Downton Abbey is the popular British period drama set in the English country house of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and follows the lives of their aristocrat family and the servants who run the home like a well oiled machine.
Highclere Castle is the real home where the series is filmed and where the current Lord and Lady Carnarvon, owners of the castle live with their children.
The castle stands on the foundation of a medieval palace built by the Bishop of Winchester in the 8th century and has been the Carnarvon family home since.
Driving up the mile-long drive to Highclere Castle in Berkshire, the property includes 1,000 acres filled with 3,000 sheep and horses in the paddock built with ancient cedars of Lebanon imported as seeds in the 18th century.
The grand fireplace presides over the entry room, which still has the original 19th century wallpaper and a portrait of the 4th Earl who 150 years ago commissioned the architect of the Houses of Parliament, Charles Barry.
The castle is steeped in priceless history and Lord and Lady Carnarvon understand their duty is not only to maintain their centuries-old family home, but to pass it down to the next generation.
As with the fictional owners of Downton Abbey, this aristocratic family struggles to keep the family estate together and Lady Fiona, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon has written a book of Almina Carnarvon, 5th Countess of Carnarvon.
Almina Carnarvon was an enormously wealthy heiress and illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who in 1895 married the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, the explorer who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.
In the real Downton Abbey, female servants slept on high floors in the eves of the castle, not in the basement.
Outside the bedrooms painted notices stipulate “In case of fire, use chute.” Heavy canvas tunnels placed on iron hooks are wedged into the window frames and the other end is held by men standing far below on the lawn.
The housemaids were told to wear thick sweaters and hold their arms close to their bodies so they didn’t catch their elbows in the metal hoops of the tunnel.
That’s a lot of running up and down the stairs trying not to spill water buckets.
Countess Carnarvon wrote the in some great houses, a female staff member of staff who had ‘a follower’, ie: a boyfriend, would be instantly dismissed—a practice which seems barbaric today—although Highclere was more liberal in this respect as numerous marriages occurred between estate staff.
The pay was adequate, but since food and lodging were included, servants were able to save their pay.
Service in such a grand household was generally seen as a good position with possibilities for advancement.
By the late 1800’s, changes in legislation meant that servants received a week’s paid holiday annually, as well as half days on Sundays and sometimes an evening off in during the week.
The 5th Earl was known for speed and was given the nickname Motor Carnarvon.
He was summoned to appear in court in Newbury for driving at more than 12 miles per hour, which was the legal speed limit at the time.
In 1909, Geoffrey de Havilland used the grounds at Highclere castle for the world’s first test flights. By the end of 1910 he was successful in keeping a plane airborne for more than 50 feet, completing a full circle and then landing.
Lord Carnarvon, who witnessed the flight was “elated at the success which attended the efforts of the flying men.”
As in Downton Abbey, Highclere castle was turned into a hospital for injured officers at the outbreak of World War I.
The most expert medical staff was given to all the soldiers in the best possible surroundings to speed recovery, with many returning to the front.
Patients began to arrive from Flanders in September 1914. The Countess was a skilled nurse and a devoted healer, with hundreds of letters from patients and their families bearing testimony to her relentless work and generous spirit.
All this was financed by Almina’s “godfather” Alfred, who gave her £25,000 for the set-up costs.
The house will always be associated with the 5th Earl, the current owner’s great-grandfather who famously financed Howard Carter’s discovery of the spectacular Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.
Throughout time the Castle was a centre of political life, especially during the late Victorian era. In many ways Highclere Castle epitomized the confidence and glamour of the Edwardian period.
Visitor books recorded house parties full of royalty, politicians, technological innovators, Egyptologists, aviators and soldiers.
Although the castle is magnificent, the grounds are stunning, with eye-catchers follies.
To the east of the house is the Temple, a structure erected sometime before 1743 with Corinthian columns from Devonshire House in Piccadilly London.
The event was witnessed by Reverend J. Milles, who recorded that “we had not been there above half an hour before we saw it cleave from ye foundations and it fell with such a noise yet was heard at three or four miles (5 or 6 km) distant.”
Whether it is destined to decline or not, the desire to peer into this structured, fragile world is still alive at Highclere Castle.