Highclere Castle a.k.a. Downton Abbey!

Can you hear the theme song now??? Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun duhhh….. (Okay, that’s not the easiest song to describe in that way…) So let’s just watch the opener to get us really excited. Shall we?

I can assure you that the walk up to the castle was just like that opening scene. We saw the castle perched in the distance and excitedly hurried up the green lawns and walkways to the main entrance – I think it’s fair to say we weren’t quite as sophisticated as Lord Grantham and Isis strolling along casually, but could you blame us?

There she is!

There she is, basking in the sun!

(By the way, you can click on any picture to enlarge it).

Before I dive into the details, please allow me to explain how this opportunity came about. Highclere Castle is only open to visitors during July, August, and a few other random weeks throughout the year. They sell out almost immediately. Upon seeing via Facebook that tickets were available, my amazing friend Erin smartly snatched up six of them and she very kindly offered me one. Thank you again, Erin! 🙂

Hi, Erin!

Hi, Erin!

The tour of the castle did not disappoint, but unfortunately no photography was allowed inside. The tour was fascinating for many reasons. Firstly, as a Downton fan it was exciting to see where they filmed so many of the memorable scenes from the show. The salon, the beautiful red library, the dining room, and many bedrooms seen in Downton are filmed inside Highclere Castle. Displayed throughout the house were pictures and plaques displaying what the room was used for in the show. One of the volunteers said that they have to be the ones to move and remove furniture, open window shutters, etc. as the people who come in to film basically aren’t allowed to move or touch anything not agreed upon! If you’d like to see photographs of the inside of the castle, please click here to visit Highclere Castle’s web gallery.

Here’s an interesting video about the filming of Downton Abbey at Highclere castle. It also makes me miss all of my favorite characters that they’ve killed off!

We were able to walk through most of the ground floor and first floor (that’s the US second floor), where those rooms are located. But as we were walking through we found we had so many unanswered questions! How many rooms are there in total? How many people would have been needed to fully staff the castle in it’s peak? etc. I’m not sure if you can tell from the picture below, but the shutters to the upper floors were completely closed so we couldn’t even snoop in from outside – what is up there?!  So I did some online snooping researching…

IMG_8067According to the famous historian W. I. Kipedia and the castle’s website, Highclere Castle was remodeled and basically rebuilt in the 1840s by the famous architect Sir Charles Barry who also designed the Houses of Parliament. It sits on approximately 5,000 acres of land, and though we almost blew away, we were able to walk around some of its gorgeous grounds.The castle has 11 bedrooms on the first floor, and then a whopping 40-50 bedrooms on the second and third floors. (Sidenote, can you imagine having a house big enough where the margin of error is 10 bedrooms? “Yeah, there’s like 40 or 50… I lost count…”). In the castle’s heyday it required approximately 60-80 people working and living within its walls to support the castle and the family. Talk about high maintenance…

But in all seriousness, the castle is incredibly high maintenance. Before Downton Abbey came along, the family who currently owns the castle, the 8th Count and Countess of Carnarvon, were at their wit’s end. Just as recently as 2009, the 40-50 bedrooms upstairs were uninhabitable and severely water damaged. The castle itself needed almost $2 million in repairs and the repairs of other properties and grounds brought the total up to about $12 million! Unsure of what to do, the family moved into a “modest cottage” on the grounds. Then came Julian Fellows and Downton Abbey. Because of the surge of tourism to the castle from the show, the family is now able to repair the upper floors and turrets, which they’re working on slowly but surely. They now live in the castle during the winter months and retire to their cottage when the castle is open to visitors.

Not a bad place to spend your winter months.

Not a bad place to spend your winter months.

Another fascinating thing about the castle was finding a bit more about the family and their ancestors who lived there.  If you’ve seen Downton Abbey you may recall that Lady Sybil welcomed soldiers to their estate to recover after the war. Well, in real history, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina, did just that. She opened the doors of Highclere to many convalescing soldiers during and after WWI. It was fascinating to see old photos of soldiers relaxing out on the lawn, or reading in the regal library, cast resting on the arm of the settee. If you’d like to read more about Lady Almina and her place in Highclere’s history, you can check out the book Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey written by the current Countess of Carnarvon.

If you haven’t heard of Lady Almina, you may have heard of her husband, George Herbert, the 5th Count of Carnarvon. In the early 1900s he developed a penchant for automobiles. Importing some of the UK’s first automobiles, he took up racing, going up to 80 mph in the rickety cars of his day. After an accident in 1901 left him severely injured, his doctor suggested he go someplace warm to recover. (Sound doctor logic, right?) So, the Count took off for Egypt. It was there that he became obsessed with Egyptology. After making connections with the locals he began obtaining access to smaller dig sites searching for ancient treasures and tombs. Years later, after essentially moving to Egypt, he was granted digging rights to the now famous Valley of the Kings. There, he and his partner Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922 – one of the most important archeological discoveries of all time! After years of wading through the various treasures and burial chambers, his tomb was finally ready to be opened in 1923. Unfortunately for the Count, he cut himself shaving only months before while still in Egypt, developed sepsis and quickly died. According to his family, his beloved dog stood up, yelped, and fell over dead at exactly the same time all the way back at his home in Highclere Castle. This led to many newspaper articles attributing his death to the Curse of the Pharaohs. Regardless of any “curse” the history contained in the walls of the castle is completely enthralling. The cellar of Highclere Castle, which once held the servants’ quarters and kitchens, has now been converted to a museum documenting the discovery and opening of King Tut’s tomb.

The front entrance to the castle.

The front entrance to the castle.

Anyway, that’s enough history for the day. Here are a few more pictures of the castle itself.

Now that's a door knob.

Now that’s a door knob.

The back portion of the castle has been added on to, to accommodate a tea room among other things. It was still beautiful.

The back portion of the castle has been added on to, to accommodate a tea room among other things. It was still beautiful.

I couldn't get enough of that view!

I couldn’t get enough of that view!

As we were walking around the gardens, the dark clouds began to roll in. I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like lounging by the large fireplace in the library surrounded by walls and walls of books, listening to a thunderstorm roll in… But instead, we booked it back to the car, thankful that the rainy weather held off for as long as it did!

Regal, isn't it?

Regal, isn’t it?

On our way out, we drove the winding roads through the castle’s follies, passing this beautiful structure built in the 18th century, called the Temple of Diana. It was pouring down rain as we passed and I remarked, “Wow, that reminds me of Pride and Prejudice.”  Well, turns out, I was right.

The Temple of Diana

The Temple of Diana (taken from the car… hence the terrible picture!)

Does it look familiar to you? Mr Darcy’s jilted proposal dramatically captured in the 2010 film Pride and Prejudice was in fact filmed here. “In vain I have struggled…”  Ahh, I love it.

So there you have it! It’s amazing what you can learn during a few hours at a castle, 6 hours of driving (hehe) and a few minutes of poking around on the internet. I love living in England.

Thanks for reading! Cheers for now! (And hopefully it won’t be another 5 months til my next post…)

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