Castles on Camera: HGTV Visits the Real 'Downton Abbey'
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A Castle in Real Life
Highclere Castle, the English manor that serves as backdrop for the PBS series Downton Abbey, is in reality one of the most magnificent of England's stately homes. It's an actual working estate in the Hampshire countryside and home to modern-day members of the real British aristocracy. The Victorian-era manor is 175 years old, contains around 30,000 square feet of living space and is currently maintained by a staff of 70.
Just a Modest Country Home
The Highclere house, located near the town of Newbury in southeast England, has approximately 200 rooms, including more than 50 bedrooms and six separate entertaining spaces. Past houseguests have included actor Omar Sharif, film director Stanley Kubrick and numerous members of England's royal family.
Windows on the Past
Upon approaching the home, visitors are greeted by the ornate carved stone façade and 170 windows. Highclere has been in the family of its current owners for 370 years. The original house that stood here was, by the standards of the time, a medium-sized mansion. The grand castle that now stands on the site was commissioned in 1838 by the present Earl's great-great-great-grandfather. It was designed in the Jacobethan style by Sir Charles Barry, architect of Britain's Houses of Parliament. Though the home's current lineage dates back about four centuries, the estate at Highclere has been inhabited in some form for around 1300 years. The present-day castle stands at the location of the 8th-century palace of the Bishops of Winchester.
Countess of Carnarvon
The fictional world of Downton Abbey draws some of its inspiration from real life and past events at Highclere Castle. Though their names are not Lord and Lady Grantham, the home's current owners are true modern-day aristocrats: George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and his wife, Lady Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, pictured here. Lady Fiona is a historian and has written a biography of her predecessor Lady Almina, an English heiress and a former Countess of Carnarvon. Almina, whose wealth and status helped to preserve the family estate through troubled times, serves in part as the basis for Downton Abbey's Lady Cora.
Lord of the Manor
George Reginald Oliver Molyneuz Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, godson of Queen Elizabeth II and Lord of Highclere Castle, stands in the home's library. This room was a favorite of the current Earl's great-great-grandfather, who used it for entertaining and as a personal retreat. The actual library — which, in Downton Abbey, doubles as Lord Grantham's study and refuge — contains around 5,650 books, some of which are more than 500 years old. The producers of the series found Highclere's interiors to be so ideal for their needs that they film many of the show's scenes in the castle's rooms just as they are — with the actual furnishings in place and with little or no redressing.
The grandeur of Highclere is perhaps most notably exemplified in the magnificent state room seen here. The front entrance opens onto this central room called the Saloon. This room was designed in the gothic style for the 4th Earl of Carnarvon and features a 50-foot vaulted ceiling and magnificent stone arches.
The span of the Saloon extends upward through the full height of the house, and custom-made skylights illuminate the space. This magnificent parlor serves as gateway to the home's other state rooms, including the library, dining room, smoking room and drawing room. This view of the Saloon is from the upstairs gallery where the main bedrooms are situated. Though the overall design of the castle was by Sir Charles Barry, many of the spectacular interior spaces like this one were the creation of architect Thomas Allom, who had earlier worked with Barry.
This view of the Saloon, seen through the carved stone arches of the entry hall, is from the great oak staircase built in 1861. The Saloon's walls are lined with 400-year-old embossed Spanish leather wall coverings.
How Many Bedrooms?!
According to Lady Fiona, the house at Highclere has somewhere between 50 and 80 bedrooms. In fact, she's not certain exactly how many. Since some of the rooms were originally used as servant's quarters, most of which are no longer used, it's now uncertain just how many actually were bedrooms. This guest bedroom, however, the Cream Bedroom, is still very much in use. Yet another guest bedroom, decorated in 1895 in anticipation of a visit by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), serves on Downton Abbey as the bedroom of Lady Mary. That room was famously the setting for one of the series' more scandalous incidents: the unexpected death of Turkish diplomat Mr. Pamuk.
The Highclere home is set among 6,000 acres of farmland with beautifully manicured gardens and numerous walking trails. The estate is valued today at more than $240,000,000. To help finance the monumental upkeep on the home and grounds, the owners rent it out for corporate events, weddings and other occasions. The site fee for the rental is around $23,000. With the success of the series Downton Abbey, the owners have also opened the home for tours during a portion of the year. Visitors, who number more than 60,000 annually, have come from as far as New Zealand, Russia and China.
The House Staff, Upstairs and Down
The present butler at Highclere Castle is Colin Edwards, pictured here in the home's main dining room — another setting that's quite familiar to viewers of Downton Abbey. Mr. Edwards admits to wishing that he had a staff the size of that of his fictional counterpart, Mr. Carson. In the home's heyday, the house staff might have numbered as many as 150. Today's staff of 70 includes many who help cater to the needs of those who have rented the home for special occasions, visitors during tourist season and, now, Downton Abbey's film crew.
Gardens, Monuments and Artifacts
This distant view of Highclere is through one of the more spectacular grounds features known as Heaven's Gate. Structures like this are known by the term "folly," which refers to architectural features constructed essentially for decorative purposes only. English gardens from this era often incorporated faux ruins of ancient temples, abbeys, stone cottages and the like. The park and gardens surrounding Highclere Castle were fashioned in the late 1700s from a design by the famed English landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown. Visitors to the house today enter by means of a mile-long driveway lined by massive 250-year-old Lebanon Cedars.
Royalty From an Earlier Era
This famous likeness of the boy king, Tutankhamun, is part of the Egyptian exhibition at Highclere Castle. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was not only an English nobleman but was also a renowned explorer who, in 1922, discovered the 3200-year-old tomb of the Egyptian king along with fellow explorer Howard Carter. Prior to being featured in Downton Abbey, most of Highclere's fame was derived from its association with the 5th Earl and his archaeological discoveries.