real life there are around 80 bedrooms here. Some obviously still used today but others stuck in their period charm. We see Lady Cora’s room where she spend so much time being readied for her day with scheming Mrs O’Brien who of course caused her to slip on the soap that brought on a miscarriage which shaped so much of the episodes.
We also see the bed rooms of the daughters looking just as we know them but without Anna running around dutifully carrying out her tasks. There is also the dark red room where Lady Mary marches around, so often moodily and the sight of that memorable night when she is in bed with the Turkish Ambassador who then dies from a heart-attack (based on an actual event). Whenever I think of this chaos I am always reminded of one of the Dowager Countess’s most damning remarks
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: Oh my dears. Is it really true? I can’t believe it. Last night he looked so well. Of course it *would* happen to a foreigner. It’s typical.
Lady Mary Crawley: Don’t be ridiculous.
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: I’m not being ridiculous. No Englishman would *dream* of dying in someone else’s house – especially somebody they didn’t even know.
As outdated as it sounds, I can imagine countless older people saying such things.
The bedroom of Lady Edith is huge and strangely features a painting that looks exactly like her but in fact it is just a co-incidence as the painting is of a Carnarvon family member who bears a striking similarity to Laura Carmichael.
Finally after touring the upstairs we went down the grand stair case. This is probably my favourite area of the house along with the main library/seating area. Even for a grand staircase, it is impossible grand and both my guests were beyond excited to see it all in real life and remembering some of the iconic scenes that took place on these very steps. It’s a beautiful area and I must admit I was far too happy to feel like I was just doing my job.
The house interior tour concludes with a visit to the Dining Room. Another room we are all familiar with and another room which surpasses our expectations. There are plenty of other rooms in Highclere Castle but the upper floors are closed to the public, many of which are undergoing a great deal of maintenance as the house was literally falling apart until a few years ago.
Sadly for us we don’t get to see the kitchen and servant areas as they are fall filmed in a studio. Authentic looking as they are, and you can visit many similar areas in stately homes, the Highclere castles are strictly a 21st century affair where the chef prepares food for paying guests.
Instead, what we do have is a small but great collection of Egyptian relics in a museum that was created by an earlier Lord Carnarvon. He was a keen fan of early motor cars, many of which were highly dangerous to ride and unfortunately for the Lord, he suffered from a major accident. His health was never great and got worse and so for the coldest months of the English winter, he would visit Egypt where he became interested in Ancient Egypt. He privately financed a team of archaeologists and after around 16 years of doing this, Howard Carter was to make history and discover the immeasurable treasures of the Pharonic boy-king, Tutankhamen. Many original and reproduction artefacts are on display along with a depiction of how the tomb was when it was first discovered.
Sadly, Lord Carnarvon died soon afterwards and it is said that the lights of Cairo went out at this very moment. This was the beginnings of the curse of Tutankhamen which saw various members of the archaeological team die quite soon afterwards. Whether or not the curse is real, it has had some impact on modern day Egyptologists who when they discover a new tomb, let it air for several days in case there are any deadly viral mutations lurking inside ready to pounce after thousands of years of waiting.
People who watch Downton Abbey will remember how Lady Cora opened her home to the injured men of WW1 and this is something that happened in various stately homes including Highclere Castle. In the show it is clear that Lord Grantham like many others married the daughter of an American industrialist. These Americans of the time had lots of money but the one thing that money couldn’t buy was a title and entry to the aristocracy. Many of the aristocracy had everything imaginable except a shortage of money.
At Highclere Castle was Lady Almina who was the daughter of the immensely wealthy Rothschild family of wealthy Jewish bankers with homes across Britain, France and the USA. This marriage was a way to introduce fresh money into the Carnarvon estate but also a way for the Rothschild family to secure their aristocrat breeding, something which despite all their money was a precarious situation for a Jewish family at the time.
By all accounts Lady Almina couldn’t help enough and started nursing the troops and long after the war, she would always open her home to the brave men who had fought for our country often with terrible injuries.
After our visit to the house, of course we visited the shop which is situated in a rear courtyard area never visited in the show. In fact many places featured in Downton Abbey are filmed in real places a long way from Highclere Castle.
Finally there was one last thing we had to do. The gardens and estate were vast and due to our very big day, we were short on time but we had to visit the famous spot that is shown on every episode of Downton Abbey. The gravel path way between the 2 giant cedar trees which so often frame this dramatically beautiful home. In Downton Abbey terms, this is the equivalent of sitting on Captain Kirks chair on the Enterprise!
One could wait all day for to get a perfect photo of this famous view as it is such a wide expanse, even one tourist takes several minutes to walk across the view but here is one of mine below.
The drive back to Windsor went quickly and we all made a vow to revisit Highclere one day soon and watch even more Downton Abbey!
To learn more on the effect of WW1 on country homes like Highclere and Downton Don’t forget, to check out my new WW1 history book in Kindle and paperback formats entitled Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War.