As the iconic series Downton Abbey comes to an end Charlotte Pearson visits where it is filmed.
Christmas and television go hand in hand for many families. Watching the soaps as they unravel or all sitting down to travel with Doctor Who.
For many, Downton Abbey forms the cornerstone for feel-good festive television and with the last series aired this winter and a Christmas special pencilled in for the day itself, the biggest character is by far the house.
Highclere Castle on the Hampshire, Berkshire border has played host to the fictional Crawley family since the beginning, and is home to another prestigious family when the cameras stop rolling.
The Carnarvons have lived at Highclere 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.
Each year the current Earl and Countess, who live there with their son, open the doors to their home at different points of the year for people to learn a bit more about the real family that have called the castle home.
It is always best to book as early as you can as it tends to sell out pretty quickly so when I got the opportunity to visit I jumped at the chance.
Set within a 5,000 acre estate, walking up to the front of the home it truly is a wonder to behold, and many people can’t resist having their picture taken outside at the same point the cast photos are done each year.
The present day castle was designed in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, the architect also responsible for building the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
Stepping through the door and walking from room to room you can picture scenes filmed here, imagining the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) sat at the desk in the library or Lady Mary descending the grand oak staircase on her wedding day.
But what is most fascinating about the building is the stories of the art imitating life.
As in the second series, when Downton is transformed into an officers’ hospital during the First World War, Almina, the fifth Countess of Carnarvon, turned the castle into a hospital and patients began to arrive from Flanders in September 1914.
Almina became an adept nurse and hundreds of letters were sent from patients and their families who commended her untiring work and spirit of generosity.
At the end of the war she returned to Egypt to see her husband, the fifth Earl, who went on to discover the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 alongside Howard Carter.
Today, the eighth Earl and Countess have opened an Egyptian exhibition, which includes some rare antiquities from the fifth Earl’s earlier excavations.
The exhibition runs throughout the cellars of the castle.
And it seems that Downton’s Cora is not the only American to grace the rooms of Highclere.
Lady Catherine was a glamorous and wealthy American who married Lord Porchester, the son of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon.
She was the toast of London society and marrying into the family at 19 had to learn how to organise the banquets and house parties her husband loved so much.
This also meant being in charge of more than 80 staff at the castle.
One of the first challenges they both had to face was to save Highclere Castle from being sold to pay enormous death duties for which they were liable after the death of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon.
However, sadly by the 1930s the pair broke up and Catherine moved to London.
It sounds like a storyline right out of the popular ITV drama.
Highclere Castle is just beautiful and takes your breath away, and watching the show at Christmas with my family I don’t think I will be able to contain my smug ‘I’ve been there’.
– There are 11 bedrooms on the first floor and 40-50 bedrooms on the next floors which are no longer used.
– 100 years ago staff living in and around the castle included a house steward, butlers, footmen, housekeepers, maids, kitchen staff and steward room boys.
– There are more than 5,650 books, the earliest from the 16th century.
– Downton Abbey has more than ten million viewers in the UK.
– The castle is open between 60 to 70 days a year to public visitors, but it also hosts many special tours, charity events as well as holding events such as concerts and country fairs.
– The downstairs of Downton is actually filmed in Ealing Studios not at Highclere.
Books ‘Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey’ and ‘Lady Catherine and The Real Downton Abbey’ can be bought from www.highclerecastle.co.uk
You can also find out more about the opening times and the history ofthe castle.
Pictures: © Highclere Castle
November 25, 2015 Culture and Events