Friday, January 27, 2017

The Real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle




When Rick and I first started a couple of years ago to plan our long awaited trip to England, we weren't sure whether we'd include a visit to Highclere Castle, the majestic backdrop for Julian Fellowes's epic drama series, Downton Abbey.

At the time, I was still grumpy at Mr. Fellowes for not letting Mary and Matthew have at least five minutes happiness before creating a nasty accident for Matthew. So, seriously, I wasn't sure I wanted to visit the Grantham family home. However, with the passage of time to dim that memory from my mind, sense prevailed, thankfully, and happy was the day when our final travel arrangements included a whole day to snoop around the Downton Abbey filming sites, including the stately Highclere Castle.




So, what shall I tell you, dear beautiful friends, about our day here? The weather was glorious. The skies were blue and sunny when we arrived. No need to carry rain coats or brollies -- it was a perfect day for walking around the grounds, strolling through the gardens, and admiring the castle from every angle.



I knew we would enjoy our day here, but I really didn't expect to feel the magic. Yet when I came around the corner from the carpark and suddenly found myself standing on this very spot of that oh-so-familiar pathway ... oh my ... I felt the magical zap-tingle inside my stomach.

In that instant, I knew I was happy, happy, happy we came. Even with all the people around, for a brief moment I was in my own little world thinking to myself, Girl, you are here, really here, on the very same path that you see every week when the opening credit scenes roll by with Pharaoh ... or is it Isis ... trotting up the path.

What makes it all so special? I don't know ... I guess we fell in love. I remember early in the series, a dear blogging friend, Vee, once remarked that she'd gotten so connected she almost prayed for Lady Mary during a most dramatic episode. I could relate -- somehow their stories became our stories and now they've entered our cultural consciousness, Lady Violet Grantham's witticisms and all.
 


Seriously, when you get close up you can only stand and gape. The castle really is stunning. And, no doubt, I wasn't the only one imagining Carson coming out to greet us in his Butler-ish, formal manner.



In case you need a little background, Highclere Castle is set in the midst of 1,000 acres of parkland, and is the home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and the seat of the Carnarvon Family for over 300 years; the Carnarvon Family has lived here since 1679.

A magnificent family home, it is often described as 'the finest occupied Victorian mansion in England'. Major rebuilding work was carried out in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in 1838, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon brought in Sir Charles Barry to transform his home into a stunning mansion.

Photo Source: Palace of Westminster, London / wikimedia.org

Sir Charles Barry was also the architect of the Palace of Westminster--also known as the Houses of Parliament--you might recognize the many similarities that exist between the styles of the two buildings.



Highclere Castle was transformed into a hospital during the First World War, and became a private home again in 1922. Downton fans, you will remember when the Grantham family, too, saw their beloved Downton Abbey being turned into a convalescent home for wounded officers during the same Great War. An example of art imitating life, perhaps?

To this day the current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon live partly in the Castle and partly nearby. They remain closely involved in the Castle's day to day life and future. Lady Carnarvon has authored several fiction and non-fiction books; you can find out more about them here.

You might also be interested to learn the Countess has a blog where she invites readers behind the scenes of her life and home, and shares anecdotes from her everyday life at Highclere. Here is the link: www.ladycarnarvon.com.

 

When Rick and I visited Great Britain last summer, I loved collecting the souvenir guidebooks from the various places we visited. They not only turned out to be a wonderful reference when I started my overwhelming task of organizing my collection of more than two thousand trip photos, but they were chock-full of interesting details that, upon reflection, deepened and enriched our experiences.

Highclere's full colour official souvenir guidebook (left above) is a little treasure. You see, we weren't allowed to take photos inside the castle, and I surely wanted some memento of those divinely gorgeous rooms where so many Downton Abbey scenes took place. I would have loved to show you some of those lovely rooms up close ... not wanting to infringe on copyrights, the next best thing is to suggest a visit to their website where they highlight a few with photos. 

The souvenir guideline is available through their online gift shop (if you are willing to pay the exchange and postage). It's a lovely keepsake whether you've been there in person, or not.



In the midst of all this grandeur, our tour guide reminded us that we should find lunch before taking the house tour. I thought, who wants to eat, but when we saw what they were serving, we realized lunch was a very good idea indeed.

We sat under the shade of an umbrella at a table that overlooked hilly pastures filled with grazing sheep. As we tucked in, I marveled that we really were here enjoying all this English loveliness. How blessed, blessed, blessed I felt as we sipped our tea and drank in the panorama.



With lunch done, we came around to the front of the house, er, castle, and to our chagrin, we found a long line up of people waiting at the front door. Obviously they'd finished their lunch too and were eager to get on with the real business at hand.

But who cared? We were all here to enjoy the same thing. And grace seemed available for us all ... people weren't impatient ... everyone had a chance to be as meandering and slow as they needed to be in order to enjoy the many fascinating details of architecture, art, furnishings, and photographs.



We entered through the grand front door, no servants' backdoor for us. And yes, we saw the stunning gothic entrance hall with its marble columns and vaulted ceiling. We were guided to our left which took us into the Library; it was impressively decorated in dark mahogany, gilded bookcases, and rich red curtains. Its collection boasts over 5,650 books. Oh look, there's Lord Grantham's desk, and those big red couches with the high backs set beside the fireplace. You know what, the cushions actually look comfortable but, no, we mustn't sit down to check them out.

You must remember the Drawing Room where the Downton family often gathered before dinner? The room with those gorgeous green walls and how the ladies seemed to be dressed in complementary outfits to match. A lovely south-facing room, Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, used green French silk to cover the walls and make curtains; her father gave the silk to her as a gift. Now that is some gift! It was also Almina who turned the Castle into a hospital during the First World War, and from all accounts, she was adored by her patients for the little touches that made their stay a 'haven of rest'.

It was all so beautiful. Going upstairs to peek into the bedrooms that had been used as Lady Cora's and Lady Edith's was a delight. We imagined some of the unforgettable scenes as we walked along the upstairs gallery. And, finally we found ourselves at the top of the stately Oak staircase -- where over the centuries countless ladies in elegant dresses and brides beautiful in lacy gowns must have come down.

And, I was about to do the same thing. Heavy walking shoes on or not, for me, that was another magical moment. I imagined Lady Edith who, in the final episode, walked down to finally meet her happily ever after. And there I was walking that same staircase. In our feminine heart of hearts, we, too, are the elegant ladies and blushing brides gliding down those stairs.       

Now, some people have asked if we got to see the servants' quarters Downstairs. No, we did not. As you may know, all the kitchen and below stairs scenes were shot elsewhere, not at Highclere Castle. Originally the Downstairs would have been the kitchen and servants' hall; in real life, it has now been transformed into a museum for an Egyptian exhibition. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, with his colleague Howard Carter, discovered in 1922 the Tomb of Tutankhamun, and the Exhibition in the cellars celebrates the Earl's story and achievements. A fascinating tour with so many items on display. Emerging out into the sunlight, I felt like I'd been away in the desert on an archeological dig.






Time for a wee walk through the wild flower meadow. I should first mention the postage stamp photo you saw at the beginning. The stamp was commissioned by the British Royal Mail to celebrate the 18th century landscape architect Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Much of the sweeping park at Highclere Castle Garden is the result of collaboration between Capability Brown and the 1st Earl of Carnarvon.

My British blogging friend, Tracey, was the one who contacted me one day soon after we arrived home from our trip. She wanted to know if I would like her to mail the new postage stamp to me. Oh yes, please, said I. Now displayed on my desk, it's one of my little treasured treats.   



There's nothing like a good garden map to help a person find what she's looking for; it gives her an idea how everything relates to the other. Once I figure which way is North, I feel 'placed' and can  explore with abandon. Well, not too much abandon, when the tour bus leaves a certain hour, you won't want to be missing it.

Looking in every direction from the Castle, a person gets a sense of the grandeur and the vastness of the land around us. What we saw is just a small bit of that thousand acre park which belongs to Highclere Castle.

 
Walking through the wild flower meadow on the side of a hill

 
Catching sight of the Castle towers

Weren't we excited to find this photo online of Lady Edith--it was probably taken during one of her photo shoots--right there in the middle of the wild flower meadow. How cool is that!


Photo source: vanityfair.com/by Nick Briggs/Carnival Films



There still was so much we didn't get to see, it was time to leave, but what a day, what a day! We caught a glimpse of the Secret Garden but by that time we had to hurry. So I didn't have the chance to take some decent photos of my own. Below is one that I 'borrow' from the website.


Photo source: Secret Garden from Highclere website



One last look. One last photo.
Bye-bye, Downton Abbey ... thanks for all the wonderful memories!



Now here's wishing you glimpses of heaven in unexpected places
and a wonderful weekend ahead,

Hugs,
Brenda
xox 

 




22 comments:

  1. Dear Brenda what a lovely visit to Highclere Castle. I am so happy you got to enjoy such a beautiful day there. It would certainly be a place I would live to see if I had the privilege to travel across the sea. So good of you to share your gorgeous photos and thoughts on this place. Have a great weekend. Hugs!

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  2. Downton Abbey for real, wonderful!! Your pictures are lovely, great mementos of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even if you get to venture back there again, it will be a different sort of experience. It's that first breathtaking view that will remain in your memory and in your heart:)

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  3. You couldn't visit England without seeing 'Downton'! What a stunning place it is, and you certainly saw some interesting parts of it. I would love to have wandered round the Secret Garden.

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  4. It really does take my breath away! And would be a marvelous place to visit. We have missed the show so much that we decided to start watching our DVDs from the very beginning. We watch one show every so often and it's been very enjoyable. So your post comes at the perfect time for me! Hugs, Diane

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  5. Ohhhhhh, I have been waiting for this! The timing feels just right as ordinarily we'd be at the start of a new season. I am going back now to follow the links and wander around a bit. Love the picture of Mr. and Mrs. It's a Beautiful Life there on the path we have seen so often. You must have pinched yourself many times! Oh and how you made me laugh that you were so upset with Julian that you'd teach him and not visit Highclere. We were all pretty upset with him that season. Love this post!

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  6. Oh, how lovely, Brenda! This post was well worth the wait. Your sense of joy and excitement palpitates from the page. I regret that we didn't make the time to go to Highclere - but I say, "next time," and I hope there will be a next time.
    I hear rumours of a movie about to be made - wouldn't that be a treat?
    My favourite photos are the ones with you and your husband with Highclere in the background and the first one of the castle towering up behind the uncaring wildflowers. Just lovely! Many thanks for sharing!

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  7. Vee sent me to visit you and I'm so delighted she did! I loved Downton, too, in fact our whole family loved it. What a special visit you had. I hope to visit one day also, and I know I'll feel much like you did coming down the staircase or going into the library!

    Thank you for sharing this trip with us.

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  8. What a great post, Brenda. I would love to visit this spectacular place. It took me awhile to decide to watch the Downton Abbey series, as I didn't do it when it was actually airing. But when I decided I might enjoy it, my daughter bought me the DVD series and I fell in love. Like you, the Matthew and Mary thing really upset me but it was actually better having the very next episode to view immediately. Somehow it helped ease the starkness of it all. I was perturbed that the guy who played Matthew (can't remember his name) actually wanted to leave the show, which is why they had to do what they did but still ... a few minutes of happiness would have been great for viewers.

    As for the downstairs scenes, I read somewhere that these were actually filmed on a custom-built set. I don't recall where I read that, or if it's true. I think the lives of the servants was equally as entertaining as the big wigs upstairs.

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  9. Oh, what a thrill, Brenda, to see this in person! Lovely photos and interesting information. I watched a documentary about the castle that aired during the time of the series and learned of the history and family. My sweet Mr. bought me the DVD of the whole series for my birthday so I could enjoy all the splendor at my leisure. The castle is so beautiful and the series was wonderful, especially the scenery and the beautiful clothes. I can't imagine getting enough silk to 'wallpaper' and upholster a whole room as a gift. That would be fabulous. I imagine the colors are wonderful to see in person. The grounds are gorgeous, too. Thanks for sharing - it must have been such an amazing trip! xo Karen

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  10. how fun, thanks for sharing, we loved watching downton abbey...

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  11. Brenda, What an excellent tour you have give us of Highclere Castle. Like everyone else I could hardly stand it when Matthew died, especially as he was driving home after seeing Mary and their newborn baby...boo! The photos are lovely, and your telling of your tour is top notch. Thank you so much.

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  12. AMAZING!!! I'm also a huge DA fan so I really enjoyed seeing Highclere Castle through your eyes.

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  13. Oh my word, dear Brenda - what a GREAT post! First off, what a dream come true! Secondly, golly you sure have a way with words....this is beautifully written. You have style and talent, my dear!

    I found myself wearing "goose flesh" when reading your post here - and lived wonderfully and vicariously through your travels! Thank you for taking us on this journey with you!!!!

    Note: on the map of the estate there to the left in something called Jackdaws. Now, it is funny because there is a contemporary musical artist (English, educated) whom has used that term in his lyrics. I have wondered for years who Jack Daw" would be - only to find it written Jackdaw....and Google being the wonder that it is tells me this:

    Jackdaw
    A mythical creature, often used as a dismissive response so as not to reveal ignorance.

    Ah, now it makes perfect sense to me in that song.

    So, a double thanks to you today. Hugs! ♥

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  14. This was such a treat! I savored every word and picture!
    Breathtaking, overwhelming, spectacular...I've run out of adjectives!
    What a great picture of you and Rick!
    .......and you went through the Grand Front Door!!! ~sigh!~

    I really miss watching Downton Abby! Thanks for some good memories of the show. You must have some really great memories, for real!

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  15. Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous!! Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful words and pictures of your Highclere adventure! I think if I had been you, I'd have been sorely tempted to just miss the bus and see if they'd let you get away with staying overnight in the castle. ;) Just kidding, but what a thrilling chance to view so much gorgeous history, both recent and distant, in that magnificent place. Memories to treasure...

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  16. My mom love ' Downton Abby' It was so good series!
    Do you know the author of the Downton Abby has a new book ? ' Belgravia '
    Just in case you want to read =^x^=
    Thanks for sharing

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  17. Brenda what a wonderful write up and photos. You have me yearning to visit, having past the signs for Highcleare last year as we journeyed down to Southampton for our cruise we came close. I've just checked their Summer opening days and may combine it with a trip to the Cotswolds.

    You have some happy and magical memories from a wonderful holiday.

    Angela - Garden Tea Cakes and Me

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  18. What a place! All that grandeur and a secret garden as well! BTW, it wasn't poor Mr. Fellowes' idea, the actor playing Matthew wanted out the show :-)
    Amalia
    xo

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  19. Thank you for sharing your truly Amazing adventure! Oh my goodness! It is grand!

    I can't help from thinking of Jane Austen... It's all so magnificent and beautiful!

    Blessings and safe travels, Net :)
    itsawonderfulmovie.com

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  20. Oh what a wonderful memory you've made of an absolutely majestic place. Thank you for sharing it. I've never seen Downton Abbey. I suppose I should look it up one night.
    Be blessed!
    Laura of Harvest Lane Cottage

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  21. Wow, how fabulous - thanks for sending me here Brenda - sounds like you had a great day. Can you just imagine living in a place like that - fantastic. The clothes blew me away in that series as well. I know what you mean about the shiver of excitement - we got a chance to visit LA and when I saw the Hollywood sign I nearly cried lol

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To My Beautiful Readers,

Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same. ~ Franz Peter Schubert

Thank you so much for leaving your 'footprint' here in my comment box. I do appreciate you taking a moment to share your thoughts today.

Brenda xox

PS. I do not always comment here, but I do look forward to coming and visiting you....