Visiting Film Locations - Highclere Castle

Sunday, April 12, 2015 3:34:00 PM

My coach group were all avid fans of the television series Downton Abbey and had admitted to being glued to their television sets on Sunday evenings to watch the popular period drama, and discover the latest developments in the lives of the aristocratic family and their staff that lived there.  There was no doubt they were really looking forward to visiting the stately home used as the set of the fictional Yorkshire pile of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their family. 

The photos of Downton Abbey, sorry - the photos are really of Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the present 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, which has been seen in every episode of the five series of Downton Abbey. 

First question was where is it?  Highclere Castle is not in Yorkshire as one would imagine but in Hampshire on the Berkshire -Hampshire border, just off the A34 south of Newbury.
We arrived at our destination early and caught a glimpse of the now very familiar tower as we drove up the mile long driveway.  We had timed tickets for entry into the house so, with an hour and a half to spare, we had the opportunity to either wander around the park designed by Capability Brown, or admire the gardens and / or visit the Egyptian Exhibition.  An earlier Earl of Carnarvon had been a very keen amateur archaeologist and along with his archaeological expert Howard Carter had spent many years exploring the ancient Valley of the Kings, where Egyptian pharaohs were buried.  They had famously discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun (1336BC - 1327BC) and the story is recounted in the cellars of the Castle, so I headed for the exhibition and found it very interesting.

Front door of Highclere Castle

The front door of Highclere Castle

At 12.30pm we queued at the front door to show our tickets to see the house and to look at the rooms, many of which had become very familiar through our Sunday evenings in front of the television. 

Unfortunately photography wasn't permitted inside Highclere Castle, otherwise I would have been snapping away nineteen to the dozen.  The first room that we saw was instantly recognisable as Lord Grantham's study.  It was the library which was a very large room separated by tall gilded ionic columns, surrounded by mahogany and gold bookcases with over 5,600 leather bound books.  A lot of the Castle furniture was used in the film, but a desk that had been put by the window for Lord Grantham during the series, was no longer in place - had it been antique furniture belonging to the Castle or was it a film prop?

Date & family motto over the door

The soaring Neo Gothic Great Hall, around which flow the state rooms was magnificent.   It had a feature stone fireplace and arched stone walls with a decorated frieze all the way around featuring carved and painted heraldic shields of the generations of the Carnarvon family. The beautiful 17th century painted and hand tooled leather panels on the lower walls was very unusual and very rare but it softened the appearance of the room and made it look more cosy.  The whole image is even more impressive than how it appears on the television because on the screen you don't see its full height, that it has a glass roof and is surrounded by a stone carved gallery at first floor level.   The state dining room was again very familiar with the large central dining table as well as paintings, including the equestrian painting of King Charles I by Van Dyke, on the walls.  All it needed was the Crawley family to be seated around the table and you'd be back in the period drama.  We saw more state rooms and some bedrooms but not the servants quarters. 
The 'below stairs' area was created at the Ealing studios and many of the actors and actresses playing the servants hardly ever visited the castle.

After our self-guided tour we all agreed that it had been a lovely day, and to finish we would enjoy a cream tea in the converted stables at the back of the house, part of the original Elizabethan Manor that hadn't had the Sir Charles Barry make-over. 

We found some tables and cast our eyes round for Mr Carson, Thomas or Alfred. There wasn't a Butler or a Footman to be seen.   I reminded everyone of the lovely lines of the Dowager Countess of Grantham "It's our job to create employment.  An aristocrat with no servants is as much use to the country as a glass hammer."   We all had to pitch in and do our own fetching and carrying, which brought us quickly back into the modern world to sitting around sipping tea and discussing which way of life we would prefer.


Note:  For guided coach tours to Highclere Castle and other places, see the section on Guided Coach Tours and Places to Visit.
If you would like a particular itinerary arranged for you, see the section on Your Tour and Explore Package. We can tailor an itinerary to suit your group.

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