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Discover Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle

Tourists outside the castle  

On November 26, two ardent fans of Downton Abbey will spend the night at Highclere Castle as guests of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

Chosen through Airbnb bookings that opened on October 1 (since closed), the couple will be selected based on a message describing how passionate they are about the British historical period drama television series that first aired in 2010, ending with season 6 in 2015. A film with the original cast released this September.

A scene from the film Downton Abbey

A scene from the film Downton Abbey  


The storyline follows the lives of the Crawleys, an aristocratic family that lives in Downton Abbey, a fictional country estate in Yorkshire, between 1912 and 1927. Besides drawing tremendous interest to the post-Edwardian era and the Roaring 20s, the Emmy award-winning series also created a demand for professional butlers, especially British, even leading to a school for butlers opening in China, according to a report in the Daily Mail.

A charmed life

For £150, guests can stay at one of the stately bedrooms that opens to sweeping views of a thousand acres of parkland, join the present owners (George Herbert and Fiona Aitken, popularly known as Lady C) for cocktails and dinner, where they will be waited upon by a butler, drink coffee before retiring to bed and follow it up with breakfast and a private tour of the estate the following morning.

Drawing room at Highclere Castle

Drawing room at Highclere Castle  


Although built for the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon by Charles Barry (who also constructed the British Houses of Parliament) in Jacobethan style in the 1840s faced with Bath stone, Highclere stands on a site that finds mention in the Domesday Book written during the time of William the Conqueror in the 11th Century.

The parkland, dotted with follies, surrounding the castle is under the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, dating back to 749 AD, with the landscape done by ‘England’s greatest gardener’, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

While the scenes involving the family — polite dinner conversations under glittering chandeliers, burnished silver tea services and joyous concerts for the war effort — were filmed at Highclere, the ones downstairs involving the ‘servants’ — stern butler, no-nonsense housekeeper, liveried footmen, affectionate cook and scurrying maids — was filmed on a set at Ealing Studios, London.

Like in the series where the future of Downton Abbey is in question, Highclere too was in need of urgent repairs, costing millions of pounds. But that was before the popular story, penned by Julian Fellowes, drew crowds to the place where it was filmed.

  • Highclere Castle is about 66 miles southwest of London.
  • It housed evacuee children during the Second World War. Many Allied aircraft crashed on the premises.
  • The salon was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Jeeves and Wooster was also filmed here.
  • Special events will mark the centenary of the Tutankhamun discovery in 2022.
  • The Carnarvons launched Highclere Gin, made from the estate’s vast array of botanicals. There is also Highclere Castle Superior Oats that has powered the winners of nearly 560 horse races (the 7th Earl was racing manager to Queen Elizabeth II).
  • A succession of Labradors and cocker spaniels, and the pigs — Thelma and Louise — are the other stars.

According to Hannah Gutteridge, PR and Press for the Office of the Countess of Carnarvon, “The castle is open to visitors 60 days of the year, from Easter until early September. There are other days it is open for events and special guided tours. We have a maximum capacity of 1,400 visitors and we usually see that many.”

“The average cost of a ticket is £19 for house tour and gardens,” says Gutteridge, adding, “Visitors are from all over the world.” Since the series was broadcast across the globe, VisitBritain estimates that half of potential tourists to the UK are now keen on ‘set jetting’ — ticking off places featured in films or TV. This includes 35% of Indian tourists.

Highclere Castle has managed to stay in the spotlight with a host of unusual tours that goes beyond merely showcasing family heirlooms and a nearly-extinct way of life. “The family lived in the castle during filming,” says Gutteridge, and apart from the usual tropes of vintage cars and period costumes unearthed from forgotten wardrobes, the Carnarvons have kept interest alive by hosting an astounding variety of tours.

Making history

Real Live and Film Sets, Behind the Scenes and Afternoon Tea (November), and the Christmas Gala, Reception, Carols and the book reading by Charles Dickens’ descendant of the well-loved A Christmas Carol (December), priced approximately £100, are all sold out.

Lady C with her dogs

Lady C with her dogs  


Some tours include buffet lunches and talks by Lady C on her book Christmas at Highclere. Almost all include a viewing of the Egyptian Exhibitions — artefacts and replicas — housed in the Antiquities Room from the time of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, an avid Egyptologist. The Discoveries Gallery in Highclere’s cellars explores his passion for photography and cars. It is the last gallery that seals his place in history — it tells the story of how he discovered the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun along with famed archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

If the UK is on your travel list next year, there is still time to book for the Special Winter Tours that run up to February, the Valentine’s Champagne and Canapes reception and the Spring and Summer tours.

Bampton in Oxfordshire (Downton village), where the series was also filmed, has its share of fame with specific walks that take you past the church, post-office and ‘Grantham Inn’. Should you miss your chance to walk down the pathway with Lebanese-cedar trees framing Highclere Castle humming John Lunn’s ‘Did I make the most of loving you’, the title music of Downton Abbey, do not fret. There are public walks that skirt the estate, but still offer a glimpse as you first see it when the credits roll.

Life at Downton Abbey may have well passed into the sepia-tinted pages of a history book, but Highclere Castle is still alive in technicolor.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 7:02:13 AM |

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