For fans of the Masterpiece Theatre television series Downton Abbey,nothing is more thrilling than a visit to Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, to see the house where much of the series was filmed. As we pulled up the graveled drive, the distinctive opening notes of the Downton theme song played in my head.
The Herbert family has owned the house and its 1,000 acres of parkland since 1679. The Earldom of Carnarvon was created by King George III in 1793. The 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon now occupy the house, filled with pictures of the current family. Lady Carnarvon maintains a blog and has written several books about the Carnarvon family. I met her several years ago when she spoke at The Woman’s Club in downtown Richmond.
The house is even more magnificent than it appears on television. We entered through the front portal into a gothic entrance hall with soaring columns and pointed arches. The library, with its coffered ceiling and mahogany bookcases containing over 5,000 volumes, was used as the fictional Grantham family’s meeting place. We recognized the red sofas surrounding the fireplace, the side table where Carson served tea, and the writing table where Robert, Earl of Grantham, often worked. Pictures from the television series were displayed in various rooms throughout the house.
The dining room is dominated by a mahogany table with twelve leaves. It was easy to envision the staff here with their rulers, measuring to make sure the silverware was appropriately placed at each serving place. An enormous Van Dyck painting of Charles I hangs at one end of the room, with the remaining walls adorned by oil paintings of family ancestors. I could imagine Isabel Crawley and Lady Violet exchanging barbs at dinner, while Cora and Robert tried to keep the peace and Mary, Edith, and Sybil hid their amusement.
We walked up the unforgettable carved oak staircase to the second floor, where several bedrooms were open. One of the most memorable is Lady Mary’s room, decorated in red for the 1895 visit by the Prince of Wales. This is the room where the fictional Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk died of a heart attack and had to be surreptitiously carried out of her bedroom by the staff. The bedrooms have elaborate window treatments, and most have canopied beds.
We were very fortunate to be able to tour the Egyptian exhibit, which just opened this summer. Located in the cellar of the house, it contains replicas of treasures discovered in 1922 by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, when he excavated the tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamun. Many of the original pieces were purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of New York.
No pictures were allowed in the house, but we could photograph the beautifully landscaped grounds, including the greenhouse, the Monks’ Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Secret Garden.
There are several follies on the grounds, including Jackdaws Castle built in 1743.
Maintaining an estate is expensive, so no castle would be complete without a gift shop and tea room. We had lunch on the grounds, enjoying Victorian sponge cake and cappuccino served in a commemorative mug. I contributed to the upkeep of Highclere by purchasing numerous mementos of my trip.
This trip was such fun that I think I will re-watch all six seasons of Downton Abbey, while sipping English rose tea from my Highclere castle mug. Put Highclere on your must-see list, but be aware that the castle is only open from July until early September each year.
What are some of your favorite travel spots? I look forward to hearing about them on Facebook.