Review of Highclere Castle (Hampshire): now firmly on the tourist trail

When the Earl of Carnarvon writes his final journal entry for 2011 on 31 December 2011, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does so with ‘It was a very good year’ playing in the background.

Christmas week 2010 I found myself with a few vacation days.  I happened upon a repeat on BBC2 of episode 2 of Downton Abbey.  Two days and many hours later I had watched the whole series.  Like millions of others, I was captivated by a pre-WW1 Edwardian family living at a time when people were ‘proper’ and servants still existed.

Occasional glimpses of Georgian interiors intrigued me but for the main part the sets appeared Victorian/Edwardian.  I imagined this composite of backgrounds involved multiple locations, but I was wrong.

Reason to visit: to see where Downton Abbey was filmed.  Maybe leave it a few years until the hype has died down.

Downton Abbey was filmed almost entirely at Highclere Castle, a palatial, cubic, Victorian gothic exterior encasing a much earlier Georgian house, floating atop an elevated hilltop with tall (Victorian) graceful ceder trees on Capability-Brown designed landscaped lawns out front.  Further down the hill one finds the walled gardens: the Monks’ Garden and the Secret Garden, home to an impressive deep ‘white’ herbaceous border.

Only the servants’ quarters had to be recreated as sets, Highclere having long since converted the original kitchens: one now finds a Egyptian exhibition and tea rooms in the basement.

It could be the “long-lost sibling of the Houses of Parliament” was our conclusion on first seeing it.  We were not far wrong – on the instructions of the 3rd Earl (given in 1838, one year after Victoria’s accession) today’s exterior was designed in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament and Cliveden.

Having one’s country house as the location for a popular TV series seems to be a very wise financial move for oft asset-rich, cash-poor country house owners.  As happened for Castle Howard before them (after Brideshead Revisited was filmed there), Highclere is now on the tourist map and charging £18 for entry (£9 for the house, £9 for the Egyptian exhibition).  The website insists all coaches must be pre-booked.  This makes sense – the house is only open over Easter and for two further months of the year and the coach parties were definitely out in force.  The entrance fee, however, is a brave assertion that Highclere is on par with Chatsworth and Blenheim.

This Youtube clip is rather insightful.  Do follow on to watch the other two clips.

The Castle stands on the site of an earlier house, which in turn was built on the foundations of the medieval palace owned by the Bishops of Winchester – hence the name of the Monk’s Garden.    Present Highclere has been home to the Carnarvon family dated to 1679 – the year of William III of Orange and Mary II’s accession.

Inside is largely Victorian: one will find the bedrooms used for filming and a couple of very nice Georgian sitting rooms.  Nothing special to report here though.  Oak staircases, large double-height vaulted central hall lit from above around which (at second floor height) there are galleried corridors off which are bedrooms: mock Elizabethan with an Italianate twist.

Entrance is by free flow – at least one guided tour (first hour of the day?) would be welcome – and most of the bedrooms can only be viewed from the doorway, creating a bottleneck at each room.  It would be so much more sensible to let people enter the rooms and put down a rug to protect the carpets.  

The exit is via the very steep back stairs & the tea rooms (with overflow seats in a marquee out back that has seen better days).

The shop is dotted off to the right of the back door in part of the former stable block, which looks like it should be next on the renovation list.

Really disappointingly, there are no information sheets in any of the rooms – while there are room stewards clutching guide books the rooms are really busy and when I had chance to ask questions no one seemed overly familiar with their room (e.g. me: “when was the silk on these walls replaced?”.  Guide: “the original was given by Lord Rothschild as a wedding present“.  Me: “when?”.  Guide: “about 200 years ago“.  Me: “early Regency then…1812“. Guide checks guidebook.  Guide: “sorry, no, 1895“.  Me: “oh, late Victorian then“.  Guide: “yeah, whatever“).

The Egyptian exhibition

I’m passionate about Egyptology.

Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, was funded by the 5th Earl and therefore the Carnarvons at one time had a world-class collection of artefacts.  However, a little research before we visited (in order to decide whether to pay the £9 admission fee to the exhibition when we’ve seen both the Museum of Metropolitan Art (New York) and British Museum (London) collections) told me that the 5th Earl’s widow sold the noteworthy parts of his collection to MOMA to pay death duties.  A few items were retained and others loaned to the British Museum.  In the 1980s the family discovered a room under the stairs (previously blocked up) containing the remaining items and this and the returned British Museums items now form the core of the exhibition.  Perhaps you should make your own mind up whether the exhibition is worth nine of your hard-earned pounds.

I didn’t enjoy my trip to Highclere.  Save for two rooms at the rear of the house which date from the Georgian building everything else was Victorian and only the galleried hall teetered on being inspiring.  The tea room was depressing (the marquee housing overflow tables out back more so) and the garden too far from the house.  It was also too busy.

My advice: give it five years and then go back.  With the money Highclere will make and the experience they will gain from the current visitor numbers I’m sure it will be a somewhat different experience.

When visited: 2011

House: ***

Garden: **

Theme tune: It was a very good year by Frank Sinatra


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