From the Civil War to Egyptian Mummies

Highclere Castle is famously well-known as the location of ‘’Downton Abbey’, the much loved British historical period made by ITV that commenced in 2010 and ran for six hit series. Filmed in Hampshire (rather than the Yorkshire situation of the show), it is a convenient distance for a London day trip.

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The estate of Highclere has a fantastic history of residents dating back to the 8th century. The estate was bought in the 17th century by the first Earl of Caernarvon, the father of the dynasty that still lives in the house to this day. The Earl, Robert Dormer, was one of the richest men in the realm, but he did not have too much time to enjoy his riches. He died aged 33 fighting for the king at the beginning of the English Civil War during the first battle of Newbury- not far away from home. His descendants continued to improve the original Tudor building, and during the 18th century, they employed the famous landscape architect, Lancelot Brown (more commonly known by his nickname ‘Capability’ Brown), to transform the grounds of the estate.

The biggest change for Highclere Castle happened, as usual, during Victorian times when the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon commissioned Sir Charles Barry to rebuild the castle. Barry was mostly known for his work on the Palace of Westminster in London (currently the home of Parliament), and looking at Highclere today, the resemblance between the two buildings is obvious. The earl was a rich man and he had a desire to display his wealth: during the build of the new castle, he constantly argued with the architect, trying to make him plan things on an even grander scale. It took the architect three attempts before the earl was happy with the plans.

When Barry started the works, he worked with the existing house rather than demolishing it. He covered it with plaster work, added more wings and erected the tower above. The 3rd Earl did not manage to live to see his castle rebuilt and it was his son, the 4th Earl, who finished the works.

The most famous member of the family has to be the 5th Earl, George Herbert, who backed the excavations to unveil the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The earl famously died in Cairo not long after, sparking tales of the legends of the curse of Tutankhamun.

Today, many of the Egyptian artefacts that the 3rd Earl Barry collected are on display in the basements of Highclere Castle; interestingly, this is one of the reasons why the producers of “Downton Abbey’’ looked for a different location to shoot all the down-stairs scenes.

Unfortunately, the lavish lifestyle of the 5th Earl almost bankrupted the family and the estate, like many we have visited, was saved through marriage. In the case of Highclere, it was the union between the 5th Earl and Almina, the illegitimate daughter of Baron Rothschild, who brought with her a huge dowry. Thanks to Almina, the family managed to keep the castle and even up to the present day, it is inhabited by the 8th Earl, George Herbert, who is also the godson of our current Queen Elizabeth II.

The house is open for visitors and is associated with HHA. for more information please visit Highclere Castle official website.


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It’s Beautiful but not Interesting

Chasing Castle Review

We visited Highclere Castle during the Easter break. I have to admit that I was not a fan of ‘’Downton’’ upon my visit, and actually only watched my first episode after we had been to Highclere. It is evident that I was in the minority, however, and many of the visitors who arrive here are obvious fans. I can easily understand their interest in visiting the house when (the upstairs section) is such a true replica of what is seen on screen. Other than this, however, there is in my opinion, absolutely nothing in the castle to make the experience particularly interesting. The people who manage Highclere should visit places like Alnwick Castle (Harry Potter) and Castle Howard (Brideshead Revisited) which are still both private houses, but exemplary in how they manage to increase visitor engagement with a property linked with a popular entertainment franchise.

After visiting so many castles, and especially Victorian mock castles like Highclere, I can easily say that although the castle looks impressive, visiting it is an underwhelming experience. The truth is that Highclere Castle does not deliver any real stories- which you know by now are my gateway into the ‘’real’’ castle experience. In addition to this, there are no guided tours or any talks on offer to visitors at all and most of the guides in the rooms are there to make sure you do not touch anything rather than to make the experience any more interesting. The gardens of the castle are beautiful- especially as we were visiting in the spring- but they do not offer anything special compared with other private or National Trust houses we have seen.

Finally, it is also important to mention that Highclere does not offer any special activities or facilities for children, which means that if you are a ‘’Downton Abbey’’ fan with a young family, you will have to visit the house in turns with your partner (if you have one) and/or bring your own entertainment for the kids.

To sum things up, the hit TV series of ‘’Downton Abbey’’ means Highclere Castle is a desirable place to visit for many, but unfortunately the people who manage it do not make enough effort to make this experience a rewarding one. If you are a die-hard fan, nothing I say will deter you from experiencing Highclere, otherwise, there are plenty more rewarding places to go.

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