An early-morning mist settles over the winding roads and rolling hills dotted with sheep, just waking to another day beneath steel-gray skies. It’s a setting straight out of a Hollywood script.
You can almost hear the familiar piano and strings of the period melodrama’s theme as Highclere Castle comes into view. Highclere has a starring role in the PBS “Masterpiece” hit series “Downton Abbey,” created by Julian Fellowes.
Nestled in the countryside about 5 miles from the town of Newbury (pronounced “Newbree”), the house as it is today was begun in 1838 by the third Earl of Carnarvon and completed in 1878.
“Highclere has been around a long, long time,” says Lady Fiona Carnarvon, who is married to the eighth Earl and is mistress of the manor.
Rather than being greeted by household staff at attention, visitors come upon a gate to present their ticket. The sandstone facade and those familiar turrets framed by old cedars make it hard to stop staring. For fans it’s like meeting a cast member.
As in a museum, visitors can use a headset guide. Velvet ropes and strict house guides/guards keep everyone corralled as you go from room to room.
Tours are timed, and a guide leads each group through the rooms beginning with the library. Family photos are everywhere, so it’s a curious mix of home and television set. During filming, any obvious modern-day object is put away, although other than the photos there aren’t many. Even the furniture is used in the show, including the books, which date back centuries.
The Carnarvons thought carefully before allowing Highclere to be the setting for “Downton Abbey.”
“I did indeed have some trepidation,” admits Lady Carnarvon. “I think you’re mad not to have trepidation. We thought about it quite carefully, the pros and cons.”
The castle is closed to tours during filming.
“Downton Abbey” fans will be impressed with how much of the house is exactly as it is on the show. Even the view from the library to the east lawn is familiar. You can almost picture Lord Grantham and his faithful hound inspecting the grounds. While the ladies’ parlor, dining room and main staircase look just as they do on the show, the second-floor rooms are less elaborate and not as easily identified.
The one true letdown is the downstairs. There is no kitchen with the big wooden table where the servants eat. That part of the show and scenes in the attic bedrooms are filmed at a set built at Ealing Studios in London, 60 miles away.
IF YOU GO
Find more information at www.highclerecastle.co.uk.