NEWBURY, ENGLAD - For fans of the hit TV mini-series Downton Abbey, a visit to Highclere Castle is essential. The shiow is filmed at the castle, and stepping into its elegant rooms is like entering the world of the beloved Crawley family.
The award-winning period drama will be heading into its fourth season soon, and is shown in more than 100 countries including Canada (on Vision TV and PBS Buffalo). Created by Lord Julian Fellowes, it stars Dame Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville.
Located about 100 kilometres west of London, Highclere Castle is one of England’s most beautiful Victorian homes set amidst 1,000 acres of parkland. It has been home to the Carnarvon family since 1679, and the current castle stands on the site of an earlier house, which in turn was built on the foundations of the medieval palace owned by the Bishops of Winchester for some 800 years.
Above: The lavish living quarters and staircase portrayed in the hit TV series is even more impressive in real life.
Along with its lovely and extensive gardens, Highclere’s State Rooms are featured in Downton Abbey, particularly the exceptionally beautiful Saloon, which is the social heart of the house. Designed in a Gothic style by Thomas Allom for the 4th Earl of Carnarvon and completed in the 1860s, the leather wall coverings (dating from 1631) were brought back from Cordoba, Spain by the 3rd Earl.
Fans entering the Library will no doubt picture the benevolent head of the family Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville), working at his desk. The double library was in its heyday during the late Victorian period, used by the 4th Earl of Carnarvon as a “withdrawing” room. The Earl was an active Tory in Parliament, and in here he could discuss politics with friends. There are over 5,650 books — the earliest dating from the 16th century.
The State Dining Room, site of many Crawley family meals, is dominated by Van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I. On either side are portraits of Carnarvon ancestors who took part in the England’s civil war in the 1640’s.
In 1895, Alfred de Rothschild gave his daughter Almina, the 5th Countess, bolts of green French silk to decorate the beautiful Drawing Room. Narrow cupboards between the double doors from the Drawing Room to the Smoking Room hid the 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s collection of Egyptian antiquities.
One of the most famous members of the Carnarvon family, the 5th Earl in 1922, along with archeologist Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, the Egyptian boy pharaoh.
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon travelled to Egypt over many years, excavating near Luxor in the Valley of the Queen’s, the Valley of the Nobles, the Valley of the Kings, and in the Nile Delta near Alexandria. He discovered and purchased Egyptian artifacts, creating one of the most extraordinary Egyptian collections in the world. Following his death in 1923, the collection was sold by his widow to the Metropolitan Museum of New York in order to pay death duties. Carter had catalogued it and commented that he had left a few “unimportant items” at Highclere tucked away in the cupboards.
Left: The manicured lawns and gardens are simply awesome. Right: A new book looks at Lady Almina'd life.
The family rediscovered many of these items in 1987. Hardly insignificant, they are now on display in the castle’s permanent Egyptian Exhibition, along with statues and antiquities lent back to Highclere by the British Museum and Newbury Museum. In the Antiquities Room are jewelry, beautifully crafted jars and a coffin of a noble woman from 3,500 years ago.
Along with wonderful Egyptian treasures, the Exhibition follows the 5th Earl and Carter on their adventures as they discover the door that led to the antechamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb, where they saw a “glint of gold”. Replica objects from Tut’s tomb are also included in the castle cellar exhibition.
• Highclere Castle is open Sunday to Thursday each week from Sunday, July 14 to Thursday, Sept. 12 (closed Fridays and Saturdays).
• Although all the pre-bookable tickets for this year have been sold out, some walk-up tickets may be available each day subject to capacity in the castle. The best time to arrive for these tickets is from 2 p.m. onwards.
• Canadian visitors wanting to book advance tickets should know that season tickets are normally available six months in advance.
• Check Highclere’s website at www.highclerecastle.co.uk
• For more info on touring Great Britain, go to www.visitbritain.com