When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go - Downton
No, you cannot always go to Downton Abbey, as I found out one day in September when I checked the website for Highclere Castle and found that the day before the estate had closed for the summer. But reading further, I saw that it would be open in October—for four days.
We'd just finished viewing the first series of Downton Abbey, the Edwardian drama on ITV. I'd heard many people rave about it, and since I generally like period dramas, I downloaded the ITV series from iTunes and we devoured the first season. (With only minor complaints—I felt the first episode was too expository. Background information was constantly shared by the characters in too obvious a manner, usually prompted by Daisy the clueless scullery maid.)
But by the time the series ended seven episodes later, we were both hooked. I marked October 13 on my calendar and my husband took the day off, so we could finally visit Downton—err, Highclere Castle.
Highclere is the ancestral home of the Earl of Carnarvon—yes, that Earl of Carnarvon. Along with entry to the house you can purchase a ticket for the Egyptian Exhibition, featuring some of the treasures discovered when the fifth earl opened King Tut's tomb. This was a must-see for us. Carnarvon was once a household name: I remember my first grader reading a book about the discovery of Tut's tomb, over and over and over, sparking a fascination with all things Egypt that eventually infected my younger daughter as well.
This made Downton Abbey—err, Highclere—even more of a fan destination.
I love visiting old houses and castles, many of which are used as locations for films. I've already seen all the locations for my favorite period film, Pride and Prejudice.
And Thursday was a gorgeous day, almost as perfect as the neverending summer days of Downton Abbey. The only problem? Turns out every other Downton Abbey fan in the country decided to visit the same day. The queue to get a ticket was around 500 deep—we waited almost an hour to even get through the gate. Then, inside the house, we had to follow a tightly packed queue throughout the tour. One of the volunteers said that since the series had aired, visitors to Highclere had increased substantially, to over 1000 a day compared to the previous 200 or so.
Which meant they no longer offer guided tours, a shame since there was no information in any of the rooms other than that offered by the volunteers posted in several locations. I'd have been smart to purchase a guide book, written by the current countess, in advance. No photos were allowed inside, so I can't show you any of the treasures, including the desk of Napolean that one of the previous earls purchased.
We filed past the bedrooms, peeking in the red room where one of Mary's suitors met an unfortunate end. And we saw youngest daughter Sybil's cheerful room. All these rooms overlooked Siddown Hill, a gorgeous view to wake up to whether you're in Downton Abbey or Highclere Castle.
The present house was designed in 1832 by the architect Sir Charles Barry, who, along with Augustus Pugin, designed the Palace of Westminster, aka Parliament. The castle is strikingly similar to the Victorian Gothic Houses of Parliament, including the grand tower rising above the spires. The castle has been open to the public since 1988. According to one of the volunteers, the family no longer live in the castle, though they use it for special occasions. It's strictly a money-making business now, rented out for weddings and film locations.
The Egyptian Exhibition tells the story of the fascinating 5th earl, Lord Carnarvon, who financed Howard Carter's excavations in Luxor that eventually unearthed King Tut's long-hidden tomb. Known for racing his motorcars too fast down country lanes (and collecting some of the first-ever speeding tickets), the earl was also an accomplished photographer. After discovering the tomb, Lord Carnarvon died at age 56, killed, perhaps, by the Curse of the Pharaohs, or more likely, septicemia.
After touring the house and exhibition we escaped the crowds and wandered around the grounds. The manicured lawns unfortunately were playing host to several huge marquee tents, erected for a charity event happening on Sunday. This intrusion spoiled many of my photos. And as we left, the long queue to get inside the house spoiled any attempt to imagine the occupants of Downton Abbey standing in the familiar gravel drive, receiving visitors in their shiny motorcars.
The estate is vast, with rolling parkland dotted with sheep and woods full of pheasants this time of year. I didn't see one of the white labradors, not the one who plays Pharoah (now Isis) in the series nor Lady Carnarvon's white lab Percy.
But we did see The Temple of Diana, the requisite folly (one of several on the estate) as we were driving out.
The castle will again be open in December for several days, but be warned: the crowds will be overwhelming. Plan to arrive early, and if you're visiting from overseas, consider getting a Great British Heritage Pass and bypass the queue. An easy drive from London, Highclere is located near Newbury, about a half-hour from Reading off the A34.
Or just follow the Downton lorry.