Earl and Countess of Carnarvon

A Sojourn into the Real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle

Every Downton Abbey fan has fantasized about exploring Highclere Castle, and its multi-faceted heritage. I had the chance to visit the estate and delve into its true history as it intertwined with the fictional Yorkshire country home of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants in the post-Edwardian era 

The first written records of the estate date back to 749 when an Anglo-Saxon King granted the estate to the Bishops of Winchester. An Iron Age Hill Fort dominates the southern landscape at Highclere, and later records reveal a medieval palace built during the 12th and 13th century which was later succeeded by a much admired red brick Tudor house.

The palace was rebuilt as Highclere Place House in 1679 when it was purchased by Sir Robert Sawyer, Attorney General to Charles II and James II and direct grandfather of the current Earl. Major rebuilding works were carried out in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by the Carnarvon family and the old red brick and freestone house was converted to a classical Georgian mansion within a pastoral setting. It was during the Victorian Times that the major transformation occurred: in 1838, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon brought in Sir Charles Barry to transform his home into a grand mansion which would impress the world. The new “Highclere Castle” dominated its surroundings in a most dramatic way and became a centre of political life during the late Victorian era.

In the 20th Century Highclere Castle epitomized the confidence and glamour of the Edwardian period. The history of planes begins at Highclere Castle in 1910, with Sir Geoffrey De Havilland making his first flight on the estate at Seven Barrows.  Highclere Castle, also became an important stage for the Two World Wars. During the First World War, Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, transformed the Castle into a hospital, and patients began to arrive from Flanders in September 1914. She became an adept nurse and a skilled healer and hundreds of letters from patients and their families bear testament to her untiring work and spirit of generosity. 

The Castle returned to a private home in 1922. That same year the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, marking the first global world media event. Today, the 8th Earl and Countess opened a new Egyptian Exhibition throughout the cellars of the Castle to celebrate the 5th Earl’s achievements.

Throughout the Second World War, Highclere Castle was home to evacuees, whose names can be seen etched into the roof lead. During the conflict, military planes from four nations crashed on the Highclere Estate whilst on active service. The current Earl’s father was the Queen’s racing manager from 1969 until his death in 2001. The past century at Highclere Castle has a bountiful record of all the house parties full of politicians, technological innovators, Egyptologists, aviators and soldiers. 

The 21st century, with the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon at the helm of Highclere Castle, has seen the Palace make its debut on screen. Downton Abbey, the British historical period drama television series set in the early 20th century, created and co-written by Julian Fellowes, has unveiled to the world the rooms and gardens of this blue-blooded residence.

Highclere Castle is set in 1,000 acres of sweeping parkland, distinguished by enthralling follies and countryside walks. The park was designed for the 1st Earl of Carnarvon by the famous 18th century landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. There are various itineraries one can wander upon within the estate, such as the Beacon Hill Public Walk, the Old Burghclere Public Footpath, the Milford Lake Summer Walk, the Temple Summer Walk, the Grotto Lodge Summer Walk, the Heaven’s Gate Summer Walk and the Cemetery Chapel Summer Walk. Nearer to Highclere Castle on the East Lawns is a pillared Temple called Jackdaw’s Castle, a folly built by Robert Herbert in 1743 to provide a charming view from the Castle and back to it. The cedar trees provide splendor and stature throughout the year. A second folly, an Etruscan temple, stands to the southwest of Highclere Castle at the edge of some woodland walks. The Temple of Diana and Heaven’s Gate can be viewed from the summer walks off the Wayfarers’s walk and from London Lodge. Recent archaeological and landscape investigations have shown that there are two hill forts and various tumuli, ancient trackways, lynchets, as well as field systems, that date from the Iron Age and Bronze Age.

When entering the house you will explore the State Rooms, distinguished by the gothic style Saloon, the grandiose Dining Room, Double Library, Music Room, Drawing Room, and Smoking Room. You will notice on the walls paintings by Van Dyck, 16th century Italian embroideries, Egyptian antiquities, Dutch paintings from the 17th Century, together with some of the family portraits.

On the upper floor, visitors to the Castle are able to look at some of the twelve bedrooms off the first floor gallery of the Castle. Other bedrooms are now offices, with a further 40 to 50 rooms on the second and third floors, some of which are used by the family today. Many of these have been or are in the process of being refurbished by Lady Carnarvon, using prints and drawings from the archives. She is also working to recreate the children’s nursery rooms.

A stone staircase behind the green baize door leading from the Saloon, leads downstairs, to what were the old staff dining rooms, the cellars, sitting rooms, utility areas and kitchens. One hundred years ago there may have been as many as 60 members of staff living in and around the Castle, with a House Steward, butlers, footmen, housekeepers, maids, kitchen staff and hall and steward room boys. 

The Downton Abbey set team have partly recreated the lower flight of these stairs at Ealing Studios, so through the magic of motion pictures it seems like we’ve never left Highclere Castle when going to the area of the staff, captained by Mr Carson, the butler, and Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper. 

The actual stairs at Highclere lead down to the woodshed, a back door and originally, as in Downton, into the staff dining room and scullery, but the latter rooms have been converted into the entrance to the  Egyptian Exhibition. We’ll see what other parts of Highclere Castle will be revealed to the public, when the film version of Downton Abbey will be released in the fall of 2019.