Highclere Castle Celebrates Start of Filming for 'Downton Abbey' Movie

(Photo Credit: Bundel)

Just before Highclere Castle closed for the season and filming for the highly anticipated Downton Abbey movie commenced, the Carnarvons threw a World War I themed event.

Downton Abbey is on the verge of achieving the ultimate validation in fandom in the 21st century: Six Seasons and a Movie. After a heroic effort on the part of the production company to line up every last actor (save Lily James) to be available at the same time, filming on the feature film version of the period drama officially kicked off this month. While every actor in the ensemble plays an important role, arguably the real star of the series is the titular house, a character which was there before any of the Crawley family, and will continue to stand long after all of them are gone. That house is played by the real-life Highclere Castle estate, home to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife.

To celebrate the start of filming, Michelle Dockery shared a photo from the set, which looks to include both Carson and Mrs. Hughes...or perhaps, as we should call her now, Mrs. Carson.

But she wasn't the only one celebrating. Ahead of closing down the estate for filming, the Carnarvons threw a weekend-long celebration called "Heroes at Highclere." While the house is known for many things over the last 100 years, one of the things the family is most proud of is their work during the two world wars. In World War I, the Countess really did turn the estate into a hospital. (Downton Abbey took some of the details for that Season 2 storyline straight from real life.) In World War II, the grounds were the site of a significant crash of allied aircraft, including a B-17 Flying Fortress. Since then, the family has worked with veterans charities including Combat Stress and TAPS, as well as Médecins Sans Frontières. This weekend, marking the centennial of the end of WWI featured all three, as well as a performance by the Red Arrows, several air shows by mid-century airplanes, a carousel, and of course, tours of the inside of the house.

The resulting visitors over the two-day celebration were an eclectic mix, including military veterans, World War I reenactors, and of course, Downton fans, many of which showed up in period costume, fitting in perfectly with the World War I era theme. There were also many Egyptian enthusiasts. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, like the character of Robert Crawley, was born in 1866 and married an American heiress (a Rothschild byblow) who brought a small fortune with her. But he didn't waste his wife's money in railroad ventures. Instead, he funded archaeologist Howard Carter, who spent a decade and a half digging in the Valley of the Kings, finally unearthing the Tomb of Tutankhamun. The family owns an impressive array of Egyptian artifacts, which are on display during the tourist season. (The 5th Earl's death in Egypt not long after King Tut's tomb opened is also the genesis for the idea of "The Mummy's Curse" and the resulting Hollywood movies that followed.)

Lord Carnarvon and Hugh Bonneville (Photo Credit: Bundel)

Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert Crawley, was on hand for the celebration, and waxed enthusiastic about returning to Downton:

We did the read through last week, and I really must say it was like stepping back into a family, to see everyone again and our new guest artist Imedia Staunton and all the people who are joining up for such a lovely celebration and reunion.

Lord Carnarvon said that he too was chuffed for the show's return:

We’re looking forward to having our family back here again, the family we got to know and love so much, we are happy to welcome you back.

Meanwhile, Lady Carnarvon noted that the production might like working inside the estate, but actually, their favorite spots to shoot were outside.

It’s all very carefully planned how they’re going to shoot each scene, nuanced words, or bit of story. They like being outside. They’re very excited because they’re shooting in autumn, and they used to shoot from February to July.

Fans can't wait to see the film that results. The Downton Abbey movie does not yet have a release date but is expected to arrive in theaters in late 2019.