Highclere Castle, aka, Downton Abbey

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Pop Quiz: How many of you recognize the building shown behind me? Most of you, probably.

Once upon a time I was a fan of Downton Abbey. My favorite characters were the servants, not the wealthy Grantham kin. I watched for Mr. Bates and Anna, mostly. I stopped watching during season 4, particularly after episode 3. After visiting Highclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey, today, I will likely finish the series.

As it turns out, one must book months in advance to get a spot on the Highclere ticket list. For some reason that I cannot remember, back in June I was googling what to do near Chawton and found “Highclere Castle.” I went to the website and quickly realized that this castle and the TV show mansion are one in the same. I also decided to see how much tickets cost, and when I was taken to the ticket page, I saw that the castle was booked through the second week of August. OMG. Luckily, I managed to get in right before my imminent departure to the U.S.

Unfortunately, visitors only get to see part of the house on a walk through, and all of the rooms are roped off. This amounts to people being herded through the ropes like cattle or sheep. Small, shuffling steps through narrow passages remind one as well of being stuck in traffic. Also, visitors are discouraged at every stop from taking photos. Visitors are told verbally to please not take pictures and to please turn off phones. Well, I saw someone else snap a picture, so I did, too.

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That’s an “upstairs” view from the second floor looking out across the atrium (?). Keep in mind the Downton distinction between the upstairs and downstairs quarters and people.

Now for a “downstairs” view:

This is where the servants do their work. Currently, the level under the house is occupied by an exhibition space on mummies, a few cases of silver, a cafeteria. It was really creepy down there–weird purple lighting, low ceilings, and even some guy who worked there with about 50 keys on a ring.

You might have thought “why mummies?” Well, Howard Carter was not alone in his love of Egyptian things and his important mummy excavation in 1922. <Eh-hum, King Tut>. A Lord Carnarvon (the 5th earl) was involved, too. Did they work that into Downton Abbey? Dunno. Didn’t finish it.

Highclere Castle and its owners have a rich kinda-like-Downton Abbey history. For instance, the house was a WWI hospital. I am more interested in the non-Downton history, that is I like the 17th-18th century stuff! The title begins with this guy: Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon. I saw this portrait of Dormer today:

Painted by Richard Brompton. Robert Dormer, 1st Earl of Carnarvon (First creation of the Title)

Note: Portraits from the house can be found on this blog: Period Pieces and Portraiture.

Pictures of the other Carnarvon lords were in the house, surely, but I cannot recall them because I am in love with this guy shown above! No one else compares. Oh, and of course there is that wonderful Charles I image that Downton fans will remember seeing in most episodes.

 

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There were some beautiful ladies, too, such as Dormer’s and other lords’ wives. Ah, here’s one (the wife of the Dormer):

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No, that’s not a character from Downton Abbey in the foreground. It’s Hugh Laurie from Jeeves and Wooster (a show I have yet to watch). I love how the baroness is looking at the viewer from over the top of his head. Brilliant!

Speaking of looking at the viewer….One of my favorite pics in the house is this one:

Painted by Sir William Beechey. Children of the 1st Earl of Carnarvon, 1795

Of course I am drawn to the 18th-c. portraits! This one from 1795 shows the first earl’s children and their dog–they all look happy, especially that chap in the bottom right, but that dog looks like it wants to attack the painter or the viewer. Ouch.

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To be honest, the house’s scale was smaller than I expected. On TV the rooms look huge. In actuality they are not. The library, dining room, bedrooms, and smoking and morning rooms were a reasonable size. In a way, I liked this–it seemed like real people could live here–but I was also underwhelmed a bit. There isn’t any historical sense of the house as you walk through it, either. I had to read up about it online to learn anything. It really seems like the point of visiting is to ooh and ahh at the place where they filmed the TV show. Maybe that’s what most people want, but not me. I want more pre-20th-century history.

I was not disappointed, though, by the grounds. My favorite part of the visit was walking around the grounds. The scale is much larger than I expected. Highclere sits atop a hill. It has gorgeous 360 views of rolling hills and lush green trees.

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There are also two follies, or temples, on the property:

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It has a lovely walled garden including these two lovely hedges (which I would like to call “kissing cousins” because they are close and touch at the top; there is also a secret smooching spot in the grove behind them).

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All in all, I am glad that I visited Highclere. I probably would have been more amazed had I just watched Downton Abbey and were really into the show still, but it was still worth a visit just to see the grounds and get a sense of how wide angles make places look much bigger. 😛

 

 

 

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