Art Imitates Life at Highclere Castle - aka Downton Abbey:
Downton Abbey, the television serial that has become a runaway success in the United States, is filmed at Highclere Castle, a magnificent Victorian pile, home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Unlike many film backdrops that use only exteriors or special angles and create fantasty stately homes from composites of many houses, Highclere is Downton Abbey. Both interiors and and exteriors are used for the popular television program. And visiting Downton Abbey fans (for the house, only 65 miles from London, is open to the public) will recognize many of the settings.
But before it became a television star, Highclere Castle had already seen its share of upstairs/downstairs and wartime dramas - so much so that you might say art imitated life at this historic house.
Upstairs/Downstairs Romance at Highclere Castle:
As of January, 2012, viewers in the USA had not yet seen the second series of Downton Abbey, but it's not giving too much away to suggest that an upstairs/downstairs romance is one of the storylines and the outcome has a profound impact on the fictional family.
Highclere, which has been home of the Carnarvon family since 1679 (the current castle was built in 1842) welcomed new blood into the family that was distinctly other side of the blanket as they used to say. Lady Almina, who married the 5th Earl in 1895,was the 19-year-old illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and the magnificently named Marie Wombwell. She was the only child of the unmarried banker and he made her his heir shortly before his death. Her enormous fortune soon won her a place in society. And, in another example of art imitating life, it was Lady Almina who persuaded her husband to turn Highclere Castle into a Home Military Hospital for WWI soldiers in 1915 - another element of the unfolding Downton Abbey story.
The current Lady Carnarvon has researched her fascinating predecessor and written Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.Buy Direct
Highclere Castle was the beneficiary of all the decorative doodads the Victorians were capable to putting into a grand house. And you'd be forgiven for declaring, "Wonderful things!" as you wander from room to room. But actually, the famous words were uttered by archaeologist Howard Carter when he opened the fabulous tomb of King Tutankhamun. He was responding to the question, "Can you see anything," whispered by his impatient friend and patron, George, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (Lady Almina's husband.)
While most of the Tutankhamun finds are still in Egypt, during his 16 seasons in Egypt, Carnarvon discovered and acquired an important collection of Egyptian antiquities that were sold to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and donated to the British Museum. Some of the objects, loaned back to the family by the British Museum, are part of an exhibit in the cellars of Highclere Castle.“Can you see anything?” Carter replied with, “Yes, wonderful things.”
What Else Can You See at Highclere Castle:
Many of the rooms at Highclere, including bedrooms used by "Lady Cora" will be familiar to fans of Downton Abbey. But the house is much more than a television set - it is packed with treasures, including:
- A gothic entrance hall believed to be designed by George Gilbert Scott, who created the Albert Memorial and St Pancras Station in London.
- Leather wall panels brought from Cordoba by the 3rd Earl in 1631 and similar to ones in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.
- A library of 5,600 books, some as early as the 16th century
- Van Dyke's equestrian portrait of King Charles I
- Italian embroideries from 16th century Rimini
- Secret cupboards, hidden within the thickness of the walls of the drawing room, that once held the 5th Earl's collection of Egyptian antiquities.
- 1,000 acres of sweeping parklands designed by Capability Brown, as well as a variety of walled gardens, forest gardens and miles of walking paths.
A Fine Day Trip from London:
Highclere is near Newbury in Berkshire, about 65 miles from central London via the M4 motorway. While there is no public transportation to the castle itself, it is possible to take a train to Newbury and a taxi for the six miles to the castle.
Direct trains leave Paddington Station for Newbury ten minutes after the hour, throughout the day, and take about 52 minutes.
A Good Base for Touring:
A day trip to Highclere from London is easy to arrange. But if you do decide to stay overnight, It's a good jumping off point for the Cotswolds to the West, Oxfordshire and Shakespeare Country to the north, the New Forest and the Hampshire coast to the South. It's also about halfway between London and the Olympics 2012 regatta venues of Weymouth and Portland Harbor.
The area has a good variety of camping facilities as well as hotels and B&Bs for a range of prices. Find out what tripadvisor reviewers have to say about local hotels and nearby bed and breakfast accommodation.
If you have a bit more time to stay, there are some charming Vacation rentals not far away.
Visitor Information for Highclere Castle - aka Downton Abbey:
- Address:Highclere Castle Highclere Park, Newbury RG20 9RN, UK
- Contact: +44 (0)1635 253210, 24-hour information line +44(0)1635 253204
- Open: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday to Thursday July 1 to 13 September. Easter opening 2012, every day from April 1 to April 15. There are also a limited number of openings in May and June. Note that, because of filming and events, open days may change from year to year - so it's wise to check the website.
- Admission: Admission to the castle, garden and grounds is by pre-booked tickets. Adult, concessions, family and children's tickets are available. Children under 4 years old are admitted free.
- Facilities: Gift shop and tea room for coffees, teas and light lunches.
- Dogs: Except for guide dogs, dogs are not permitted in the house or gardens. But they are permitted along many of the seasonal footpaths. So, if you are staying in the area with Fido, you can enjoy some lovely walks and views of the Castle.
- Visit their website