With its hallways lined with Gainsborough masterpieces, a cellar full of Egyptian artefacts and grounds dotted with eye-catching follies, Highclere Castle has a lot to offer even before you factor in its Downton Abbey connection.
Last week, I was lucky enough to visit the ITV hit series’ impressive setting, which offers tours to the general public, and found it fascinating to learn about the real happenings that have taken place within its many grand walls.
On arrival, Highclere is just as striking as you’d imagine. A Bath-stone-clad exterior, designed by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, and set in 1,000 acres of Parkland, Highclere Castle – or Highclere Place House as it was originally known – definitely has the wow factor.
Today it is home to the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, who, like the Crawleys in Downton, manage the surrounding farmland (5,000 acres) and own a Labrador – meet the lovely Bella!
Highclere has been in their family since 1679. In 1922, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered the Tomb of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, and it was many years later, when trying to find items to sell to cover death duty, that some of his other archaeological finds were stumbled upon, tucked away at the backs of unused cupboards. These are now on show in an exhibition in the house’s cellars.
Other points of interest are the 6,000 books in the library, 500-year-old Italian wall embroideries, Napoleon’s desk and, outside, the four follies – one marking the points of the compass. Tours run throughout the year but be warned, before Downton, Highclere received 400 visitors a day, now its 1,300, so get there early.
While you’re in the area, be sure to visit Bampton, too. Used as the site of the village post office, pub, green and church, watch out in the series for the extra shrubbery and milk churns that pop up to disguise modern road signs and electricity boxes.