Friday, 21 June 2013


Highclere Castle has become so inextricably linked to the ITV period drama series Downton Abbey that the area surrounding it has been christened "Downtonia".  The hugely successful series, the brainchild of Julian Fellowes, takes us through the emotional rollercoaster that makes up the family life of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants during the reign of King George V.  The latest series had a suitably dramatic ending as Dan Stevens (playing Matthew Crawley) ruined everyone's Christmas by fatally crashing his car in the show's Christmas special.  The setting of the drama is a fictional estate in Yorkshire which is the seat of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, but the exterior shots and most of the interior ones were filmed at Highclere Castle, apart from certain areas such as the servants' quarters, for which Ealing Studios was used.

The site occupied by Highclere Castle was in medieval times the location of the palace of the Bishops of Winchester.  A house was later built on its foundations, then later still Highclere Castle came into existence: it has been the seat of the Carnarvon family since 1679.  In 1692 Robert Sawyer, a former Speaker of the House of Commons and college friend of the 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, bequeathed a mansion at Highclere to his daughter Margaret, wife of the 8th Earl of Pembroke.  It was their son, Robert Saywer Herbert who began its picture collection and created the garden temples.  In the mid-19th century, the architect responsible for the present incarnation of the Houses of Parliament, carried out extensive rebuilding work on the house in an "Anglo-Italian" style.  The park surrounding the castle was created according to a design by Capability Brown, and the local village was actually moved during the process: the remains of the original 17th century church are at the south-west corner of the castle.

Visitors to Highclere Castle can luxuriate in the sumptuously decorated rooms open to the public, which include the Saloon, the State Dining Room, the Library, the Music Room, the Drawing Room and the Smoking Room.  Some of the bedrooms can also be viewed, reachable via the suitably impressive oak staircase, as can the kitchens, cellars and so on in the "downstairs" part of the household.   The glorious grounds of the Castle feature the Monks' Garden, whose name is a nod to the Bishops of Winchester, and such delightfully named areas as the Secret Garden and the Wood of Goodwill.  The extensive parkland includes a number of classically inspired follies, as well as remains of ancient Iron Age and Bronze Age hill forts and tumuli.  

File:Highclere Castle (April 2011).jpg

  2011 Richard Munckton, via Wikimedia Commons

Probably the most notable episode in the history of the Carnarvon family occurred in 1922, when the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, along with the archaeologist Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.  The find was the pinnacle of 16 years spent excavating at several key archeological sites in Egypt.  Sadly, the Earl died the year after the incredible find, but his legacy was an extraordinary collection of antiquities, most of which were sold to the Metropolitan Museum of New York, although a few less significant items remained at Highclere.  Now these and some of the other items have been brought together for an exhibition at Highclere which, as well as displaying some of the fruits of Carnarvon's time in Egypt, tells the story of the quest by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter which led up to the discovery of the tomb.  The fascinating artefacts on display include a  noble woman's coffin from 3,500 years ago.

There is one note to add on Carnarvon's death.  One of the best known legends surrounding the antiquities unearthed in Egypt is that of Tutankhamun's curse.  As it happens, it was less than two weeks after the official opening of the burial chamber that Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito, and the bite became infected.  The Lord fell ill with pneumonia, from which he died, aged just 57.  But that's not all: allegedly, the lights went out in Cairo at the moment of his death, while back home his dog started howling and died at the same moment.  Meanwhile, back in the present, it has been reported that several of the cast members of Downton Abbey had accidents during the filming, resulting in two broken wrists and a foot impaled by a dropped knife.  Perhaps the Curse of Tutankhamun lives on...

The house and grounds are open to the public at peak times of the year and on certain other dates for special events.  Downton Abbey returns to our TV screens later this year.

Highclere Castle is in the far north of Hampshire, near Newbury.  See here for a map.

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