Highclere castle is most famous as the proud and stately home of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey. However, the castle holds its own unique history and this fine example of Victorian grandeur is a true paragon of British heritage. It is a majestic structure, built on the footprint of an ancient medieval palace, that is not only full of Downton tales but also enchanting artefacts and stories from its fascinating family.
The castle we see today was built at the end of the 18th century. However, its history goes back far further than that. The original site, mentioned in the Doomsday book, was the palace of the bishop of Winchester. There is even an Iron Age fort which suggests there have been inhabitants at Highclere for over 1300 years.
The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere since 1679, but they weren’t known by that name until the end of the 18th century when Henry Herbert was appointed as the first Earl of Carnarvon. The eighth Earl, Lord Carnarvon, who is now over 80, still lives in his childhood and ancestral home. There is also a staff of seven, including the obligatory butler!
Around 100 years ago the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, an enthusiastic Egyptologist, and his good friend Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Today, the cellars at Highclere pay tribute to his achievements with an interesting Egyptian exhibition.
In 2012 the castle was falling into disrepair and the family needed to raise funds to restore it. Thankfully the success of Downton Abbey has dramatically increased the number of paying guests at Highclere and transformed its fortunes.
The series depicts the life and social hierarchy within Downton Abbey, a stately home in Edwardian England. It tells of the emotive, complex and revealing relationships between the downstairs staff and the aristocratic Crawley family. It is also filmed in the village of Bampton in the Cotswolds, another stop on our Active England tours.
The show’s writer Julian Fellowes had Highclere in mind when he first created the story that would become this worldwide success. In fact, he is great friends of the 8th Earl and Countess and has dined with them at the castle.
Downton Abbey reportedly costs over £1 million per episode to make and is this country’s most successful period drama. It has over 11 million viewers in the UK alone and is shown in over 100 countries around the world.
Highclere castle was the project of the first Earl of Caernarvon and the architect Sir Charles Barry and took over three years to complete. It is in the Jacobean style, a type of architecture akin to the Gothic lines of the Houses of Parliament. Inside, the castle houses over 50 bedrooms plus numerous ornate living rooms.
Highlights of Highclere include the opulent state rooms, with their amazing leather wall coverings, and its portrait-lined Dining Room. The extensive library contains nearly 6000 books, the oldest dating back to the 16th century. There is also the Music Room with a stunning baroque ceiling and embroideries, as well as Smoking and Drawing Rooms.
Of course, there is also the downstairs area – which isn’t quite so grand. Years ago Highclere was home to up to 60 staff and the plainly decorated staff dining room, kitchen and living areas depict their contrasting lifestyles.
In the cellars of Highclere, you’ll find an Exhibit of Egyptian artefacts. The exhibition recreates the journey of discovery taken by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter through the tombs of Egypt. It includes a fascinating collection of Egyptian antiquities dating back over 400 years, many of which the Egyptian Government claim were illegally plundered from their land!
The grounds, like the splendid garden at Blenheim, were created by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. There are over 1000 acres of parkland with lakes, meadows and fanciful follies. There are also more decorative formal gardens planted with roses, lavender and rhododendrons creating a colourful and fragrant ambience. Follow towering topiary to the captivating secret garden, with its glorious flowering borders, and beyond that, you’ll find the Wood of Goodwill.
A visit to Highclere is an unforgettable experience. And when you watch Downton Abbey in the future and see the Crawleys descend the grand staircase to dinner in all their finery, you can remember how those bannisters actually felt as you relive your day at this internationally famous landmark!