The curtain may be falling on Downton Abbey but Highclere Castle, the stately home where the series is set, carries on its grand march through history undaunted.
Highclere Castle, smoking room
The stellar cast members that have appeared throughout the series, including Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Penelope Wilton to mention just three, obviously attracted huge acclaim, but equally one of the most important features of the script was the stately home itself.
Highclere Castle, near Newbury, on the Berkshire-Hampshire border, is the eponymous Downton Abbey.
Home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and their family since 1679, Highclere is undoubtedly one of England’s most beautiful castles set amid spectacular parkland.
Highclere Castle, drawing room
The current castle was largely rebuilt in the mid-19th century by Sir Charles Barry, the architect who redesigned the Houses of Parliament. The majestic Victorian gothic edifice, standing in grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, is a testament to Britain’s pride and self-confidence of the time.
Downton Abbey’s creator, the Oscar-winning script writer Julian Fellowes, fell in love with the castle many years ago. He is a personal friend of the Carnarvons and longed to set a drama at Highclere from his first visit, wanting it to be the backdrop for his screen version of Little Lord Fauntleroy in the 90s.
Highclere Castle, saloon
Nevertheless, Highclere remained close to his heart and when the idea for Downton Abbey emerged, the castle was top of Julian’s location wish list. Yet despite visiting the stately home first, producer Gareth Neame of Carnival, together with his production team, spent six months scouting for other houses. None, however, compared with the original venue.
“Finding the hero location was a funny journey because from day one Julian said the house he had in mind was Highclere. When the show was greenlit I came down to have a look around,” recalls Gareth. “Initially, it seemed wrong to just tick the box without exploring other options because it was such a key factor in the show and probably the singular most important character.
Highclere Castle, library
“One of the reasons we came back to Highclere was that our production designer (Donal Woods), made a point that the show was set in Edwardian England and many period dramas over the last few years have tended to be set in Georgian houses. Highclere’s gothic look felt so different to other period dramas and we were keen to make a fresh statement so the show could stand out.”
Actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, has come to share the owners’ love of the property. He says: “The house is a significant character in the story. What I love about Highclere is, while it’s big, grand and imposing, it’s not so huge and cavernous that you get lost in its vastness. It’s a family home, a working one at that, so it has a familial warmth… as well as frightening running costs, which of course is a recurring theme of the show!””
Highclere Castle, saloon
Filming in the great house did, however, present its challenges for its owners the earl and countess. For the first series the 100-strong crew arrived in March and came and went throughout the summer until June. For the second series, filming began in February until June. “They were here for around two weeks every month,” recalls Lady Carnarvon. “They arrived at 7am and worked an 11-hour day.”
It was always the plan to film the state rooms and public rooms on location at Highclere, but finding the servants’ quarters, kitchen and bedrooms almost unaltered since the Edwardian period was a real bonus.
Lord and Lady Carnarvon are delighted that the real benefactor of Downton’s success has been the house itself. Visitor numbers have increased enormously since the drama first aired. Says Lady Carnarvon: “It’s lovely that people can see the rooms where certain scenes were filmed. They are virtually the same as they appeared in the series. The library is a completely iconic room and when visitors first see it is it is so recognisable; especially the desk where Hugh Bonneville sits. The cedar trees in the park are also iconic. You get exactly what it says on the box with Highclere and people love that.”