Editor’s Note: This long article originally appeared in Issue #5 of the Anglotopia Print Magazine in Spring 2017. You can support great long-form writing about British History, Culture and Travel by subscribing to the Anglotopia Print Magazine, a quarterly love letter to Britain. Subscribing makes articles like this possible and ensures the future of Anglotopia. You can subscribe here.
Only a few places in Britain become part of the global popular imagination, and Highclere Castle is one of them. Many of you may remember it from Jeeves and Wooster, its first claim to fame or as the home of Lord Carnarvon, who funded the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb. But now the whole world knows the house like Downton Abbey, the setting of the world’s most popular costume drama that recently ended its run. We had the opportunity to visit this past spring; it was the journey of a lifetime.
Highclere: A Brief History
Even before the success of “Downton Abbey,” if you possess a passion for grand English houses, then Highclere Castle should surely have been on your list of places to visit, at least once in your life. Located just south of Newbury in Berkshire, the house is actually located in the county of Hampshire. The estate extends to over 5,000 acres and is still the country home of the Earl of Carnarvon (though they only live in it part of the year).
The origins of the estate stretch back almost 1300 years. Highclere Castle is the fifth or sixth house to be built on the estate property. It was once a larger estate that was built by the Bishops of Winchester, which dates back to the 8th century. The original site was actually recorded in the Domesday Book (William the Conqueror’s accounting of his newly conquered Kingdom). However, it was in 1679 when the home was taken into the hands of the Carnarvon family, who still own it today. As an aside, the house was called a house or perhaps even Abbey, then a Palace, then a Placehouse and now is called a Castle due to its grandeur; despite not looking much like a castle in the traditional sense.
During this period, it was a square, classical style mansion. In 1692, the estate was gifted as a wedding present by Robert Sawyer to his daughter, Margaret, who married the 8th Earl of Pembroke. The second son of Margaret, Robert Sawyer Herbert, went on to inherit Highclere and made his own impact on the estate by creating a formal garden with 12 temples and follies. His nephew and heir to the estate, Henry Herbert, later known as Baron Porchester, became the 1st Earl of Carnarvon thanks to George III.
It was in 1838 that the 3rd Earl commissioned Sir Charles Barry, the person responsible for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament. During this period, there was a Renaissance Revival movement, which Barry was greatly skilled at creating. However, at Highclere, he designed the estate with Jacobethan-style influences. There are touches of details that do reflect the Renaissance-based characteristics, such as the towers of the castle, which are slimmer than others built during the same period. It is said that when Barry was creating a rough draft of the house design, he used all Italian Renaissance characteristics. However, it was rejected by the Earl.
If you think it looks like the houses of Parliament, that’s intentional. The Houses of Parliament, reconstructed after they burned down in 1834, were also designed by Barry, the pre-eminent Victorian architect. It is not a design style that thrived into the 20th century. In fact, many famous neo-gothic buildings were tragically pulled down as tastes changed and the maintenance costs skyrocketed.
The 3rd Earl died in 1849, and Sir Charles Barry died in 1860. At this time, the West Wing was still not completed; where the servants’ quarters were designated to be located. The 4th Earl commissioned the services of architect Thomas Allom, who had worked with Barry in previous years, to help supervise the finished construction of the castle. It was finally completed in 1878 – quite a stretch of time from beginning to end. Many of Britain’s great houses took generations to build and look like they do today – Highclere is no exception.
During the 20th century, Highclere Castle was the meeting place for all sorts of important people. Visitor books recorded that the house parties hosted at the castle were visited by Egyptologists, aviators, soldiers, technological innovators, and politicians. The 5th Countess of Carnarvon, Almina, transformed the house into a hospital during World War I to help soldiers coming home from the battles in Flanders, Belgium. Almina became a skilled nurse and healer which was chronicled in numerous letters found from patients and their families who thanked her for her generosity.
In 1919, the castle returned back to a private home for the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his family. After his death in 1923, his son returned to Highclere Castle where he resided until 1986.
You may recognize the 7th Earl of Carnarvon from the recent Netflix drama “The Crown.” Lord Porchester, or Porchie as he was known to the young Queen, was a close friend of Her Majesty. They both shared a passion for horses and worked together for many years breeding horses. Porchie went on to become the Queen’s racing manager in 1969 and was known as one of the few people who could contact Her Majesty directly to speak about her beloved horses. “The Crown” speculates that there may have been more to their relationship, but we’ll never really know. He was an important British statesman and local politician and became the 7th Earl of Carnarvon following the death of his father in 1987. Lord Porchester died on September 11th, 2001 (nothing to do with the other major event that happened that day).
The current residents of Highclere Castle are the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Lord Carnarvon and his father opened the Castle to the public in 1988, and before “Downton Abbey,” they had a very successful wedding business. Lord and Lady Carnarvon were living partly in the Castle since 2003 as they do today (they stay less in the Castle when it’s open to the public). They created the Egyptian Exhibition in 2007 which was very successful and remains open today.
The estimated cost of the repairs was around £12 million (around $20 million) relating to the ancient barns and follies as well as to the Castle itself. They have always undertaken a steady programme of repairs, although, like with many country houses there was an investment deficit of repairs which had accumulated since World War II. Thanks to the increase in visitors since 2012 due to the success of Downton Abbey, the Earl and Lady Carnarvon could get on with their work at the Castle. The family lives in Highclere Castle during the winter months and then return to their cottage during the summer when the castle is open to the public.
Owning a great house like this is quite a challenge. Lord and Lady Carnarvon undertook major roof repairs in 2003. Since then they have accumulated a great list of many specialists whether it be for roofs, stonework, plumbing or electrics. These homes were built to construction standards that were very different in the Victorian age, and while they were built with stone to stand the test of time, many aspects of the house do last. They were so well built, but given the size, the bills are always significant and for some great houses, more than they can manage. Roofs are the most common problem – often made of lead or slate. A leaky roof is cancer to a stately home; it leads to rot and mold growth in the house which weakens the structure. Their age also compounds the second major problem; finding the necessary skills needed to fix these problems. However, Lady Carnarvon has built up a list of skilled tradesmen and a great team. It does take time, but that is not a problem when you measure the life of a house in hundreds of years.
Then there is also the issue of the plumbing, electrical and other services being woefully outdated. Thankfully, Highclere has been able to keep things modernized under a programme in force since 2003. It costs a fortune to keep the buildings up to modern standards to make sure the lights and the heating still work. If you don’t keep these things updated, you have a problem that has felled many of Britain’s lost stately homes: fire. Thankfully, a fire has not visited Highclere.
Many people think that the owners of houses like this are very rich but the phrase ‘house rich, cash poor’ applies here. Estates like Highclere cost a lot of money to run and maintain and like any business employ hundreds of people. Many Earl’s and Dukes struggle to keep their heads above water. Many don’t and give up their houses – they either abandon them or gift them to the National Trust. So, to find a beautiful house like Highclere, still in the hands of the original owner is quite a treat.
The success of “Downton Abbey” catapulted Highclere Castle to fame as the owners struggled to keep the house in good repair. Created by Julian Fellowes, the television drama was first aired in the United Kingdom on 26 September 2010 and in the United States on 9 January 2011. The series is set in a fictional estate called Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle) located in Yorkshire and portrays the life of the Crawley family, including that of their servants. The show is set in the post-Edwardian era and depicts how the great events of history have lasting effects on people in aristocratic positions (the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of the Estate’s heir sets the show in motion). The show was not expected to last past the first season, but it became a worldwide hit – cementing its position as one of the most popular British costume dramas ever.
Visitors now stream in from all over the world to visit Highclere Castle on the days of the year that it is open. Income from admissions has ensured the survival of the house and allowed the owners to invest in a multi-year programme of repairs and renovations. The future of the house is secure for generations to come to enjoy.
Finding Downton – Our Visit
We have tried for several years to visit Highclere Castle. It’s only open on a select number days of the year, and they sell tickets six months or more in advance. As a result, available tickets always sell out. And while they may have a few tickets left each day they’re open for walk-up visitors, if you’re in the USA and you can’t get tickets in advance, it’s too risky to plan a trip around it (but they recommend emailing in advance to see if you can get in at the last minute).
We managed to get tickets to visit in April 2016 the previous autumn when tickets became available for the spring opening. With our tickets secure, we were content to plan a trip around our visit there. As we bought our tickets and counted down the days, we couldn’t wait to visit. To prepare ourselves, we binged watched old episodes of “Downton Abbey” and researched the background of the house.
The day of our visit arrived, and we woke up early in anticipation. We were staying in a self-catering cottage about an hour away in Dorset, so we had breakfast and got in the car for a lovely morning drive through the English countryside to the house. The drive took a little longer than we planned. We foolishly thought that Apple Maps could find its way to one of the most famous houses in the world, but alas it directed us to the private entrance. A quick Google search on the side of the road in Berkshire taught us that almost all Sat-navs get it wrong and we got the correct postcode to the visitor’s entrance. Always check a house’s website for directions before you try to go there!
We didn’t mind really, we love driving in the English countryside, and it was a particularly beautiful sunny and clear day. We had morning tickets (the organizers split the day into morning tickets and afternoon ticket groups), which meant we could enter the house as soon as it opened to the public at 10 am. As we drove into the lawn and the area marked for parking, we discovered we were not the only ones with the idea to turn up early. After we parked the car and had our tickets checked, we were let past the gates and marveled as we walked up the drive to Downton Abbey, just like they do on the TV show. Thanks to Britain’s appreciation for history, there is no sign of the modern era we inhabit as you make your way up the walk. It is exactly as it is on the show – and exactly as it would be 100 years ago. Truly remarkable.
There were quite a few people about – many taking their fair share of pictures of the beautiful house. What struck us as we approached was just how massive the house really is. The marketing for the show can give you the impression that the house is quite small – but as you approach it, you experience it on a true scale that you can never have imagined. The place is massive. There are 200-300 rooms – though only a few are open to the public. The house is almost as massive as the Houses of Parliament in London in scale. You will also notice that the house sits perfectly in its surroundings. Just the right amount of sunlight hits the place, and it’s perfectly situated in the Capability Brown designed landscape. Even though it was early spring, the grass was bright green, the trees lovely as ever. We had good weather on the day and didn’t even need our coats.
We did not have to wait in line for long, it was clear there were a lot of people who were visiting that day, but the owners know how to manage the crowds. It’s such a surreal moment to pass through the doors into the entryway we’ve seen so many times on TV. It’s like walking right into the TV show. You’re first ushered into the Gothic entrance hallway. A red carpet leads you to probably the most famous room in the house, the magnificent double height saloon where you can see the beautiful vaulted ceiling and the balcony to the upper level of the house.
Next was probably my most favorite room, the sumptuous double library. Most fans would recognize this as the study/office of the Earl of Grantham. And the room looks much like it does on the TV. The beautiful mahogany carved room is filled with hundreds of beautiful books. As someone who loves books and prides himself in keeping a large library, it was quite a treat to see such a beautiful space. I could have spent all day there.
It’s not hard to imagine the room back in the late 1800’s, a fire roaring in the hearth, a group of aristocrats drinking and smoking; discussing the politics of the day. Worrying about their estates and their inheritances. Pondering the British Empire and its causes. It’s almost like a genteel club in London, the kind you’d find on Pall Mall.
Each room we visited had a helpful guide to expound on any trivia about objects in the room. There were plenty of pictures from “Downton Abbey” showing the actors in the settings we know so well.
The crowd was happy. An Australian quipped loudly “We traveled 10,000 miles to see this place.”
I responded to the kind room attendant that, “we’d only come 4,000 miles.”
It was worth every mile traveled!
There is no guided tour aspect when you visit the house – it’s self-guided. There are room attendants who will give occasional trivia, but they’re mostly there to make sure you don’t touch anything. Though there was plenty of gossip about a possible “Downton Abbey” movie, “Oh, of course, we couldn’t say.” There are usually packets in each room that explain the history of the room and the items in them, but with the way, you must keep moving through the house, how much time you have to gaze at the beautiful artworks depends on how many people are in the house with you. But it’s not hard to find a quiet moment to admire something.
As the tour continues, you’re led through many more beautiful and sumptuous rooms, many of which never appeared on the show for various reasons (sometimes the artifacts in the rooms are too delicate to risk filming or the rooms too small to get the equipment inside). So, it was quite a treat to see rooms you were not expecting to see. What really struck me about the house, was not so much the size of the place, but how intimate it felt on the inside. It very much felt like a home. It felt almost wrong to be tramping through it with a crowd to admire the personal affects of 1300 years of Lords and Earls.
I especially liked learning more about the various objects in the interior. On the show, the objects are basically window dressing. Lord Fellowes, the creator of the show, often remarked that they picked the house because they had all the dead people’s paintings you would need. They serve as background in the show; they give it gravitas. But they’re never really remarked upon (though occasionally an artifact will become a plot point). So, it’s lovely to finally be able to get some historical background on the paintings and sculptures we’ve all come to know so well.
After you’ve seen all the rooms on the main level, you’re led upstairs to see all the private bedrooms. This was fascinating as the show usually didn’t use these rooms for filming (but they sometimes did), they were often built on sets to make filming easier (as the rooms are quite small for filming equipment to fit). Only a fraction of the more than 50-80 rooms in the house are open for you to see. The self-guided tour finishes with the opportunity to climb down the famous and beautiful oak staircase, just as Lord Grantham would with his dog Isis. I felt quite a tingle as I climbed down those stairs. After that, you’re led to the outside of the house at the back, where you can find the gift shop and cafe. We were sure to buy several Highclere-related souvenirs (though there’s no actual Downton merchandise).
Unfortunately, there are no kitchens on the tour. The current kitchens manage the tea rooms so are not open to the public. The wine cellars were taken over by the Egyptian Exhibition (see sidebar), so don’t expect to see Mrs. Patmore preparing dinner in the basement! After you’ve seen the house, you have all the time you want to have a wander around the beautiful grounds, designed by renowned landscape architect Capability Brown. There’s plenty of follies and ruins to take plenty of nice pictures.
We get this question a lot – if you love “Downton Abbey” – should you visit Highclere Castle? Most certainly, yes you should. You will not regret it. Would a visit be helped by binging “Downton Abbey” before your visit? Yes, absolutely.
Other TV & Film Appearances
Other TV and film appearances that utilized the Castle include: “The Secret Garden” (1987); “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999); “The Four Feathers” (2002); John Legend’s music video for ‘Heaven Only Knows’ (2006). It was also featured in the classic comedy series “Jeeves & Wooster” as Totleigh Towers. Highclere Castle also rents its facilities for small film units, and photography sessions, many of which are wedding events.
The current Countess of Carnarvon is a prolific writer and has written several fascinating books about the history of Highclere Castle. Most notably Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey. She also has a new book coming out in spring 2017 called At Home at Highclere – Entertaining at The Real Downton Abbey, historic weekends, menus, and recipes. She also keeps a lovely blog at http://www.ladycarnarvon.com.
Editor’s Note: The Lady of Carnarvon and Highclere Castle are currently running a contest with a grand prize of your very own stay at Highclere Castle, which is a private home so very rare. You must hold a dinner party and submit it to the contest. Full details are here.
PBS also produced an excellent documentary about Highclere called “The Secrets of Highclere Castle’ which is available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s also streaming via PBS and Amazon Prime.
Highclere Castle is open for approximately 70 days each year. It is open for two weeks during the Easter holiday, May Bank holidays, and for a duration of two months during the summer, Sunday through to Thursday. It is also open for a few days in December to celebrate the Christmas holidays. There are guides in the rooms of the castle to answer any questions or gossip about Downton. They offer various discounted rates for large groups and school visits. Refer to the website for complete information about planning your visit: www.highclerecastle.co.uk. Tickets must be booked in advance and often sell out months ahead of time so planning ahead is critical. They also now have a yearly garden party with a theme where you’re encouraged to dress up, 2017’s will have a 1920s theme.
Ticket prices vary (and change yearly) but currently it’s £23 (about $30) for an adult to visit the Castle, Egyptian Exhibition, and Gardens, £14 (about $16) for Children, £60 (about $80) for a family of 4. Tickets are cheaper if you opt out of the Egyptian Exhibition (if you’re not interested in Ancient Egypt, don’t pay for it).
Special Note: No photography of any kind is allowed in the house!
The house is relatively close to London. There are tour companies that can take you. But the best way to get there is to drive yourself. According to their website: “Please do not use a “sat nav” when close to Highclere Castle as this will bring you to the wrong entrance. If you do use the postcode RG20 9LE which is for a local restaurant, from there, please follow the brown tourist signs to the main entrance.”
You can also take a train directly from London Paddington to Newbury, where you can get a taxi to the house. This will cost between £15-20 each way (don’t forget to book your return with the driver!). You can also take a bus from London Victoria to Newbury and take a taxi from there. Expect to spend 3-4 hours exploring the house and grounds.
As always, be sure to check Highclere’s website (http://www.highclerecastle.co.uk) before visiting to make sure you have all the latest travel and opening information.
An Aside – The Earl and King Tut
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered a tomb which contained the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, during an archaeological dig in 1922 with the help of his colleague, Howard Carter. They both spent 16 years working together through various excavation trips in Egypt. The Earl also helped Carter build a house in the desert close to the Valley of the Kings, which was properly nicknamed ‘Castle Carter.’ Both men were convinced that there were more tombs located in the Valley of the Kings. To help prove their hypothesis, they created a grid system in order to document where they had already excavated.
In the autumn of 1922, they planned one last excursion, in which the Earl’s daughter, Lady Evelyn, also accompanied the men. Their trip was obviously a success due to the discovery of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh. After the death of the 5th Earl, his widow sold his collection to the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, in order to pay for death duties. However, not all artifacts had been sold, and instead were tucked away in cupboards until they were re-discovered by the Carnarvon family in 1987.
To help celebrate the success of the 5th Earl’s accomplishment, the current Earl and Countess opened an Egyptian Exhibition in the cellars of the Castle, which is still present. This is also referred to as the ‘Discovery Gallery,’ which highlights different events that occurred for the Carnarvon family during the Great War, unfortunate financial situations, and the overall discovery of the Egyptian artifacts. The story was recently dramatized by ITV in a four-part drama in 2016 (which is currently available on BritBox in the USA).
Thank you to Lady Carnarvon and her office who kindly fact-checked this article before publication last year.