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Perhaps no other show on television has better captured the reality of 20th century aristocratic life in England than Downton Abbey. The creator, Julian Fellowes managed to capture our enthusiasm with its award-winning costumes, historical accuracy, and attention to even the most precise of details. The very first time I watched it I was obsessed. For those of you who don’t follow the series, Downton was a historical, true to life drama filmed at Highclere Castle, a country house located in the English town of Newbury in Berkshire.
I remember eagerly anticipating Sunday nights for the newest show, and as they are now playing repeats I get to watch them all over again with equally as much joy. There are so many reasons to love "Downton Abbey"—the historical details, the costumes and the interesting characters. It was a series that brought the past to the present, so that viewers could get a taste of the early 1900s. But what we loved so much about it was the fact that although the people were from the past, they were relatable to today. The storylines seemed to ring true with so many situations that even I personally have faced and as viewers we could all relate to at least one of the family members or storylines. The history of the series also mimicked the real life history of the Castle in which it was filmed and I think many of the facts in the show were written by the creator Julian Fellows,( a friend of the owners) to reflect real events.
As the filming of the show had ended and not wanting to loose it altogether I decided to take a small group of Downton Abbey Fans on a pilgrimage to the Castle where the show was filmed.
Highclere Castle sits on an estate that totals 6,000 acres. The castle covers 30,000 square feet and has a total of 300 rooms, with approximately 61 of these being bedrooms on the upper floors. Approximately 50 of those rooms were uninhabitable as of 2009. Now with the money from filming, along with the many visitors to the castle they have been able to considerably improve it and restore it to its former glory. Highclere has been home to several generations of the Carnarvon Family and is rich in its own history and family drama.
The current Lord and Lady Carnarvon (Geordie and Fiona to their friends) have discovered that allowing the cast and crew to infiltrate their home and grounds provides gains that are not merely financial.
“The best part has been sharing this romantic castle and home with so many people from around the world,” Lady Carnarvon said. “And ‘Downton’ has helped revitalize an interest in history.”
It's a bit of an invasion, she said. “The thick wires and cables snaking everywhere, the cameras, the trollies, the white vans obscuring the drives and the dust that collects as a result.” Her advice to anyone who’s thinking of letting their own home become an onscreen one? “Have a good sense of humour!”
In the first world war and in similarity to the TV show Lady Almina, the Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, willingly opened her home to the injured. What’s more, she offered her services as a nurse and became quite skilled. The house still has many of the letters on display from soldiers and their parents thanking her for her hospitality. Of course if you are a fan of the TV show you may recall that Lord Grantham wasn’t too pleased at opening their home to wounded soldiers and put up quite a fuss.
During World War II, Highclere Castle also became a home for evacuated children who had been shipped out to the countryside from blitz-weary London.
Another true and interesting fact is that The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, was one of the explorers to uncover King Tut’s tomb with Howard Carter in 1922. The Earl brought back a number of artifacts with him to Highclere. He died less than a year after the discovery after accidentally shaving an infected mosquito bite. His death led to the rumour of “The Mummy’s Curse” for opening the tomb and disturbing Tut’s rest. His poor dog also died at the same moment he did.
You would never think that in the basement of this stately mansion would sit these kind of artifacts from King Tuts Tomb.
Our trip was not only visiting Highclere castle but included many of the Royal Castles and places associated with the British Monarchy such as the wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum which are both free to enter and even Windsor Castle which was the recent setting for the marriage of Harry and Meghan.
I had looked forward to seeing Highclere Castle the most so when we pulled up at the gates I was so excited I asked the driver just to stop briefly so we could get some great pictures. At the time we are taking lots of quick photos we heard a Beep Beep from a car. I looked behind the bus and there was a minivan trying to get past us.
I didn’t pay too much attention as I knew we wouldn’t be long and thought to myself, oh let them wait just a minute … hmmm that was a bad bad idea as it turned out to be the Earl himself sitting in the back and whom we were joining for a cocktail party that evening… ooops,
I rushed over and apologized profusely and got the bus to move pronto!
Later that evening we arrived for a champagne cocktail reception and luckily the Earl had forgiven me the intrusion earlier and greeted us warmly. He’s quite shy but did make a speech to welcome everyone and then the Lady Fiona personally took us on a tour.
The interior is incredible. I love everything from the Great Hall to the kitchen downstairs. Not all of the filming is done at Highclere but the main upstairs scenes and of course the iconic exterior is the same.
We learnt that many of the props shown in Downton have a story at Highclere. The bells in the kitchen of Downton Abbey are replicas of the kitchen bells at Highclere – each of which has a distinctive pitch so the servants know which room is calling without having to look. And Lord Grantham’s mahogany desk in the living room actually belonged to Napoleon!
Highclere is just one of the many movie or TV sets that you can visit in the UK. Including Edinburgh where Outlander is filmed and Devon where Doc Martin is filmed in the beautiful coastal village.
The best time to visit England is in either in the spring or early fall to get the best possible chance of reasonable weather and fewer crowds.
Our Dollar isn’t too bad against the Pond just now so it will not feel to astronomically expensive is it has in the past.
We will be visiting the Castles and Royal sights again in the future as there is so much to see.