Friday, September 21, 2012

The Real "Downton Abbey"

"You'll find there's never a dull moment in this house," said Lady Grantham, the Dowager Countess (played by the fabulous Maggie Smith).  As fans of Downton Abbey, we know that to be true, but after watching the premiere of the third season (which started Sept 17 here in the UK -- I promise not to reveal any spoilers!), my fellow AWC members and I were very excited to see for ourselves.

Early Wednesday morning, 30 of us piled into a bus and headed west to visit Highclere Castle, made famous by the hugely popular TV series Downton Abbey.  However, if you were a fan of the series Jeeves and Wooster in the early 90's, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, you might also recognize this grand house as Totleigh Towers.

As our bus pulled into the grounds, past fields of sheep, stately trees, and manicured lawns, the house came into view and we all let out a collective "Oooooh!"
Our first glimpse of Highclere Castle.  Ooooh!
We eagerly piled out of the bus, pulled out our cameras, and handed them to one another to get the obligatory shot in front of the 'castle.'  Unfortunately, my hair appeared to be even more excited than I was and refused to sit still for a photo.
It was a windy day, OK?
I knew that we were getting a private group tour, but what I didn't realize until we arrived was that we were the ONLY PEOPLE THERE.  There were no other cars or buses in the parking lot.  Oh, and it was a gorgeous, sunny day (albeit a bit cool and breezy).  It could not have been more perfect, and we hadn't even gone inside yet!
The AWC storms the castle
There has been a house on this site for hundreds of years, built on the foundations of an even older medieval palace belonging to the Bishops of Winchester. The estate has been in the Herbert family since 1692, and Henry Herbert was given the title Earl of Carnarvon in 1793 by King George III.  The current house was built by the 3rd Earl and designed by architect Sir Charles Barry, who is probably best known for his previous project, the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.  The house is faced with golden-hued Bath stone and has the date 1842 and the Herbert family motto Ung Je Serviray (One I will serve, in Norman French), carved over the door.  The 3rd Earl also renamed his home "Highclere Castle" -- although it's not actually a castle...

Today the house belongs to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his second wife, the Countess of Carnarvon -- or George and Fiona Herbert.  Their neighbor (who lives a few miles away), Andrew Lloyd Weber, provoked some controversy a couple years ago when he offered an unsolicited bid to buy Highclere Castle to house his art collection.
The front entrance
A recurring motif in the house is a two-legged dragon called a wyvern.  You can see it in the carvings on the exterior of the house, as well as the boot-scrapers on either side of the front door.  Inside, a pair of 3-foot-high terracotta wyverns guard the end of the entrance hall and a smaller carved pair flank the fireplace in the dining room.
Wyvern boot scraper
As we entered the house, we were greeted in the Saloon by our tour guides and some of the staff, and treated to tea, coffee, and biscuits.  Sadly, we were not allowed to take photos inside the house, but you can see some interior shots on the Highclere Castle website.  After giving us time to visit the restrooms (the one I used had carpeting, lime green fixtures, and a huge floor-to-ceiling window looking right onto the front of the house) and finish our refreshments, we were divided into two groups and given a fabulous guided tour of the first and second floors of the house.

In addition to the Saloon, which is the central core of the house, we visited the dining room, library, music room, morning room, and smoking room on the main level of the house.  Several of these rooms are used in the filming of Downton Abbey, and look remarkably similar to what you see on TV.  Most of the furnishings are used in filming just as they are used by the owners -- only family photos and knickknacks are removed and replaced.  Our guide told us that an entire day of filming may result in only 5 minutes of TV footage, so the cast and crew are there for about 3 months when filming interior and exterior shots for the series.  Since it may take several weeks to film one scene, they use artificial flowers and take meticulous photographs of each actor's costume, hair, and makeup to make sure they are consistently replicated within each scene.

From the dining room, we had a nice view of Jackdaw's Castle, one of several follies on the grounds. It looks more like a Greek temple than a castle and dates back to 1743.
Jackdaw's Castle
Upstairs, we saw the bedrooms used by Lady Cora and her three daughters in the TV series, as well as the infamous red silk bedroom that the Turkish diplomat's son Kemal Pamuk was carried back to after his unfortunate demise in the first season.  As we were looking at Cora's room, an attractive but very casually dressed woman appeared and started chatting with us about her plans for redecorating the room.  In case we hadn't recognized her from the multitude of family photographs around the house, our guide introduced her to us as "Lady Carnarvon."  Wow!  My first encounter with the British nobility was not at all what I expected, but delightful nonetheless.  She told us that the production company built a replica of the bedroom in Ealing Studios so her interior decorating project wouldn't affect the filming.

After expressing some exasperation about the film crew removing everything that she hangs on the walls, she flitted off and we continued with our tour downstairs.  Did we get to see the massive kitchen that Mrs. Patmore presides over?  Nope.  Highclere Castle was a full-time residence until the late 80's, so the kitchen and servants quarters have been modernized.  Most of the downstairs scenes are filmed on a set at Ealing Studios in London.

As we waited for the other half of our group to catch up with us at the bottom of the stairs, Lord Carnarvon and several staff members strode into the hallway and then headed outside in the opposite direction, setting us all atwitter all over again.

So what did we see downstairs?  Would you believe King Tut?  Yes, the 5th Earl was that same Lord Carnarvon who, along with Howard Carter, discovered King Tut's tomb in Egypt in 1922.  Much of the lower level of the castle has been converted into an exhibit hall showcasing some original artifacts as well as a replica of the tomb and sarcophagus.  The majority of the collection was sold to the Met in New York by his widow, but several smaller items were discovered tucked away in hidden cupboards in 1987.

While no one on Downton Abbey has embarked on an archaeological expedition (yet), many of the other story lines mirror actual events that have occurred at Highclere.  For example, it was used as a  hospital during WWI, and the 6th and 7th Earls both married American women.  And just like with Downtown Abbey's cook, Mrs. Patmore, when Highclere's chef started having vision problems, Lady Carnarvon paid for him to see a specialist.  Coincidence?  Not at all.  Julian Fellowes, the writer for Downton Abbey, is a friend of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, and created the show with Highclere in mind.
The west side of the house
By the time we made it through the Egypt exhibit, we had less than half an hour to visit the gift shop and explore the gardens before our bus was scheduled to depart.  Of course, we all made a beeline for the gift shop, which was stocked with a tasteful array of Highclere Castle souvenirs and books.  Unfortunately, we ended up spending most of our remaining time standing in line at the one register, so I only had time for a quick stroll around the perimeter of the house.
The rear of the house
One of many beautiful trees on the grounds
Another attempt at a photo...
On our way back to London, we stopped for lunch at the Carpenter's Arms, a nearby pub overlooking Watership Down (yes, really!), where we feasted on a generous two-course lunch and reflected on our exciting morning.
Time for lunch!
As I was doing some research on the Highclere website, I discovered that the private group tours are sold out through the end of 2013!  I feel incredibly lucky to have had this experience, and I can't wait to watch the next episode of Downton Abbey, season 3, on Sunday night so I can pay closer attention to the scenery.

1 comment:

  1. Wish I could have been right alongside all of you. Sounds like an amazing time!


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