‘How scenical, how scenical!’ exclaimed Benjamin Disraeli when he first visited Highclere.
No doubt, Highclere Castle and Estate is definitely one of the most recognisable historical houses in the world, well-known everywhere with the following fictional names: Downton Abbey, Rutherford Hall, Totleigh Towers, Belgrave Manor, Misselthwaite Manor and Randolph Hotel. In effect, in the last decades, it has been the ‘best character’ in a lot of movies: Downton Abbey TV drama series and movies, Agatha Christie’s Marple, Jeeves and Wooster, Duel of Hearts, The Secret Garden and Back to the Secret Garden, Inspector Morse, The Legend of Tarzan, The Four Feathers. Moreover it has been used on lots of TV shows: Country House Secrets, ITV This Morning, Return to Downton, Better Homes and Gardens.
Although Highclere has been a film set many times during the last decades and has ‘played’ different roles, I do believe that it achieved its real essence and magical powers just by acting Downton Abbey TV drama series: in point of fact, to millions of fans it really is Downton Abbey and its rooms and gardens are animated by D.A. characters’ ‘spectres’. Well, you know, through my eyes each space and yard in the lawns have a metaphorical existence. It’s not that difficult. As a matter of fact, it’s quite easy to understand: the Visitor take a peep at the Castle’s profile on the horizon and it just takes his breath away.
These strong emotions and unusual feelings due to the bizarre joy of being on D.A. stage make the tourist breathe D.A. perfume and imagine to listen to the actors’ voices. Thus, I can definitely state that Highclere Estate is an extremely magical place because of the joyful memories of D.A. we try to conserve and enjoy and, above all, because of the moral virtues we lost jn the last century.
Surely D.A. galaxy seems so far, old, mentally distant from our modern planet and sometimes it seems to come out looking too ‘ancient’and coming from a very very distant past, too melancholy or ridiculous. But I assure you that kindness and moral values are the most precious treasures you can discover and Highclere Castle is absolutely a custodian of all these things and probably a ‘museum of good memories’.
BY CAR: Highclere is certainly a joyful place where you can spend a wonderful and cheerful day. If you come from Oxford, it will take you 40 minutes ( via A34); if you arrive from London Luton Airport or Gatwick Airport, it takes one hour and a half. Alternatively, if you are located in Newbury, it takes just 10 minutes. Alert: to use sat nav, write the postcode RG20 9LE and then follow the brown tourist signs to the main entrance.
BY TRAIN: don’t hesitate to try the good service from London Paddington to Newbury. Taxis can be found outside the station at Newbury. Here are the most important Taxi Companies in this geographical area:
Cabco: 01635 33333
Wheels Taxis: 0750 070 0961
Go Green Taxis: 01635 800 990
Ave Cabs, Newbury: 01635 31212
Apex Cars (Andover): 01264 355555.
Alternatively, ride in your limousine with D.A. chaffeur Tom Branson!!!
The Gardens and Grounds are open to Visitors during public opening times ( Spring and Summer). Whilst there are some gravel paths around the Castle lawns and through some of the Gardens, the Woodland Walks are rougher grass paths, as are the paths through the Flower Meadow in the summer. Remember that your admission ticket, to be booked in advance, is always required for entrance to the Castle, Gardens, and Grounds.
Alert for Disabled Visitors: Wheelchairs can be used around the Castle on the paths and in the Egyptian Exhibition (access to this is via the Courtyard at the back of the Castle). It is not possible to bring motorised wheelchairs into the Castle.
Instead of beginning my writing with the description of the Library and the Saloon ( which are probably the most known spaces in the house), I prefer to mention the most impressive and awesome bedrooms:
PORTICO BEDROOM: used as Lady Sybil’s bedroom from Downton Abbey, this bedroom was named ‘Portico Bedroom’ because it’s located at the front of the Castle, directly above the front door. It was the location where Sybil and Gwen, a young maid, built their strong and unusual friendship. Please note that this room didn’t see the difficult birth of Sybil and Tom Branson’s daughter nor Sybil’s death.
ARUNDEL BEDROOM: you may recognise this room as Lady Edith’s bedroom. When Highclere Castle was a hospital, ran by Almina the Countess in the First World War, Arundel Bedroom was used as an operating theater. It is now a wonderful pale pink bedroom, looking North towards the hills of Oxford.
EAST ANGLIA BEDROOM: the bridal dressing room for Lady Mary’s wedding to Matthew Crawley.
MERCIA BEDROOM: used as Lady Grantham’s room
STANHOPE BEDROOM: it hosted Mr. Kemal Pamuk when he suddenly died. This unusual story is based on a similar true story where a foreign diplomat died in a country house during intimacy…Later Stanhope hosted Martha Levinson and Lady Anstruther.
WESSEX BEDROOM: starring in Downton Abbey when poor William the waiter passed away.
THE RACING ROOM: a special room projected during Covid-19 Pandemic. This was once some of the footman’s quarters and at one point it had a very low ceiling. So the owners took the ceiling down and found a wonderful space above it. Well, you know, that’s a mysterious space!
THE MUSIC ROOM: over the course of history, the music has had many different uses, one of them was as a table tennis room. Now it serves as a small dining room or a with-drawing room. It’s appreciated due to the fact that it faces both south and east so is very light, bright and welcoming. The recycled ceiling dates to 1730/1740 and was originally in the Tudor house. Finally, it hosts the delicate and intricate embroideries acquired from the Malatesta Palace in Rimini.
THE DRAWING ROOM: the piano ( a Steinway and Sons grand piano) is too large for the Music Room, so is located in the Drawing Room. The chandelier in the Drawing Room is certainly breathtaking. It was a gift from Alfred de Rothschild to the Countess Almina. It was first created for candles but it has been adapted slightly to work with LED light bulbs.
THE DINING ROOM:To one side of the fireplace you can admire a rather wonderful portrait of a very important part of Highclere Castle’s story, Robert Sawyer, the second owner of Highclere Castle. But, above all, the dining room is remarkable for the tragic and dramatic scene of Lord Grantham’s ulcer attack. Here are some incredible details:there were a lot of blankets and covers used to protect the carpet and table. The crew were amazing and did a fantastic job of protecting everything. Actor Hugh Bonneville was so brilliant that the scene only took one take – if they had of had to reset it there would have been a very long delay! The following scene when Lord Grantham was carried out on a stretcher took longer to film than the whole scene in the dining room…
Nature plays a fundamental and leading role in the Estate’s life: in short, you can enjoy an incredible and breathtaking full-immersion into the electrifying beauty of the Gardens. Please read what you can meet on your way:
THE ASH TREE, forming part of the Arcadian landscape and painted by John Constable, a famous English painter. The wood of an Ash tree is extraordinary and has gifted with so many uses over the centuries.
THE GRAMPUS, behind the Castle, near the ruins of the old Anglo Saxon church. This yew tree is believed to be close to 1000 years old and has a rather interesting tale about an annoying ghost, called Grampus. Please take note this ghost lives at Highclere but didn’t take part in the TV drama series!!!
THE HA-HA: if you are not quite familiar with this bizarre concept, please note that it’s a sunken fence often used in the 18th century to mark the end of a lawn and the beginning of a field for grazing livestock, giving the illusion that the lawn stretches endlessly. In fact, the famous Jane Austen used ha-has in her novels as going beyond the ha-ha into the wilderness almost marked a character stepping out of what was deemed as conventional and proper.
THE MONKS GARDEN, registered in the historical archive of records from 1216 but they suppose there was some sort of garden there many years before this time. It has a wonderful yew arch running through the centre of it which was planted in the 18th century. The original garden was planted with practical ingredients to supply the house with fresh products.
THE CEDAR TREE IN FRONT OF THE CASTLE: raised in 1739 from a cone brought by Lebanon by Dr Pocock, the oriental traveller. This cedar was transplanted in 1767 . Many of the trees are over 250 years old . It’s enormous!!! I do hope it will never fall down…
B17 CRASH:This is a unique and exclusive area where an aeroplane, carrying a crew of young Americans, came down on May 5th 1945. The Castle staff tried to give them aid , but unfortunately all bar one of the crew passed away. Thus on the Estate, there is a memorial to those who lost their lives in plane over the years. You can also pause and take a minute to pray in front of The Cedar Airman, that pays tribute to those who died in WWII and those who lost their lives during training exercises around the park.
JACKDAWS: Jackdaws Castle, across the lawns from the Library, was built in 1743 by Robert Herbert, using Corinthian columns salvaged from Berkeley House in London which had burned down in 1733. All the follies you’ll be able to admire on the estate were designed as a sort of punctuation point, either to enhance a particular view/panorama or to suggest a place to pause in order to admire the beauty of Nature.
HEAVEN’S GATE: a stunning folly, one of many on the Estate, built in 1737 and recently restored. It originally had not many small rooms and a courtyard. Then it became a pedimented archway that can be seen and admired from the Music Room!
DUNSMERE LAKE: Dunsmere lake is about 1 mile north of the Castle. That’s definitely the ideal place to go canoeing in the wilds of the Estate (if you are able to swim...). The lake is part of the landscape designed by Capability Brown and takes in some majestic views. Dunsmere Lake is on the exit route when the Castle is open to the public, which gives everyone the chance to see it as they leave. Moreover there's a seasonal walk available in the summer for visitors to be able to walk from the Castle which isn’t far at all.
The library is certainly the most recognisable room in the Castle, made famous by the red sofas and Lord Grantham who makes use of its celebrated Carlton House writing desk. This desk is in a different postion to how you see it in Downton Abbey. During the First World War the Castle was turned into a hospital and the library into a dayroom for convalescent officers (that is reflected in D.A. Season 2). On the contrary, during the Second World War, Highclere became an evacuation centre and the children slept in this room as the air raids made sleeping on the top floors so difficult and dangerous .
The well-known and grand saloon features in the most memorable scenes like the moment of silence at the end of WWI , the Servants’ Balls and the Christmas parties.There have been many concerts in the Castle. Mainly in the Saloon as there are amazing acoustics in the room and can seat the most number of people – around 50/60. Some smaller concerts have been held in the Library in the past. Nowadays is used for parties, in D.A. it plays the ideal location for the magnificent and lovely Christmas Tree.
And finally, the STAFF STAIRCASE: it takes you 32.5 seconds to run from the bottom to the top! So that would be from the basement to the second floor where the bedrooms are. There is still one more floor to get to the servants rooms but that would involve using another set…No lift!
Well, that’s all! Enjoy your visit and remember Lady Violet's best quote: ‘ I don’t believe in defeat!’
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The cultural blog Downton Gazette was created in 2022 and concerns whatever can be referred to DOWNTON ABBEY, of which it shares the brave motto :” You can change your life if you want to”( Mr Bates to Gwen, series 1). This website, also devoted to Theatre,Music and Art, supports the art activity of FONTANA SHELTER(in loving memory of the Italian painter Luigi Fontana), recently member of West Ox Arts Gallery in Bampton, Faringdon Art Society and Oxfordshire Artweeks.