Nicola here! Last week I had the pleasure of a visit to Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which is the location where much of the hit TV series Downton Abbey is filmed. I was pretty excited about this trip as not only do I enjoy the TV programme very much I also love visiting historic houses so this was combining two of my favourite things.
With Downton Abbey the house is far more than just a setting; it feels like a character in itself. As we drove towards it the house was immediately recognisable. It’s enormous (fifty bedrooms!) and grand in a way that only a Victorian mansion can be (it was built in 1838). It’s not the first building on the site. There was a medieval hall at Highclere, a manor house and a classical Georgian mansion before the transformation that created the current castle. It is said that the grand central tower of the house cost a fortune and Lord Caernarvon’s land agent warned his employer that the plans were “pregnant with the most alarming danger to your Lordship’s pocket.” Despite this, the 3rd Earl was determined on a grand plan and when the house was finished it dominated its surroundings in the most dramatic way.
Before we went on our tour of the house we strolled across the parkland and admired the cedar trees that were part of the landscaped grounds created in the 18th century. We had Rochester the Guide Dog Puppy with us and as he is a Yellow Labrador we thought we would do our own version of the Downton Abbey opening credits, filmed on my mobile phone with my husband standing in for Lord Grantham. Alas Rochester was not as majestic as Lord Grantham’s Labrador Isis, who had her own storyline in the second series, but he did love wandering through the park. Although NBC was also filming that day at Highclere I think I can claim that Rochester was the star of our particular show. He was made very welcome by staff and visitors alike and the sight of this small guide dog puppy descending Highclere’s fabulously grand central staircase as though he was to the manor born was very funny.
The interior of the house was also instantly recognisable from the TV programme. I loved the dining room, where so many of those splendid dinners in Downton Abbey take place, and the magnificent oak staircase that ascends from the Saloon up to the Gallery and the Gallery Bedrooms. It is around this landing that some of the bedrooms are situated that are used in the filming. We saw “Lady Grantham’s room”, “Lady Edith’s room” and “Lady Sybil’s room” and also the room given to the cad and bounder Kamal Pamuk in the first series. This is decorated with bright red flock wallpaper and is known as the Stanhope Room. It was refurbished in 1895 for the visit of the then Prince of Wales. It was also great to meet some of the room stewards who had their own anecdotes to tell of the Downton Abbey cast and the filming. Mrs Patmore the cook, Mr Carson the butler and the Thomas the footman were their favourites!
Highclere wears its Downton Abbey connections lightly with only a few signboards in the rooms to tell visitors of a specific link to the TV series. This leaves plenty of room for the “real” history of the house. I loved the Library, which resembled a gentleman’s club and was furnished with Georgian and Regency desks and tables. My favourite room though was the lovely south facing drawing room, which felt warm and intimate because it was comparatively small. I could quite imagine the ladies withdrawing there for tea and a chat!
The Castle became a centre of political life during the late Victorian era and in the 20th century it saw different uses during the two World Wars. During the First World War it was a hospital for wounded officers. In this the storyline in the TV series mirrored the real history of the house.
My favourite part of the visit was discovering about the life of a servant at Highclere during the Edwardian era. Once again, Downton Abbey mirrored reality perfectly. Guests at Highclere ranged from Royalty to politicians, Egyptologists to aviators. Behind the green baize door (there really was one, and a stone flight of steps leading down to the servants’ hall) the butler reigned supreme with Lord Caernarvon’s valet and the housekeeper also at the top of the pecking order. The butler ran the castle, looked after the wine cellar and waited on the family at dinner. He was also expected to announce visitors, take calling cards, escort departing visitors from the premises, organise the post and oversee the secure closing of the house each night. The valet managed the Earl's personal accounts as well as his wardrobe and travelled with him. The Highclere footmen had navy coloured livery and buttons sporting the family crest. They were all required to be clean-shaven and the more handsome and presentable the better it reflected on the family!
After lunch in a marquee on the lawn – with Rochester being offered a drink of water out of special Highclere china! – we took a tour of the gardens. The Monks’ Garden has surviving Georgian walls and arches and is a beautiful and tranquil place to walk. The grounds are dotted with "follies;" decorative ruins in classical style designed to enhance the view.
We finished the day climbing Beacon Hill to the grave of the 5th Earl of Caernarvon, the Egyptologist who with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Highclere Castle was framed in the distance, the perfect view to end a wonderful day.
Is there anywhere that has featured in a film or TV programme that you would like to visit? Have you even been “behind the scenes”? I am offering a copy of Dauntsey Park, my Edwardian-set book, to one commenter between now and midnight Thursday!