Downton Abbey, the hugely popular ITV British period drama is set in a fictional Yorkshire country estate called Downton Abbey. The real Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which is where exterior shots of the Abbey and most of the interior shots are filmed.
I visited Highclere Castle a few months before the Downton Abbey first aired, and I had no idea about it at all. I was staying in nearby Newbury, as a base to explore the area and have dinner at the Marco Pierre-White owned restaurant “The Yew Tree” (which was excellent by the way). It was only when I was coming home one day, about a year later, that I noticed several advertisements at Earl’s Court Underground Station advertising the DVD release of Season 1 of “Downton Abbey”. I thought to myself “wait a second, I’ve been there!”, as I noticed the instantly recognisable Highclere Castle in the background.
Unfortunately, interior photography is forbidden at Highclere Castle, so I am only able to provide you with photos of the exterior and the grounds of the real Downton Abbey.
One of the many interesting facts about Highclere Castle is that it’s not technically a castle, but rather a house.
There is evidence that a house of some description stood on this site since the 8th century. Since 1679, Highclere has been home to the Carnarvon family, and it is this family who were involved in transforming Highclere into the building that stands today.
Up until 1839, Highclere was a classical mansion however the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon wanted something in the Jacobethan style, so commissioned Sir Charles Barry to remodel the house, after he had finished working on the Houses of Parliament in London.
Barry was a huge fan of the Renaissance revival movement of the time, and called his remodelling “Anglo-Italian”. The Earl was not a fan of this style, so Barry’s final design was more Jacobethan as the Earl had wanted, but with Renaissance influences – most noticeably the towers and the exterior strap-work designs.
Work on the interior of the castle was completed in 1878 by supervised by Thomas Allom, one of Barry’s colleagues (Barry had died in 1860).
The grounds were rebuilt much earlier, between 1774-1777, and in fact an entire village was relocated in the process.
In the early 20th century, Highclere started to house a large selection of Egyptian artefacts and was quite popular with the English aristocracy.
During the First World War, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina, turned the Castle into a hospital, and patients began to arrive from Flanders in September 1914. The Countess herself became a nurse during this time and helped to treat the wounded.
Between the two World Wars, in 1922, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and a co-explorer discovered King Tut’s tomb, which brought much attention to Highclere.
During the Second World War, the Castle briefly became a home for evacuee children from north London.
The actual tour itself is very worthwhile. You get to walk through many beautiful grand rooms, including the Bedrooms, Saloon, State Dining Room, Library, Music Room, Drawing Room and Smoking room. Each room is opulently decorated and there is lots of information on hand about what you are seeing, as well as employees walking about who can provide you with more information.
The area that I found most interesting was the Kitchen and the Servant’s Quarters. It was almost as if there was an entire society of servants living under the Castle, completely in charge of making sure that everything ran smoothly. Reading about the whole system of servitude in the castle was both fascinating and shocking.
The gardens might be more beautiful during the spring and summer, but they have a great, atmosphere about them in the colder months too.
There is a cafe on site, and in addition to the usual snacks and lunch options, there is offered a traditional English morning/afternoon tea of scones, cream, jam and tea. It was very tasty, and the first time I’d ever had a traditional English morning tea.