Magnificent Mansions - Highclere Castle

You may not have heard of Highclere Castle, but I feel sure you will recognise it as the mansion used in the TV series and recent movie Downton Abbey.

Built in Jacobethan style during the C19th, it is located in Hampshire, England and is the country seat of the Earl of Carnarvon, currently George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, a branch of the Anglo-Welsh Herbert family.

The cast of Downton Abbey (2)

The first written records of the estate date back to 749 when an Anglo-Saxon King granted the estate to the Bishops of Winchester. Bishop William of Wykeham built a beautiful medieval palace and gardens in the park. Later on, in 1679, the palace was rebuilt as Highclere Place House when it was purchased by Sir Robert Sawyer, the direct ancestor of the current Earl of Carnarvon.

In 1842, Sir Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament, transformed Highclere House into the present day Highclere Castle.

During WWI, Highclere Castle was converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers run by the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. Then, in WWII, Highclere Castle was home to children evacuated from London.

Queen Elizabeth II has always been fond of Highclere which was the home of Carnarvon's late father and the Queen's racing manager.

I’d watched two series of Downton Abbey so it was a thrill to linger in the grand and opulent rooms – naturally only a few of the 250-300 rooms are open to the public.

The Grand Salon was easily recognisable: Highclere Castle's website calls the gothic-style saloon "physically and socially the heart of the house," and reveals that the space was designed by Thomas Allom for the 4th Earl of Carnarvon in the 1860.

In the Dining Room, we admired the marvellous portraits lining the walls with Van Dyck’s painting of King Charles I in pride of place. My favourite was the Music Room - a smaller corner room with beautiful C16th gilded panels of Italian silk embroideries.

This short clip by Lady Carnarvon brings the dining room to life:

Highclere Castle is set amidst 1,000 acres of spectacular parkland, designed for the 1st Earl of Carnarvon by the famous 18th century landscape gardener Lancelot "Capability" Brown.

I came across an article in Architectural Digest where Lady Carnarvon gives us an insight into the daunting task of maintaining a 300-room castle on a 6,000-acre estate, in the 21st century:

…it will bankrupt even the most mannered of aristocrats, so a countess has to do a lot more than send out afternoon tea invitations. Highclere Castle is most recognizable to the world as the real life location of the TV show and recent movie Downton Abbey. The show’s filming fees go towards the estate’s endless repairs, and since the series ended in 2015, it’s paid dividends in tourism. These days, Highclere receives about 1,500 visitors per day. “I act more as CEO,” says the Countess, formerly known as Fiona Aitken. “There’s the estate, the castle, the properties and people renting cottages, and then there’s the horse-feed business and the books I’m writing.

Unexpected surprises are all in a day’s work when your home is 1,200 years old. Some are delightful: the 8th Countess of Carnarvon recently discovered a church at the back of the property believed to have been built in the 12th century, and a yew tree that looks to be 1,000 years old.

Other surprises are less pleasurable. Endlessly entrepreneurial, the Countess is always thinking up novel events and excursions for visitors, but often new ventures can result in unforeseen costs. “At the top of the castle there are three rooms and I thought it would be quite fun to develop a new tour around how the maids lived. “I was going to decorate them as if Anna or Daisy [from Downton Abbey] had just hung up their hat and coat and walked out to do their business or whatever else. I found that the ceilings I was going to patch were actually leaking." What began as a small facelift for a few rooms turned into a £60,000 roof repair.

I could not find any further details on this facelift, however the clip below shows the active role Lady Carnarvon plays during repairs to the Tower.

My ears pricked up when I heard that Highclere is the home of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon as his great grandfather, the 5th Earl financed and worked with Howard Carter on his archaeological digs in Egypt and of course made the most fabulous discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.

In the basement of Highclere an exhibition features several replicas from the tomb, including a golden sarcophagus and golden, lapis lazuli mask and canopic jars - a wonderful reminder of seeing the originals in the Cairo museum 30 years ago.

Several rooms exhibited originals too from various digs undertaken by Carter - some just recently found in one of the recesses of the thick walls between the rooms of the castle. A marvellous and enjoyable surprise.

In our next post on mansions, we will travel to Egypt and the incredible discovery by Howard Carter in 1992 of King Tutankhamen’s tomb - his home in the afterlife.

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