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'Downton Abbey': 10 facts about the show's real castle

January 30, 2012 |  9:33 am

Downton Abbey library
As savvy TV and movie viewers have come to realize, most locations that they see on screen are created through a combination of extravagant budgets and talented set designers. Even when luxe exteriors are genuine (such as on “Gossip Girl” or “Revenge”), the interiors are created on sound stages. The PBS hit “Downton Abbey," now in its second season, is the lush exception to this rule.

Downtown Abbey castleThe real home of TV’s grand Grantham clan is Highclere Castle, an estate by Charles Barry, who also built the Houses of Parliament. He completed Highclere Castle in 1842 on 1,000 acres of English countryside near Newbury, on land inhabited since 1672 by the Carnarvons.

The current Lord and Lady Carnarvon (Geordie and Fiona to their friends) have discovered that allowing the cast and crew to infiltrate their home and grounds provides gains that are not merely financial.

“The best part has been sharing this romantic castle and home with so many people from around the world,” Lady Carnarvon said. “And ‘Downton’ has helped revitalize an interest in history.”

The author of the new book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle” (Broadway Books), Lady Carnarvon admitted to a downside of having attractive actors and actresses traipsing through her house clad in sumptuous Victorian fashions.

It's an invasion, she said. “The thick wires and cables snaking everywhere, the cameras, the trollies, the white vans obscuring the drives and the dust that collects as a result.” Her advice to anyone who’s thinking of letting their own home become an onscreen one? “Have a good sense of humor!”

Right now, as the third season of the show has just started filming, Lady Carnarvon is keeping a close eye on the family heirlooms, not to mention her dogs, which love scarfing food from the catering tables. But she did find time to talk with us about Highclere’s richly appointed rooms, which are nearly as big a lure as the show’s romantic plots and family intrigue. The result is the following list of 10 things you may not know about the real “Downton Abbey”:

1.  In a real-life incident that mirrors the show this season, Lady Almina, the fifth countess (and the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild), turned Highclere Castle into a hospital for World War I soldiers in 1914. “She became a skilled nurse and healer of men’s spirits as well as bodies,” Lady Carnarvon said. “There are hundreds of letters here at Highclere from parents who wrote to give thanks to her. They were so grateful for her telegrams letting them know how their sons were getting on. There are stories about the nights Almina sat up with the men, some of whom had seen so much they weren’t sure they wanted to go on.”

2.  The mahogany desk and chair in the Music Room belonged to Napoleon. “They were bought by the third earl of Carnarvon in 1821 after Napoleon’s death,” Lady Carnarvon said. The chair was made for Napoleon, and the Carnarvons have a sketch of him by it circa 1804. "The desk is probably from the same period, and both pieces went with him into exile at Longwood house on St. Helena,” she said, referring to the island where Napoleon died.

Downton Abbey Music Room
The Music Room.

3. In years past, Queen Elizabeth was a frequent overnight visitor, as she was a close friend of the seventh earl until his death in 2001. (“Cannot comment,” Lady Carnarvon said, which was to be expected, as her royal highness’ personal life is not to be discussed publicly.) 

4.  The fifth earl of Carnarvon helped to discover King Tut’s tomb, so some fear a "mummy’s curse" at Highclere. “He spent 16 working on various concessions in Egypt, 12 with Howard Carter, and probably had the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities ever to be held privately,” said Lady Carnarvon, referring to the archaeologist credited as the primary discoverer of Tutankhamun's tomb. Rumors of the curse revolve around the mysterious circumstances surrounding the earl’s death a year after the discovery: He died in Cairo from an infected mosquito bite.  “There are some bizarre coincidences,” Lady Carnarvon said. “At the same time he died, the lights in Cairo went out and the earl’s favorite dog at Highclere, Susie, howled and died.” Today, there is an Egyptian Exhibition Room in the castle’s basement.

5. During World War II, Highclere Castle also became a home for evacuated children who had been shipped out to the countryside from blitz-weary London.

6. Unlike the half-dozen or so staff you see on the series, Highclere Castle employs 60 to 80 people, “from gardeners to chefs, farm staff, house staff, office staff, painters, electricians, and guides,” Lady Carnarvon said. “The youngest members work in the tearooms during the holidays and are as young as 16, and some of the older members of staff are in their 70s, and one is nearly 90. Many have worked her for 25 or 30 years and one for 52 years.” 

7. The unusual design on the walls in the room inexplicably called the Saloon Room is actually 17th century Spanish gold-embossed leather wallpaper brought back by the third earl of Carnarvon.

8. Even the mistress of the house doesn’t know how many rooms are contained within Highclere’s walls. “There are probably 200 or 300 rooms, and 50 to 80 bedrooms,” she said. “Today we tend to use 14 or 15 bedrooms, and some of the other rooms are used for archives and storage. It’s just on a different scale. We don’t need a Robing Room anymore, but there’s nothing wrong with it. We’ve just left it as is. Some rooms are interesting as relics of the past.” As for talk that much of the castle is damp, cold and uninhabitable, she said that “there is some heating throughout, and any house can have a water leak to fix. Long before ‘Downton,’ we spent significant amounts of money on the castle roof." Upkeep, she said, is "ongoing and fascinating."

Downton Abbey bedroom
One of the castle's many bedrooms.

9. Hearing about the enormous amount of money needed to repair Highclere Castle, Andrew Lloyd Weber suddenly offered to buy it in 2010. Noting that their family home was not for sale, the Carnarvons turned him down. “I think it has more to do to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s desire to hang his art collection somewhere. Maybe it might help with his estate duties," Lady Carnarvon said, referring to taxes. “He was not a friend and, therefore, might not be aware of our own art collection.”

10.  Speaking of art, that gigantic portrait of a man on a horse that’s often visible behind Hugh Bonneville’s head in the dining room on “Downton Abbey” is a 1635 portrait of King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck. “That painting is particularly fine, but there are three Van Dycks in the dining room,” Lady Carnarvon said, adding that Highclere is full of art and antiques. “There are 15th century Italian embroideries in the Music Room, and 18th century silk bed hangings, and 400 years worth of European and English paintings and furniture throughout the castle. Not to mention those 5,000-year-old antiquities from Egypt.”

Downton Abbel library2
Another view of the library.

 

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-- Leslie Van Buskirk

Top photo: The library in Highchere Castle. Credit: Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images

Second-from-top photo: Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham in "Downton Abbey." Credit: PBS

Credit for all other photos: Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images


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