Highclere Castle in Berkshire has become famous in recent years as home to the fictitious Earl of Grantham and his family in ‘Downton Abbey’. In reality, though, it is the estate of Lord and Lady Carnarvon but it has just as rich a history as its on-screen counterpart.
The site was first mentioned in the Domesday Book and was originally a medieval palace of the Bishop of Winchester. The Carnarvons have lived at Highclere since 1679 but the castle building we see today did not emerge until Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, remodelled it in 1842. The house is set in 1,000 acres of parkland including formal gardens, woodland, and several follies. The parkland was designed by one of the most celebrated landscape gardeners of the 18th century, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. In October of this year, Highclere is opening the grounds for a special exclusive celebration of the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown’s birth.
At the turn of the 21st century, the house was in a state of disrepair with necessary renovations estimated to cost around £12 million. Because of the popularity of Downton Abbey, Highclere has seen a huge upsurge in visitor numbers and Lord and Lady Carnarvon are now in a position where the repairs are being carried out.
Highclere Castle was home to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a colleague of archaeologist Howard Carter. It was the two men who discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Lord Carnarvon died soon after the discovery and much has been made of the rumour that there was a curse upon those who disturbed the tomb of the Boy King.
At Highclere, there is an Egyptian Exhibition which houses a collection of the antiquities collected by the 5th Earl and reproductions of many of the items found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Visiting Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle is open between July and September for tours of the house and gardens and there are also various special events held throughout the year, such as a vintage tea party and Christmas fair.
You can travel to Highclere by train, alighting at Newbury and then getting a taxi to the house. By car, you can approach by the M4 and the A34 and then follow the brown tourist signs which will bring you to the correct entrance. If you want to experience the magnificence of Highclere by air why not charter a helicopter and see the full extent of the parkland from above?
Highclere Castle also offers private functions and the beautiful setting makes it the perfect backdrop for an engagement, wedding or anniversary celebration. Smaller parties of 30 people right up to 140 guests can be catered for and the bride can even descend from the first floor Gallery, down the sweeping Oak Staircase into the heart of the castle the Saloon, where civil marriage ceremonies are licensed to be held.
If you don’t want to visit the Castle when it is open to the public, private tours can also be arranged when you can take in the house, parkland, and even the Egyptian exhibition, too.
Downton Abbey has now completed its run but the popularity of Highclere Castle shows no signs of abating. People travel from around the world to visit the castle and it seems likely that they will continue to do so. Part of the appeal of Highclere is that it has so much to offer in its own right. It took a television series to bring it to the public’s attention but it will be the allure of the house and grounds that will keep them coming back for more in years to come.