Highclere Castle in Hampshire, now famous for being the main filming location for the series Downton Abbey, is only open to the public for about three months of the year, with tickets often selling out far in advance. After booking months ago, Sarah finally got her long awaited opportunity to visit the castle, and spent a day exploring the site with a friend who is equally fascinated by stately homes, Egyptology and Downton Abbey.
The day had finally arrived. After booking our tickets in October last year, our eight month wait was over and my friend Clare and I could finally visit Highclere Castle for our much anticipated visit. Famous not just for being the principal filming location of many of the scenes in the popular series Downton Abbey, but also for an Egyptology collection of items found by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who funded the expedition to find Tutankhamun, the privately owned Highclere Castle is on many people’s bucket lists of places to visit.
Situated near Newbury, 60 miles west of London, this vast 5,000 acre estate is an easy place to find just off the A34. On arrival, you pull off the main road and drive through abundant green fields filled with sheep as the narrow driveway takes you through the grand estate where stewards direct you to parking opposite the castle. Tickets are checked on the way in where you are handed a map of the grounds, before you head off to walk towards the castle and finally get to see it in all its glory.
The earliest occupation of the site for which there is evidence is an Iron Age hill fort on the southern part of the Highclere landscape, while a charter of 749AD records buildings on the site of the current castle. In the 12th century the site was home to a Medieval palace for the Bishops of Winchester, followed by a red brick Tudor house. In 1692, Highclere was bequeathed to Samuel Pepys' daughter Margaret, who was married to the Earl of Pembroke. The estate was inherited by their son, then his nephew, who was made the first Earl of Carnarvon by King George III in 1793. In 1839, Charles Barry, who had designed the Houses of Parliament, remodelled Highclere in a similar Gothic revival style, turning it into a magnificent castle and a high level status symbol.
In 1890 when the 5th Earl inherited the title, he had huge debts and knew he would be unable to run the castle. This was solved by marrying a Rothschild heiress with enough to keep the castle going as well as fund an extravagant lifestyle. Initially into the new motor cars, several accidents later and after a particularly serious one in 1903, he was advised to spend his time in warmer climes, which led him to Egypt. Developing a passion for antiquities and archaeology, he funded Howard Carter and his excavations in Thebes and the Valley of the Kings.
It was in 1922 that Carter sent the Earl a telegram saying he had found a ‘magnificent tomb’, and with remarkable restraint, recovered it and awaited the Earl's arrival. Although the tomb was meant to be opened in the presence of the Egyptian authorities, the Earl and Carter made several secretive forays before the official opening. It was on one of these, when Carter who had made a small hole in the chamber door, was asked by Carnarvon if he could see anything, Carter replied with the now famous words, “Yes, wonderful things.”
The Downton Abbey Connection
The cast of Series One of Downton Abbey, in front of Highclere. Photograph © ITV/PBS
Highclere has been used as a location for several films and TV series over the years, but none more popular than the fictional Downton Abbey. First aired in the UK in 2010 and the USA in 2011, the series caught the public imagination in an unprecedented way, leading to six series in total, and a film which is due out later this year. An historical period drama telling the story of the Earl of Grantham and his family which starts in 1912 and continues through the 1920s, it is the most successful British costume drama for over 40 years.
The success was warmly welcomed by the owners of Highclere, who facing massive repair bills for the upkeep of the castle, now find that with the increase in visitors, they are able to start on some of the much needed work around the castle and the wider estate. Several of the rooms on the tour are used for filming and are instantly recognisable to the show’s fans.
My own interest in the series came rather late in the day, when I got pneumonia in 2016 and had to spend 2 weeks off work. Not ill enough for hospital but too ill to get out of bed, I binge watched the entire six series in that time, feeling as if I was actually living in that fictional world by the end of it, but at least I finally understood what the appeal was.
Highclere doesn’t shy away from its famous connection, putting photos of the filming on display in the rooms as an aide-memoire to visitors. It helps to provide context and I should imagine is very popular with the shows fans.
The self-guided tour starts in the magnificent double library. With the wood panelled ceiling and ornate wooden columns dividing the room, the library contains over 5650 books, some of which date back to the 16th century. Everything is subtly gilt edged, so the room conveys an impression of grandeur yet also looks comfortable and as if it would be easy to just pick up a book and relax in a chair. Many scenes were filmed in here, particularly between the Earl of Grantham and Mr Carson the butler, and there were gasps of recognition from some of the visitors in the room.
This wonderful room leads on to the Music room, quite a contrast as it is very bright, with walls of pale yellow and gold yet with simple oak floorboards. There is an ornate Baroque ceiling from the 1730s depicting Athene Rising, the walls are adorned with 16th century Italian embroidery from a castle in Rimini but the centre piece is definitely Napoléon Bonaparte’s desk. Surprisingly modest, the desk and chair by Jacob Frese are stamped with ‘Palais des Tuileries 1804-1814’ and were bought by the family in 1827 when Napoléon’s effects were sold off from his estate in St. Helene. The room also has antique embroidered chairs placed around the edges for visitors to actually sit on, an uncommon treat in a stately home, so visitors can take their time to appreciate the light airiness of the room, its contents and the wonderful views of rolling green hills outside.
The green silk walls and sparkling chandelier, both supplied by Alfred de Rothschild for the Drawing Room . Photograph © Highclere Castle
The next room is the formal pale green silk drawing room, dominated by a large 356 piece crystal chandelier from the 1890s which was a wedding gift to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon from his father in law, Alfred de Rothschild. The room contains many other treasures including an 1895 Steinway grand piano, a portrait of George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckinghamshire by Joshua Reynolds, a 19th century Chinese tea chest and rather unusually, two portraits that had gilded frames made of sea shells.
The very masculine smoking room follows this, with its plain white ceiling (so it is easy to keep clean), where the men of the house would retire after dinner. There is a rather lovely games chest filled with die, counters, chess pieces, cards and more on a table inlaid with games boards. The highlight is a 17th century Florentine marble table inlaid with birds, fruit and semi-precious stones, although what I really liked were the mock Canaletto’s, brought back from a Grand Tour in the 19th century, and hung high on the walls like slightly embarrassing souvenirs.
The very feminine morning room, where the lady of the house would go to deal with her correspondence and think lady like thoughts follows next, a stark contrast to the smoking room before it. Bright, sunny and very comfortable looking, this was a lovely room with sunlight streaming in and squashy sofas where it is easy to imagine escaping from the rest of the household under the guise of ‘writing letters’ when needed.
One thing I had noticed in the house is that in nearly all of the rooms, the blinds and curtains are kept open, which is such a rare pleasure to be able to see the rooms as the inhabitants would, and not with blinds and window coverings protecting the furnishings from the damaging effects of sunlight. Here at Highclere, you actually get to see the rooms properly and it makes such a difference – in other stately homes you can’t help but imagine the gentry living in a perpetual state of gloom and shrouded darkness, cut off from their grounds, but here you see the rooms how they should be seen, with bright light reflecting off the ornaments and gilt, with sunshine pouring in, with magnificent views outside and with huge hot housed pot plants in every room, actually able to grow in the light. It was a wonderful surprise and something I truly savoured.
The truly impressive triple height vaulted ceiling over the saloon and ornate Minstrel's Gallery. Photograph © Highclere Castle
The tour continues upstairs, where you don’t get the opportunity to actually go in many of the bedrooms, but rather look through the doorways, so a queue had built up on the stairs while people patiently waited for their turn. I loved the bedrooms, particularly the Mercia bedroom which is Lady Grantham’s in Downton Abbey. It was warm and inviting with a comfortable looking four poster bed, portraits on the walls and incredible views. In fact nearly all of the bedrooms were similar, grand and elegant but still relaxed and calm, most of them with piles of modern novels on the bedside tables and chest of drawers to really give them a lived in and peaceful air. One even had a cheap plastic travel alarm clock next to the bed, which highlighted how this is a lived in home, not just a sterile historic environment.
The upstairs corridors of the Minstrel’s Gallery, which all overlook the saloon downstairs and which are lit by glass panes in the triple height vaulted ceiling, are lined with photographs and front pages of newspapers. I particularly liked the photograph of the opening of the Ugandan railway in 1895, with the dignitaries all dressed in their smartest suits, dresses and hats seated next to railway sleepers – it seemed to be the very epitome of colonialism in its heyday. There were photographs too of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s palace, before and after it was bombarded in 1896 in what is recorded as the shortest war in history, lasting no more than 45 minutes. It’s a rather tragic tale of British colonial interference and resulted in the deaths of 500 locals and only one British sailor, before the British installed a puppet government that supported their own interests.
The oak staircase with its deep red carpets that leads on to the Saloon. Photograph © Highclere Castle
After touring the upstairs rooms, you finally get to descend those famous stairs with their solid oak banisters and deep, lush red carpet. Another magnificent Joshua Reynolds hangs on the walls, the portrait of the rather racy looking Mrs Musters. We took our time to walk down the stairs, appreciating every moment of imagining we were in Downton Abbey, until we were hurried along by people behind us who clearly didn’t appreciate their significance. The stairs lead you down to the saloon which is an incredible room with a huge stone fireplace, ornate oak wood everywhere, Spanish leather wall coverings from 1631 and filled with natural light, despite not having any windows, lit from the glass ceiling two floors up.
Charles I is one of the many luminaries that looks down on the diners enjoying elegant meals at the mahogany dining table. Photograph © Highclere Castle
The dining room is the only room left on the tour, its walls covered in portraits, including a Van Dyke of Charles I, with a well-used but beautifully polished mahogany oval table, cut glass rose bowls and a multitude of serving sideboards. The room had several information panels about the house during the wars and its role as a hospital during World War I.
In Downton Abbey, the stairs lead down to the servants’ quarters, here in Highclere they take you down to the Egyptian Exhibition.
The Egyptian Exhibition
The Egyptian exhibition consists of items that weren’t deemed significant enough at the time that the Earl’s Egyptian collection was sold after his death, to a museum in New York. The few bits and bobs remaining were stored away in cupboards at Highclere and their importance wasn’t realised until the 1980s when the items were re-discovered, taken out of storage and put on display for visitors. The first few rooms of the exhibition are all the genuine items, the lady at the door told us that everything after we had got to the room with the letterboxes was an accurate reproduction. We were very intrigued about the letterboxes but were soon lost in the first few rooms and their wonderful treasures.
There is a huge array on offer too. A large calcite jar, 1279-1213 BC from the Tomb of Pharaoh Merneptah (son of Ramses II), found by Earl Carnarvon and Howard Carter where apparently Lady Carnarvon was present and so excited that she helped them to drag it out. There are two lovely blue faience bowls decorated with lotus flowers and hieroglyphics from 1759-1640 B.C. A painted coffin mask from 1075B.C. joins a rather wonderful canopic jar stopper of the 21st dynasty from 1000 B.C. The calcite head of Amanophis III still has black paint defining the eyes. There are mummy bandages and a limestone wall plaque inscribed with text from the Book of the Dead.
The calcite head of Amanophis III, still showing paint around the eyes. Photograph © Highclere Castle
The centre piece is a Sarcophagus of a lady called Irtysh who died at the age of 35. The coffin is in excellent condition with an ornately decorated lid and bandages which are still intact, although the Mummy itself is not there. The inside of the coffin is painted with a full size image of the bare breasted Nut, the goddess of the sky and heavens. This was one of the items found by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon before they found King Tutankhamun.
Other artefacts include make up containers used for kohl during the 12th Dynasty, silver bracelets found in 1911 by Lord Carnarvon and a rare leather archers wrist guard from 1390-1353 B.C., decorated with bound captives which symbolise the enemies of Egypt.
We learn more about the 5th Earl and how he came to fund the excavations in Egypt, how close he came to not finding them as they had had little success and he had promised to fund the digs for just one last season, suggesting they dig under the workmen’s huts. There is the camera he used, the medicine box he took to Egypt each time he went, still with the original contents of quinine, bandages and hypodermic needles. There is a small display about life at Highclere, with a gun from the many shooting parties and photographs of visits by royalty. I also really liked the oversized copies of the Earl's passports which were covered in stamps and visas and gave me serious passport envy.
A perfect replica of King Tutankhamun's mummy and sarcophagus. Photograph © Highclere Castle
Then we arrived at the mysterious letter boxes - a black wall inset with letter boxes at different heights. When you open up a letter box, you get a glimpse into how King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber would have looked to Carter and Carnarvon when they had first made a small hole in the door and peered inside. Cold air gently blows into your face and you see a jumble of items through the gloom, all haphazardly packed together with the occasional dulled glint as the light from the hole catches a once shining object. It was very cleverly done and the archaeologist in me loved it, opening up each and every letter box, even the ones at low level for children to peer through. It carried with it a small frisson of excitement that is only a fraction of how they must have felt opening the real thing.
You then walk through a dark facsimile of the entrance and walk into the burial chamber, laid out as it was for them back in 1922, with the walls decorated with the same pictures and hieroglyphs. The objects here are all replicas, but they are beautifully done and were all made by Egyptian craftsmen who copied the originals exactly. The first object you see is the golden shrine which is incredible and this is followed by the death mask itself and the sarcophagus with the golden goddess statues, an alabaster chest containing the four canopic jars which held his internal organs, a mannequin of his torso that was probably used to tailor his clothes, a diadem with a vulture head and a throne of gold with arms of wings. The whole room was wonderful and the fact that they were copies seemed irrelevant, we were both really caught up in the moment.
There was also the Earls razor, on which he accidentally cut the top off an insect bite on his face that led to his death. It is said that the lights went out across Cairo at the exact time this happened, the Earls dog Susie back in Highclere howled and then promptly died and that the area where the bite was, is also the only place on King Tut’s mask where there is a weakness. Although I’m not one for such fanciful imagining, it was a good way to end the exhibition, with the air of mystery and reference to the curse of King Tut.
King Tutankhamun's death mask. Photograph © Highclere Castle
The exhibition ends and ejects you out into the servant’s corridor, where a small room shows off the family silver which confidently glistens at you. Amongst the usual christening spoons and tureens are some rather more unusual items, including two silver ashtrays made from ostrich feet and an antelope horn with a silver lighter on one end. Fascinating, but also rather disagreeable.
Then it’s out to the courtyard with several tea rooms to choose from, as well as a packed gift shop that was so full of people you had to fight your way round it. Selling quintessential English quality tat, it was stocked with the sort of stuff you really want to own but can’t actually justify buying. However, the foreign tourists were snapping the stuff up, all being served by staff with cut glass British accents. I bought my obligatory bookmark before we abandoned the shop and headed off for the gardens instead.
The Monk's Garden. Photograph © Highclere Castle
The gardens are a joy, even on the rather cloudy day we had unfortunately chosen. Remodelled by Capability Brown in 1771, the most fashionable landscape gardener of his time, he removed the earlier formal gardens and opened them up to the uncluttered landscape that is there today.
We walked and walked, exploring the Wildflower Meadow, the Wood of Goodwill, the avenue of Walnut trees, the walled Monks garden, the Secret Garden and the gently undulating hills. There were surprises as we encountered statues, follies and topiary. The gardens must look incredible in the summer when everything is blooming; they were impressive enough just as the buds were starting to peep through.
The gardens are green and lush; it feels like walking through an insulated bubble which no noise and no outside influence can penetrate. The grass is thick, verdant and springy, the land is enclosed by tall trees, gentle hills and fields which contain frolicking lambs and braying horses. It was possible to walk in total peace surrounded only by the many shades of green and the odd shaft of sunlight that managed to break through the grey skies.
The lush green landscape of the castle grounds. Photograph © Highclere Castle
The grounds are dominated by cedar trees, my personal favourite, with massive, thick trunks and beautiful layered green canopies. The Cedar of Lebanon, beloved by the wealthy and planted in nearly every single stately home from 1740 onwards, was first planted at Highclere by the 1st Earl over 250 years ago, with seeds brought back from Lebanon by the renowned seed collector Bishop Stephen Pococke. There are 56 of them lining the driveway, as well as interspersed throughout the grounds, giving a majestic grandeur to the landscape.
A magnificent Cedar of Lebanon seems to dwarf the castle . Photograph © Highclere Castle
The journey from the car park is down the mile long driveway through the green fields, passing the huge Dunsmore lake, Diana’s Temple folly and finally driving out through the massive formal gates, which were built to celebrate the Earls official entry into the peerage in 1793. It felt like quite a privilege to be allowed to use the main exit, the same as royalty, wealthy and the family, there is no inferior servants exit for visitors here.
Highclere Castle is well worth a visit and worth the wait for tickets. We had had high expectations and they were surpassed and although we would have loved to see more of the house and the servant quarters, it is understandable that some of it is in disrepair. I do hope more will open up over the coming years.
I did struggle at not being allowed to take photos, as there is so much beauty there that it was hard for me not to capture it – my camera is usually surgically attached to me in such places. However, having seen the selfie brigade prancing around in the gardens and draping scarves over their shoulders to look mystically into the distance, I can quite understand why they don’t want such idiocy in their home as well. Is it wrong that Clare and I made a point of photo bombing everyone we saw doing that?
Unlike other privately owned stately homes, Highclere really seems to appreciate its visitors, you are not made to feel as if you are just there to help them pay the bills. They provide plenty of places to eat, to walk and to rest and they seem to want you to enjoy the house as much as they do. It was a fascinating and welcoming place to visit and one I highly recommend, whether you are into stately homes, Egyptians, Downton Abbey, gardens or all of the above.
Visiting Highclere Castle
Monday to Sunday 10h30 – 18h00
Usually in the Easter and Summer school holidays, but dates vary. Full details on the official website.
For Castle, Egyptian Exhibition and Grounds. It is possible to buy tickets for just one or two of these.
Children aged 4-16 £14.50
Family ticket £64.00
There are some days when walk ups are allowed, but I would strongly recommend booking tickets in advance through the website.
The castle also runs guided tours, afternoon teas and hosts special events which are open to the public. See the official website or sign up to their mailing list for further details.
Good to Know
Photography is not allowed anywhere in the house or Egyptian Exhibition, but is allowed in the grounds.
Rucksacks and backpacks must either be carried or worn on the front when inside the building.
Pushchairs and wheelchairs can only go as far as the smoking room.
There are plenty of places to buy food and drink, including a small van in the car park selling drinks and ice creams.