England’s Highclere Castle, the reallife Downton Abbey, has a past that’s every
bit as colorful and riveting as the hit Masterpiece series filmed within its
Besides serving as the main set for the hit PBS series that
recently premiered its third season, this imposing landmark and the land it
occupies has been home to generations of the Earls of Carnarvon since
“It’s an amazing place to wake up in. I’ve never lost my sense of
wonder for it,” says Lady Fiona, the current Countess of Carnarvon, who lives at
Highclere with her husband, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon.
She has written
a book about the castle, which occupies a lofty hilltop in southern England and
welcomes a limited number of visitors each year.
At the forefront of
British high society for much of its history, the castle has sheltered some of
Britain’s most privileged celebrities (including a future king) and has its own
hints of intrigue, a World War I period of public service, a stunning link with
ancient Egypt and the shadow of a pharaoh’s curse.
At times, threads of
it even have been woven into Downton Abbey.
Watching all three seasons of
Downton surely will stoke PBS fans’ desire to visit the castle. Happily, they
can tour the grounds where Robert, Lord Grantham, walks his Labrador retriever;
enjoy the gardens where Violet, the Dowager Countess, sometimes takes tea; and
see the castle’s main rooms where the lives of the Crawley family and their
But the castle opens only for 70 days a year, and its
tour tickets are as hot as the PBS Masterpiece series.
In case you can’t
visit, or to develop an appreciation for the castle’s own history before you go,
read Lady Fiona’s book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, The Lost Legacy
of Highclere Castle.
Lady Almina, wife of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, is
believed to have been the illegitimate daughter of wealthy banker Sir Alfred de
Rothschild and his French mistress.
Like Lord Grantham’s wife, Cora, her
fortune not only kept a roof over the family’s heads but also fueled a legendary
Her dowry paid off her future husband’s already-substantial
debts. It also included a guaranteed annual income for Lady Almina of more than
$10.5 million per year, in today’s dollars.
Lady Almina used her money to
update the castle (it was among the first to have extensive indoor plumbing and
electric lights) and to entertain guests, including the future King Edward VII.
For the royal weekend visit, she spent more than $500,000 for food, staffing and
Even the castle’s pool table was re-covered for his visit,
according to Lady Fiona’s research.
Lady Almina also used her money to
turn Highclere into a World War I hospital for returning soldiers. She
personally recruited the best nurses and doctors and paid for everything,
including the latest medical equipment and medicines. She treated wounded men as
guests and gave each a private bedroom in the castle (unlike the Downton Abbey
scenes where convalescing soldiers slept on military cots lining a large room).
When it outgrew Highclere, she paid to move it to a larger London
“I am amazed and humbled by the work Almina did,” Lady Fiona
“Although Highclere always has done its best to make people feel
welcome, Almina also made people feel better.”
Lady Almina’s money also
funded her husband’s many years of winter excavations for artifacts in Egypt and
earned the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon his place in history as co-discoverer of
Tutankhamen’s intact tomb in 1922.
Still considered Egypt’s most
important archaeological find, the discovery took its toll on the earl, who died
On the night he died in Egypt, the lights went out all
over Cairo. His beloved terrier, at Highclere, left out a single howl and also
died the same night. These events and other rumors fueled talk of the “Curse of
Today, three galleries in the castle’s cellars cover the
Fifth Earl’s interests (which also included “fast” cars of the day and
airplanes), his many years of excavations in Egypt and his amazing
Lady Fiona explains why threads of Highclere’s story can be found
in Downton Abbey.
“Julian Fellowes is a close friend of ours.
already knew the castle’s history when he began writing Downton,” she says. At
times, she notes, the answers she and her husband give to Fellowes’ casual
questions sometimes find their way into the episodes’ scripts.
originally wanted to use Highclere for (the film) Gosford Park, but it was just
a little too far out of London for that production’s demands,” she
If you’d like to visit the castle, know that it can’t be a
spur-of-the-moment side trip.
You’ve got to watch Highclere’s website
(www.highclerecastle.co.uk) and snap up the online tickets as soon as they
become available... even before making your plane reservations.
Highclere ticket gets you in the door to see many rooms used for Downton Abbey
scenes, including the salon, drawing room, music room, smoking room, dining
room, a few bedrooms and the library (Lady Fiona’s favorite place). Guests also
can pay a bit more to visit the castle’s cellars containing its Egyptian
Morning or afternoon ticket holders have 2 hours to tour the
castle’s interior and the cellar rooms of the Egyptian exhibition.
that, they still can walk the grounds and hiking trails, tour the gardens, shop
for gifts and have lunch in its tearoom.
“Thanks to Downton Abbey, our
home has an amazingly high profile and has become one of the best-known stately
homes in the world,” Lady Fiona says. According to Masterpiece figures, the
program garnered 17 million viewers for its second season.
bookings for large group tours already are filled for 2013. Individual tickets
sell out practically as quickly as they become available.
for the current earl and his wife is harnessing Downton’s popularity to support
the massive house, which was built by the same architect who constructed
Income from Lady Fiona’s book, a New York Times
best-seller for non-fiction, has helped. When Downton isn’t filming (about six
months a year), the castle staff also books weddings, corporate events and
private dinners. It also has a new online gift shop for fans who can’t visit
Just like the Downton segment where Lord Grantham tells
Matthew (the next Lord Grantham) about his responsibilities, including dozens of
toilets, the Eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his wife worry about maintaining miles
of pipes and acres of roof.
“Keeping Highclere up is a responsibility as
well as a privilege,” she says. “There’s always something going wrong. We divide
our tasks, with my husband taking responsibility for roof tiles, while I do the
pretty curtains. But I’ve also crawled out on the roof with him to see where our
money is going. It’s not that scary, if you’re wearing the right
Lady Fiona knew something about Almina and the Fifth Earl before
she became the current Countess of Carnarvon. But she really delved into the
couple when she injured her knee and spent hours on the library sofa.
asked the staff to bring me things to read from the castle’s archives. It was
just after ‘Downton’s’ first series had aired and its popularity gave me the
chance to get Lady Almina’s story published,” she says.
Now she’s writing
a second book about the castle’s history, from 1923-1945.
The author and
her husband live in Highclere during filming. But when summer crowds arrive,
they move to a smaller home “about 20 yards away. We don’t want to have to be up
and out by 8 a.m.
each morning,” she explains.
No matter where
they’re living, they watch every episode, so they can answer questions when “the
press rings up and wants to know our thoughts about a scene.” A dedicated dog
lover, she admits to wondering why one of her Labrador retrievers wasn’t tapped
to be Lord Grantham’s dog. (When the series began, she had two Labs and now has
four, in addition to three cocker spaniels).
She has never wanted a
Downton role for herself, however. “I see how hard the actors work and how long
their days are. Most of the women spend their time in hair rollers and the men
spend hours just waiting to go on. I have a very different view of what seems so
glamorous from the outside. I’d rather take my dogs for a walk.”
would be a different story, if Lady Almina still was running Highclere. “Almina
would have jumped at the chance for a part. She loved life and was so outgoing
that I’m sure she’d have expected a part on par with the role played by Dame
Maggie Smith,” she says.
– The Morning Call / MCT