Dale called it a pilgrimage. I don’t know. Webster’s says a pilgrimage is a journey to a shrine or sacred place. I’m not big on shrines and my sacred places—if I even have any– have to do with my faith in God. But…..I have always wanted to stand in the rooms I’ve seen on Downton Abbey. And finally I have.
*NOTE: All interior photos in this post are compliments of Highclerecastle.co.uk. Exterior photos are my own.
For the uninitiated, that is anyone having lived under a rock or in outer space for the last decade, the enormously popular BBC series, Downton Abbey was filmed at the family estate of the Earl of Carnarvan, Highclere Castle.
Earlier this year, knowing we would be in England, I Googled “how to see Highclere Castle”. Unfortunately, the estate wouldn’t be opening for the public until the Sunday after we were to leave on Friday! Except……they are having a very special set of tours the week or two before. I would be available for that. For a ton of money. But my very generous hubby reminded me that he spent a lot on a previous trip to see Puffins. For goodness sakes, they’re birds! Surely it’s my turn to splurge. And it’s for Downton Abbey! Soooooo much more important. Am I right???
So, I stood in the foyer where Carson admitted guests welcome and unwelcome. I glided (LOL) down the staircase that Mary did as she married Matthew. I walked the corridor where Mary, Cora and Anna clandestinely carried the body of the Turkish diplomat who seduced Mary (but not so secretly since Daisy saw!!) I stood in awe in the library with its 6,000+ books. And so much more.
We gathered in the Saloon (we’d probably say “salon”) with walls covered in leather from Spain in 1631. There was the music room with Italian tapestries that went back to the 1600’s and Napoleon’s desk (proving, by it’s size, that he really was a small-statured man) that was never seen on TV. I saw the red bedroom specially decorated for the Prince of Wales in 1895 because he loved the color red. And then walked down the stone staircase we all saw the servants using as they attended the family to view the Egyptian antiquities collection.
What I did not see was Mary’s bedroom nor the kitchen’s or staff quarters. All of those were filmed in studio. Understandable, especially about the kitchen. No way could they recreate turn-of-the-20th-century kitchen in a castle that is home to a family who entertains and is definitely up-to-date. I didn’t think to ask at the time why Mary’s bedroom was in studio. Darn it! Another disappointment is that it is not permited to take photos inside the castle. Oh, well.
Another thing missing is the vision of Downton Abbey’s exterior and drive where we saw those wonderful old autos deposit visitors, VIPs greeted by the entire staff lined up, starched and at attention. For some reason, they use another estate for the exterior shots. Didn’t get that explanation, either.
We were greeted by the current Lady Carnarvon–married to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon—disappointingly not clad in gown and tiara. Not even in suit and heels. She ran in, just in time, clad in animal-print work pants and a blouse that had seen better days and fly-away hair. She had just come from checking on a construction site on the property. Her opening statement made clear that this was, yes, a home, but also a business. She was open, honest, down-to-earth. I liked her immediately.
She gave us a brief history of the house; to go into much detail would have taken the entire 3 hours allotted to the tour for there have been residents on the site for 1300 years. Only 2 families have owned the property in that time! They farm the property, they raise sheep, and the house has been open for tours since 1989 and has been the site of movies and TV shows prior to Downton Abbey. She answered any questions we had and then turned us over to the tour guides.
We were getting our money’s worth. Instead of being one of the 1400 who pass through Highclere Castle on a tour day, we were a group of fewer than 50 that they divided into 3 groups. We were taken everywhere! And there were no red ropes forcing you to lean over to see as much of a room as possible, but not really being IN the room! We could wander the rooms, check out the family photos that were everywhere.
The guide was knowledgeable and if I wanted to know who that was in the photo with Queen Elizabeth, she knew. (Kudos to guide Barbara!) I got to roam the library and see what the titles were on all these leather-bound volumes. Let’s just say, the ones on eye level for me weren’t on the New York Times top lists. They’d been published just a few hundred years before that venerable paper began to keep track of best sellers! On the other hand, as we toured the upstairs bedrooms, there were piles of current novels. Obviously, a family that loves to read.
And in case you’re curious, they use the house. They use the dining room and the salon and the morning room. The bedrooms we saw on Downton Abbey, while not used daily by Lord and Lady Carnarvon, are the guest rooms used regularly by her five sisters and other guests. (There are no showers there, so the Carnarvons have other bedrooms with showers installed.)
And they use the house and grounds for charity events of all sorts. As I was there, they were preparing for an event to help veterans. Today they are planning for a Christmas fair in aid of Thames Valley Air Ambulane and St. Michaels and All Angels Church at Highclere.
After touring the house, we were invited to enjoy the day’s perfect weather with an outdoor tea including a delicious cucumber soup, finger sandwiches and sweets. As well as tea, of course, and, if you so chose, a glass of champagne. And we were gifted the latest book by Lady Carnarvan, a hefty tome titled At Home At Highclere complete with history, entertaining tips and recipes.
My day ended with a walk around the grounds and Highclere’s beautiful gardens. It was peaceful (no crowds!) and lovely in the sunshine with mild breezes.