My Visit to Highclere Castle

For those of you who’ve spent the last several years under a rock, Downton Abbey was a blockbuster British telly series that took the U.S. by storm. This drama series follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants, and was set mostly in the family’s classic Georgian country house. The series begins with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and runs through 1925. The show had a six-year run that ended in early 2016 (though a movie is now being rumored). It was funny and smart, beautifully written, and covered an era that saw huge social changes. The show did a lot for the Full Employment for Costumers campaign – the evolution of clothing and hairstyles during the course of the show was amazing – and reintroduced us to the Edwardian and Art Deco eras.

The show was filmed at Highclere Castle, shown above, about 90 miles west of London. This “country house” that became so familiar to all Downton fans was built more than 300 years ago and is the Carnarvon family home. The 8th Earl and his wife live there now and generously open the house to the public on limited dates.

If the name “Lord Carnarvon” sounds familiar, it was he who bankrolled and joined with Howard Carter in 1922 to discover the Tomb of Tutankhamun. There’s an interesing Egyptian exhibit in the castle basement.

I took the train to Newbury and a taxi to the castle, arriving at 9:00 am just as the ticket office opened. A limited number of “open days” means a limited number of tickets and I got the idea to visit too late in my trip planning months ago to get a ticket online. So it was a gamble but, luckily, there were some tickets set aside for walk-ups and I got one.

The estate covers 5,000 acres and has beautiful grounds and gardens. The Georgian-style house includes 250 rooms, 70 bedrooms, a library with 5,650 books, and is chock full of priceless paintings, tapestries, and furnishings. We were allowed to stroll through most of the first two floors at our own pace and I was amazed at how pleasant and un-museum-like the experience was. Most of the treasures are not behind glass or out of reach (but no touching, of course). The Earl and his wife do live there and their family pictures are everywhere – not the big ones over the fireplace, I mean small 8×10 photos of them and their kids doing normal stuff, in frames on the side tables. Remarkable.

There is a staff of about 80 now but none of them work downstairs or serve dinner. They’re the guides, docents, gardeners, cooks, electricians, etc. who keep the place going as a tourist attraction – a source of the income needed to keep the place up and pay the enormous taxes. There are three tea rooms and a gift shop in the newer (relatively) stables annex out back, but it’s all very tastefully done. The views from around the house are fantastic and I was lucky to be there on a great weather day.

No indoor photography is allowed, so I can only share a few stock photos here. For the tour, in several rooms they had a poster-sized photo of a scene from Downtown Abbey on an easel, so you could immediately compare it with the real room – a nice touch.

After touring the house I spent 30 minutes enjoying the great weather and strolling the gardens and grounds. From what I observed, locals are allowed onto the property to picnic for free. No sightings of Carson, Lord Grantham, or Lady Mary but they were definitely there in spirit. It was an absolutely marvelous way to spend the morning and well worth the trip.

At 1:00, I retraced my steps to Newbury by taxi and had lunch at a local pub before catching the train back to Reading. My drama school classmates from UVA in the era of Minor Hall will take some amusement from the name of the pub:

The Catherine Wheel was an ambitious stage production that nearly broke us.

After returning to Reading and taking a short nap, I headed off to meet colleagues from my company’s local office for pints and dinner. We started off with some excellent Black Lager at the Zero Degrees brewery, then went to The Horn pub, and wound up with dinner at Las Iguanas, a Brazilian restaurant. Very tasty all ’round, and I haven’t laughed so hard in some time – it’s always great to see the lads.

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