Margaret McPhee

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The Real Downton Abbey

Bits and Bobs

Bits and Bobs

The magnificent Highclere Castle

The Real Downton Abbey

Being a fan of the critically acclaimed and multi-award-winning period drama, Downton Abbey, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit Highclere Castle, the real country house used for much of the filming of the series, including the distinctive gothic exterior against which the characters are often pictured. Downton Abbey is the Yorkshire based country seat of the fictional Earl of Grantham, whereas Highclere Castle, the family seat of the real 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, is located in the more southerly county of Berkshire.
In real life, Highclere is every bit, if not more, impressive than the
Downton Abbey on screen. The castle itself is huge and dramatic, with an interior that matches the scale and splendour of the exterior. It was strange to see ‘in the flesh’ so to speak, the rooms in which the characters and scenes are set, and the surrounding extensive gardens, or Park as it is known.

Elizabethan Manor to Georgian Mansion, and finally… a Gothic Victorian Castle
Originally Highclere land was gifted by the Anglo-Saxon king Cuthred to the bishops of Winchester. The land and house built upon it eventually passed through various successive families until, as an Elizabethan manor, it came to the Herberts, the family name of the Earls of Carnarvon and in whose ownership it still remains today.

From Elizabethan manor Highclere was transformed in Regency times into a Georgian mansion, and in the early Victorian period underwent extensive redesign to become the impressive Gothic castle we see today.

The First World War and the inspiration for Lady Sybil?
Just like its counterpart Downton Abbey, during the Great War Highclere Castle, under Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, became a hospital to treat wounded officers returning from the trenches. Almina had always been a passionate supporter of charitable medical causes so when war was declared and her husband was not convinced by her intention to turn Highclere into a hospital, she persuaded her father, Alfred de Rothschild to give her the necessary financial backing. Using this money she provided the latest medical equipment and a staff of thirty nurses, medically managed by the family’s own GP. Similarities can be seen with the character Lady Sybil and the Countess as Almina trained as a nurse and took a hands-on approach to caring for her patients.

Second World War – a home for evacuees
During the Second World War Highclere Castle was home to children evacuated from London and a large part of the southern Estate was taken over by the Army.

Opened to the public
In 1988, the Castle was opened to the public by the 7th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

resent day
The incumbent 8th Earl and Countess, inherited Highclere in 2003 and continue its stewardship. The castle is their family home and photographs of the current Lord and Lady Carnarvon and their children, as well as their ancestors, are on display within the rooms of the Castle.

Inside the Castle
Arriving through the main doors visitors first enter the library which spans two open plan rooms separated by gilded mahogany Corinthian columns running floor to ceiling. With its theme of dark mahogany, extensive gilding, and rich red curtains and upholstery it is one of the most impressive libraries I’ve visited. Even the ceiling is carved and gilded. The mahogany bookcases are packed with old leather bound volumes that I would have loved to have had a look at but there is, of course, a no-touch rule. The library was my favourite room in the castle with two notable pieces of late Georgian furniture, a Carlton House desk (which Hugh Bonneville, as the character Lord Grantham, is often seen sitting at in
Downton Abbey) and a Rent table, an oval table containing ten drawers around the circumference, used as a type of filing system for collection of rent from the estate tenants.
Other rooms open to public viewing are the Music Room (with its baroque painted ceiling and desk and chair that belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte), Drawing Room, Smoking Room, Morning Room, the Dining Room (with its art collection, including the large Van Dyck portrait of King Charles I on horseback seen in
Downton Abbey dining room shots hanging above the mahogany serving sideboard) the upper gallery and the main guest bedrooms leading from it (the bedrooms cannot be entered but viewed from the doorways), visitors reach the upper gallery up the red staircase and descend again to the Saloon (which, like the bedrooms can be viewed but not entered, and in which the Crawley family is frequently seen gathered on screen in Downton Abbey,) via the oak staircase. The Gothic arches and windows in the ceiling above the Saloon flood both it and the upper gallery with light.

Right, from top to bottom: View of the grounds, hedge tunnel in the gardens, approaching Highclere from the woodland walk, Jackdaws Castle (a folly) within Highclere's grounds

The recently restored folly Temple of Diana within Highclere's grounds

Highclere’s connections to Tutankhamun
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon famously funded and worked with the archaeologist Howard Carter on his excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. In November 1922, Carnarvon and Carter discovered the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun that had lain undisturbed for over three thousand years. The antechamber was filled with gold and Tutankhamun’s personal possessions. In one of the rooms leading from the treasure-laden antechamber was the intact sarcophagus of the boy king himself.
The discovery led to a worldwide media frenzy. When Lord Carnarvon developed fatal septicaemia from an infected mosquito bite, his death fuelled the rumour of the Curse of Tutankhamun.
Many of the artefacts excavated by the Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter are on display within the cellars of Highclere Castle.

A popular place!
There is also a courtyard with a gift shop, food shops and tea rooms.
Although the Castle and grounds were busy on the day I visited, I enjoyed seeing the real
Downton Abbey and learning something of the history of the Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon.

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