12 Days of Downton: Highclere Castle, or, The "Real" Downton Abbey

A character that is probably just as important to Downton Abbey as the Crawley family or the servants who work for them, is the house they all inhabit. Hands up: Is there anyone who wouldn’t want to live on such a gorgeous estate? I mean, just to get to stroll around those grounds regularly would probably be enough for me. It’s beautiful!

Click through for a look at the actual house that serves as our beloved Downton Abbey and learn about some of the things that make it unique.

While there is no “real” Downton Abbey, per se, the estate that serves as the set is a real country house, called Highclere Castle.  Per the estate’s official site, Highclere has been home to the Carnarvon family since 1679. (If you’re curious, you can take a look at all the Earls of Carnavon  for yourself). Records show that the castle itself stands on the site of an earlier house which, in turn, was built on the foundations of a medieval palace owned by the Bishops of Winchester.  The original site is listed in the Domesday Book, the great survey of much of England and Wales conducted in 1086.                   

The 3rd earl of Carnarvon created the Highclere of today, in 1839. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect who also built the Houses of Parliament at Westminster.  A replacement for the Georgian house which, in its turn, had replaced the medieval palace, the current Highclere was built in a high-Elizabethan style, and used Gothic elements in a nod to English medieval great halls.  According to the official site, when the castle was built, “It was a time of energy and change. The young Queen Victoria had just come to the throne, and the whole decade witnessed innovation in politics and cultural life. The new “Highclere Castle” dominated its surroundings in a most dramatic way. No wonder Benjamin Disraeli's first words on seeing Highclere were "How scenical! How scenical!"

And the castle even has a bit of “art imitating life” aspect to it as well – the house was converted into a hospital during World War I, which I imagine is something we’ll see in the new season of Downton in some way. During World War II, the castle housed children evacuated from the Blitz. (One point nine million children were evacuated from England’s cities during this time, more than 100 ended up at Highclere.)                                               

Watch Lady Caravon and Julian Fellowes discuss Highclere and the setting of Downton in this special behind-the-scenes clip.

 Fun fact – and why I love writing things like this, there’s always something astounding to discover! - The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, along with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut, to most of us) in Egypt in 1922. As a result, the castle has its own Egyptian Exhibition, that visitors to the site can explore. Another fun fact? Apparently Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber – yes, the Phantom guy – really wants to buy Highclere, but the family doesn’t want to sell and found his – unsolicited! - offer “painfully rude.”

The house and grounds are open to the public for much of the Spring and Summer months, then are open again for a brief period at Christmas. (It's currently closed to visitors until Easter 2012.) You can take landscape and walking tours of Highclere, if you’re so inclined, as well as tours of the gardens. Anyone want to take a trip with me?