Friday, June 14, 2013

A Visit to Downton Abbey

Just last week, I was able to visit the stunning Highclere Castle, known to many as Downton Abbey, when we made the short trip there from London on a beautiful summer day. As you can imagine, driving up and seeing the vista that is so familiar to fans of the show was thrilling.

Currently the home of the 8th Earl and Countess Carnavon, the home has experienced in the past a much needed "face-lift" after  going through a worrisome season of disrepair, which required millions to repair. Thanks to the arrangement of filming Downton Abbey there, the home is undergoing the some of the renovations needed to keep it the majestic and beautiful stately home it was created to be.

The writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, is a longtime friend of the current
Earl and his family, and has revealed that he had Highclere Castle in mind when he wrote the story of Downton Abbey.

The current mansion was largely rebuilt in 1838 by the 3rd earl when it was transformed to a classical Georgian mansion by Sir Charles Barry, after he finished building the Palace of Westminster.

Situated in a 1000 acre estate, the scene is bucolic. Sheep grazing on the hillsides,

and cedars of Lebanon from the 18th century shading the benches where it's easy to sit for a spell and imagine the characters of Downton Abbey strolling by.

The Queen has been known to visit from time to time. She is the godmother to the current earl, and she loves checking in with her horse racing advisor who is on the property at Highclere Stud.

Of course, in addition to the real life history of the estate, we were there to learn more about Downton Abbey, and indeed we did. The home is the residence of Lord and Lady Carnovan, so it is only open on a very limited basis for tours. When the crew of Downton Abbey decided to give up three days of filming on site last week, the Countess opened up her home for three days of private tours.

The show uses the home's furnishings for its scenes. Only slight changes are made. One example mentioned was that any portraits of this century's earls since the 1920's have to be replaced to be true to the early 20th century. 

Typically, the show films from February until July, this year finishing on July 12. The scenes with the servants downstairs are all filmed on a stage set in London. Even though the scenes may only involve 4-5 characters, there will be 70-80 crew members on hand.  A typical day of filming can take up to 12 hours, with maybe only 4-5 minutes of footage they actually use. They will typically work on a couple of episodes at a time. The director and lighting chiefs sit in adjacent rooms to the rooms being filmed to screen what they are getting, while the assistant director remains in the room.  

You might recognize this door from many of the scenes when guests are coming and going. Photos were not allowed indoors, regrettably, but I can tell you the interiors are amazing, and yet not so formal that you couldn't imagine someone still living there. Many family photos are sitting around, no one cared if you walked on the carpets, or touched the furniture--it's a home, and not a museum.

The more characters there are in a scene, the longer it takes, because they will film the same scene over and over again from different angles and varying perspectives of the characters. The dining room scenes can take the longest. Maggie Smith is the only character that will use a stand-in, on takes when her face is not directly filmed in part of a scene.

The butler awaited our entrance into that grand Gothic hall you've seen many times, and he welcomed us into the home where we gathered in the grand saloon.  The walls there are covered with leather from Cordoba, Spain, that were hung in 1862. Soon after our small group was collected, Lady Carnovan greeted us so warmly and graciously on the great oak staircase. She seems quite down to earth and was open to answering a few of our questions before we were divided into groups of a dozen with some of the guides. We were fortunate to have the head guide, who has been a friend of the family for 22 years, and  I found myself hanging on to her every word.

She works with all the actors and crew, trying to accommodate and anticipate their needs. She did tell us that Maggie Smith, perhaps because of her "life experience," requires a little more attention than the others. The morning room of the house is not used for filming, but it is a lovely and feminine sitting room, decorated with shades of soft green and chintz, designated as Maggie Smith's own private waiting room, until she is needed to film some of those choice one-liners for which she is known.

Today there are still over 50 bedrooms in the home, most of which are not used as bedrooms any longer. Some are currently offices on the top floors--many are no longer in use.

A visit to Highclere Castle also includes a tour of the Egyptian exhibit in the underground, which draws many students on field trips. The 5th earl, along with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun back in 1922 and the exhibit chronicles their discovery.

After finishing the tour, we retreated to the tea room for tea and biscuits, but not before being given 

goodie bags

containing a signed copy of Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, the story of the 5th earl's wife, who is the inspiration for some of the story line of Downton Abbey. The book is written by the current Countess of Carnavon.

One of the things the Countess shared with me personally is that she has a new book coming out this fall, titled Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey. Lady Catherine was the wife of the 6th earl, and an American heiress, so pick up both books if you are a fan of the era. She assured me it will be interesting to learn about the American heiress and the impression she made on Highclere Castle.

Sadly, I have no hints to share with you from the Highclere Castle family or friends about the new upcoming season, but really, we wouldn't want any spoilers now, would we?

I imagine we'll all be tuned in with an eager anticipation when the new season starts--in the fall for the UK, and January for those in the States. Until then, we can only imagine what happens next....


  1. Hi Debi, how interesting that so many Americans are in awe of this programme. I cannot get in to it and yet Highclere castle is not far from me and I have never been. I also have a book on my table ,, it is called Maureen's story ,, Maureen started work there as an assistant cook and left 32 years later as House Manager . All those years were decicated to Highclere :-) I am so pleased that you enjoyed your trip ,

  2. Thanks so much for the review of your visit to Highclere Castle. I love Downton Abbey and it is definitely on my "to see" list. How special that you were able to have a private tour!

  3. Deb, this is a wonderful story and what a great little day trip for you guys. I didn't know any of that about Maggie Smith, so interesting isn't it? Thank you for the personal tour and your impressions. You look wonderful!!

  4. What a wonderful post. I loved reading about your day and getting a glimpse of Highclere Castle. I hope to go with my mother when she comes to visit us this summer. Reading about your day made me look forward to it even more. Looks like you had a beautiful sunny day to enjoy it. How special that you were able to meet and talk with the Countess. I will look for the book that you have shown and keep an eye out for the new book that is coming out in the fall.

  5. So glad to get to read about your visit to Highclere Castle, Debi! I have been watching for this post. I have already read it twice, the second time to Hal. We have you to thank for our interest in all things British, including Downton Abbey, of course! Loved everything you shared here and I'm thinking the Countess' book would make for good summer reading.

    What a fitting post for your last visit as an ExPat in that fair land. (Hope I'm using that term properly.) Surely you will find ways to visit at least once or twice a year (or more). Are you still planning on creating a book of your blog? What a treasure that would be and it might even sell on the open market!! Your "Tale of Two Cities" has been a wonderful read in every sense of the word and the pictures have certainly added to the experience. Will there be more posts? I hope so!

  6. Debi, thank you so much for sharing in such detail your amazing visit! And what a fitting final tour to cap your phenomenal years in the UK. You have had so many wonderful adventures and experiences that most people won't have the opportunity to enjoy and you've generously shared them here. Truly a treat and a memorable delight! Thank you, thank you!

  7. oh how muc fun! it looks just the same as my
    favorite show ever.

  8. Debi! What a treat. Thank you for the scoop and this stop is top of the list should we ever make it to England again. Nice picture of you "sittin' for a spell" at Highclere.

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  10. WOW!!!!!! OH YEAH!

    My husband and I, like many others, are huge fans of this series and must have watched them three times over, from season to season! Not only is Julian Fellowes's writing outstanding, the sets are to dream for, to inspire. I literally went out and bought my silver tea set having watched TOO MUCH of Downton Abby and getting inspired!

    You look wonderful next to the castle, and you must have had a super time! KEEP ENJOYING AND SHARING! Anita

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  13. Interesting and well thought through blog. Congratulations. For the sake of fair play and to give all Highclere – Herbert family followers or would be visitors to Highclere Castle ( a great place to soak up Downton magic) all the possible choices available of book title may I please mention that as with the previous coverage in 2011 regarding the life and times of Lady Almina ( the colourful Fifth Countess) in two books with distinct differences of fact , my book " Catherine and Tilly: Porchey Carnarvon's Two Duped Wives. The Tragic Tales of the Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon" will play out for what its worth or not alongside Highclere's latest romp on Catherine Wendell. My narrative draws on original papers, newspapers and the Wendell papers in Portsmouth Athenaeum, in Maine, USA as well as the good will of members of the Wendell family. It will also be based on interviews and testimony from several people who knew and dearly loved Catherine. A sketch of Tilly Losch the great dancer, and bit part actress, a sort of combined Madonna and Lady Gaga of her time, is included too. Kind Regards, William Cross, FSA Scot.

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