Sometimes a movie or screen actor performs a role so well that people come to think of him or her as the character he or she portrayed. Some are tormented by this association and come to hate the character they created. However, the better ones simply accept the association while at the same time trying to show that they have more than one side.
Along the same lines, as a result of the television series, Highclere Castle is Downton Abby in many people's minds. However, during our visit, we saw that while Highclere embraces the fame brought to it by being the set for Downton Abby, the family that actually lives there, the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvan, have developed interesting ways to demonstrate that there is more to Highclere than Downton Abby.
Like many of England's stately homes, Highclere Castle is open to the public during certain parts of the year. However, in contrast to most stately homes, tickets to visit Highclere have frequently sold out in recent years and people just dropping by on the day have sometimes been turned away. Thus, it is best to purchase tickets online beforehand.
In addition to days when there is general admission, Highclere has a number of special events each year. These cost more than the general admission tickets but ensure a more intimate view of the house and grounds.
The event we selected was part of Highclere's Art and Architecture series. This event was to include a lecture, a guided tour of the house and a light lunch. Inasmuch as the art collection at Highclere includes works by the likes of Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sir William Beechy and Sir Joshua Reynolds and considering that the current incarnation of the house was designed by Sir Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament, the event promised to have real substance.
We took the train from London's Paddington Station to Newbury in Berkshire - - about an hour's train ride. A friend met us at the station and drove us the five miles or so to Highclere. (There are also taxis at Newbury, which reportedly take visitors to Highclere).
It was a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky. After entering the gate to the estate, we drove a considerable distance to the house. This took us over hills and through valleys, each with a scenic vista. The noted landscape architect Capabilty Brown, who designed the park in the 18th century, certainly was at his best at Highclere.
The house sits on the crest of a hill. So as not to intrude upon its elegant atmosphere, the car park is some distance but not too far from the house. After showing the person at the ticket booth the tickets we had purchased online, we were given lanyards that enabled us to proceed onwards.
Highclere was not open to the general public that day. Thus, only the 50 or so people attending the Art and Architecture event were admitted.
Since we arrived early, we took a walk around the grounds and were able to admire Highclere from several different angles. The hillside sloping away from the house to the south was full of blooming wildflowers. In addition, we found a recent addition to the estate - - a memorial to the fliers who crashed on the estate during World War II. It includes a carved wooden figure of an airman and a set of benches, which contain fragments of the aircraft that crashed.
After our walk, we went to pavilion near the house for lunch. When asked what was included in the Art and Architecture lunch, the friendly man at the counter replied everything except the wine and beer. Sandwiches, bottled water, bags of crisps, hot soup, fruit and pastry filled our trays. Although we were somewhat embarrassed by this bounty, another man came over after we had finished and practically insisted that we have more.
Now it was time for the event to begin. We gatherd at the front door. Over it is inscribed 1842 in Roman numerals - - the year of Sir Charles Barry's design. Also inscribed in the Bath stone is the family motto, which translates as “Only one will I serve.”
Once inside, we walked through the Gothic pillars and arches of the entrance way into the Saloon. Overlooked by the Gallery, this room has a 50 foot high vaulted ceiling. On the walls, not only were paintings but sumptuous gilt leather hangings.
Although the room was set for a lecture, it was clearly recognizable as the location for many of the scenes in Downton Abby. Even though we had never been there before, the house felt familiar.
The lecture was given by Ms. Karen Hearn, formerly a curator at Tate Britain. An expert on Sir Anthony Van Dyck, her talk focused primarily on the life of that artist. Highclere is home to one of the versions Van Dyck painted of King Charles I on horseback as well as Van Dyck's portrait of Sophia Herbert.
Following Ms. Hearn's lecture, Lady Carnarvan (the 8th Countess of Carnarvan), spoke and answered questions from the visitors. She has written several books about Highclere and its inhabitants and thus is well-versed in Highclere's history as well as its current events.
The group was then divided into smaller groups and each group was placed under the care of a guide. When the house is open to the general public, visitors take a self-guided tour. There are also ropes to restrict visitors to certain sections of each room. No ropes were up during our tour.
We made our way through the public rooms on the ground floor and up to the bedrooms on the next floor. Highclere has more than 200 rooms so we did not see them all. However, we saw the important ones.
Along the way, the guide pointed out the paintings, tapestries, antiques and other works of art. We heard something of the history of the house and the families that have lived there. She also spoke about which rooms were used in the filming of Downton Abby.
At the end of the tour of the house, one of the visitors asked whether we were going to visit the servants' quarters seen in Downton. She responded that the “below-stairs” scenes in Downtown were actually shot on sets at Pinewood Studios outside of London.
Above: Wild flowers growing south of the house.
Below: The memorial to the airmen who crashed on the estate during World War II.
Above: The main entrance to the house.
Below: The south side of the house.
The formal gardens include lawns with yew tree arched (above) as well as flower beds and herbaceous borders (below)
We also did not see Highclere's Egyptian exhibition or hear anything about the 5th Earl of Canarvan's role in discovering the tomb of King Tut. The guide explained that that was outside the scope of the Art and Architecture event.
Following the tour of the house, those who were interested were invited to take a guided tour of the formal gardens. Although most of the 1,000 acres of the Highclere estate are devoted to the parkland developed by Capability Brown in the 18th century, more recent generations of the Herbert family have created some formal gardens to the southeast of the house. These include a Walled Garden with Georgian walls and arches, yew trees, flower beds and herbaceous borders. There is also a Secret Garden, which was used as a location for a 1987 film of the same name. Nearby, the present Earl and Countess have reinstated an avenue of beech trees and planted other trees. These gardens were a delight in the perfect weather.
We have enjoyed visiting many stately homes. Highclere promised to be a similar experience with the added novelty of its notoriety as a film location. However, the Art and Architecture event exceeded our expectations and brought Highclere beyond Downton Abby.
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Cruise destination - England - Hampshire - Review of a visit to Highclere Castle