It’s Day 2 of our To The Manor Born tour with WLIW and what can I say? I cannot believe we have already experienced so much! Today’s private visit at Highlere Castle, the historic setting of Downton Abbey, was the day that everyone was looking forward to the most.
Driving to Downton
Queen Victoria bid us adieu as our coach rolled out of Windsor and we hit the road for Highclere Castle in Berkshire county. This promised to be a special day, and it was! Highclere is about an hour’s drive from Windsor Castle, and what did we do to pass the time on the way (aside from looking at the beautiful British countryside)? We watched Downton Abbey Season 1, Episode 1 on two big screens inside the coach. As we approached the Highclere entrance and the iconic Gothic Revival castle was about to come into view through the trees, Andrew from Transcendent Travel (who thinks of everything) played the Downton Abbey theme song over the speaker and everyone laughed. Perfection!
A Private Viewing
The castle was not open to the public the day we visited so our small group could channel our inner Lords and Ladies as we surveyed the grounds. Without the crowds, it was like Cora invited us to a private house party. We began by wandering the grounds and visiting the gift shop, and having our photos taken in front of those massive wooden doors. Next we went inside for cocktails in the gallery, site of so many memorable scenes – and where we too more photo opps while standing on that grand staircase. At the reception, I stood sipping my Elderflower drink on the spot where Livinia saw Matthew dancing with Lady Mary, causing her to die from a broken heart (and the Spanish flu).
On hand was a Highclere staffer named Margery who has worked at Highclere for 23 years and is a great source of knowledge. In the remarkable high-ceilinged saloon, I asked about the paintings on either side of the fireplace. Margery said they are the 4th Earl of Carnarvon, and his wife. She went on to say the 4th Earl was known for starting a Canadian Railway company, which made me wonder if that’s where Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes got the idea for Robert to lose his (actually, Cora’s) fortune on the Canadian Railroad.
The room also holds a portrait of the 3rd Earl, who transformed Highclere by hiring Charles Barry, the architect who designed the Houses of Parliament. He covered the more ordinary massive house with Bath Stone, creating the exterior we see today. He only got to enjoy it for a few years before he passed away, and it was left to the 4th Earl and the architect Thomas Allom to complete the interior, which is very cozy. You wouldn’t expect that intimate feel from such a massive, foreboding castle, but it is. You can easily imagine yourself living there – and that’s not just because we’d been spoiled by spending the day before at Windsor Castle! The couple who do make their home here – Lord and Lady Carnarvon – reside in a smaller house on the estate, but they do a lot of entertaining in the castle.
The only paintings in the collection that were removed from Highclere during the filming of Downton Abbey hang right by the front door: they are of the current Earl’s mother and late father, the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, nicknamed Porchie, who was depicted on the Netflix series The Crown. He was a childhood friend of Queen Elizabeth and in adulthood became her horse racing manager. He died on September 11, 2001, and it has been said that was the reason why Her Majesty spoke so eloquently about grief at a 9/11 memorial in London soon after.
Lady Almina’s Touch
Also open for our casual perusal were the Smoking Room (which doesn’t appear on Downton Abbey, but does appear on documentaries about Highclere), and Cora’s drawing room, which has the beautiful silk wall covering. This room was redecorated by Lady Almina when she married the 5th Earl, and has always been my favorite. Lady Almina, the heiress whose daddy’s money saved Highclere, was the model for Lady Cora. Margery told us that the room had to be restored, because after 100 years of exposure to the sun, the original green silk given to Lady Almina by her father, Alfred de Rothchild, had shredded. But the current Lady Carnarvon took great care to find silk that was exactly the same, same color and pattern, to bring the room back to its original splendor.
The Egyptian Exhibition
Within its cellars, Highclere has something most other castles don’t: an archeological exhibit. Artifacts from the 5th Earl’s explorations in Egypt include a replica of the tomb of King Tut that he and Howard Carter famously discovered. We didn’t even have to stand in line to see the boy king. Many of the artifacts they brought back from Egypt live at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, but seeing them in the home of the person responsible for discovering them is something special. Learn more about the castle exhibition and stream Secrets of the Dead: Ultimate Tut on WLIW for more answers to the mysteries surrounding Tutankhamun.
Dining like Aristocrats
After the reception we were whisked into the State dining room, scene of all those disastrous Crawley family dinner parties, where we were serve a yummy three-course luncheon of roasted artichoke salad, fillet of salmon with tarragon hollandaise, and fig and almond tart with Highclere honey ice cream, coffee and petit fours. That ain’t your average Big Mac! We were watched over in that iconic room by the immense (and priceless) van Dyck painting of King Charles I as we dined. I had been curious about an inscription carved all over the castle’s facade, and here it was again, carved into the dining room wall: UNG IE SERUIRAY. I asked the butler what it meant. It is French/Norman, and means, “Only one will I serve.” Who that “one” is, is open to interpretation.
Also at lunch, WLIW Vice President Diane Masciale gave us an introduction to the new ALL ARTS channel WLIW is building. To anyone who loves the arts (and if you love PBS, you do) it sounds exciting!
After lunch, we had a bit more time to wander the gardens some more. Behind the house is a familiar sight, the bench where Lady Mary and Lady Edith spent much time over the years sitting, contemplating their love lives. It is so peaceful overlooking the quiet hills and folly, you can understand why that was the setting to look for answers. See more photos from our day on our Highclere photo gallery.
Highclere Castle is open to the public on many days (see the schedule and purchase tickets on its site), and is an easy train ride from London to Newbury in Berkshire, which takes about an hour. Cabbies at the train station all know the castle and will get you there in about 15 minutes. When I had traveled here once on my own, I introduced myself to others at the station and we shared the ride.
During the period depicted in Downton Abbey, a lady never traveled without her hat. Choose a period-design hat or purse for your own journey from the Highclere gift shop.
Highclere has a number of cottages for rent, but the newly available Grotto Lodge offers the novelty a mini-castle look. The three-bedroom, turreted stone house was designed by Thomas Allom, the same architect who created Highclere Castle’s interiors for the 4th Earl of Carnarvon. It was restored by Lady Carnarvon and can be rented for four-day/three-night stays – a perfect base to explore other sites in the area. Learn about the castle’s lodging options.
On the bus, on the way back to our hotel later in the day, Diane was teasing Andrew of Transcendent Travel that it will be tough for him to top today – and it will be. No pressure, Andrew!
As your home for the best British dramas and comedies, WLIW’s travel program takes you to the seaside villages, historic castles, and baking challenges you know so well on the To the Manor Born Tour. Follow along with our hashtag #WLIWTravel, check out our travel blog on wliw.org/travel and look for Facebook lives, daily photos and observations on WLIW’s Facebook page and via @WLIW21 on Twitter and Instagram. You can follow Deborah Gilbert on her Instagram at @GothamTomato and Twitter at @E20Launderette and WLIW Vice President Diane Masciale at @dianemasciale.
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