My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle, framed by the branches of the Cedars of Lebanon, is the film location of the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” © Laurel Kallenbach

I admit it: I’m among the millions who are enthralled by the hit PBS television series, Downton Abbey, set in England during the early 20th century. We Downton Abbey fans are fascinated by the escapades of the Granthams and Crawleys, who live in an opulent country manor house.

So, as I was planning vacation in southwest England in 2012, it made sense that my husband and I should seek out the real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle. This beautiful estate—set on 1,000 acres of parkland in Berkshire, about 1.5 hours west of London—is the film location for the “upstairs” scenes of Downton Abbey.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Downton Abbey is a posh costume drama—OK, it’s really a souped-up soap opera—that follows the lives and romances of the aristocrats and servants who live in this lavish estate home.

The cast of the “Downton Abbey” TV series, which airs on PBS.

Meet the Carnarvons

In real life, the Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere Castle since 1679, and the history of the house rivals—and sometimes parallels—the dramatic storyline of the hit show that’s filmed here.

To get the scoop before we traveled, Ken and I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbeypenned by the current Countess Carnarvon, Lady Fiona, who is the Eighth Countess Carnarvon. Among the juicy historic tidbits—often more fantastic than the fictional TV show—are:

  • In 1895, Almina Wombwell married the estate-rich but cash-strapped George Herbert (the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon). Almina was the illegitimate child of the über-wealthy Alfred de Rothschild. Her generous dowry funded many improvements at Highclere Castle—and the tales of her shopping sprees are mind-boggling to us 21st-century commoners.
  • During World War I, Almina, the Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, transformed Highclere Castle into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers—as did the fictional Lady Grantham and Mrs. Crawley in Downton Abbey.
  • Lord Carnarvon, Almina’s husband, funded Egyptologist Howard Carter and was instrumental in discovering the tomb of King Tut in 1922. Some artifacts that Lord Carnarvon brought home from archaeological digs are on display at Highclere Castle.

Highclere Castle’s library.  Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

This last fact really piqued my interested, as I’ve had a lifelong passion for ancient Egypt. I’ve known who Lord Carnarvon was since I was eight years old—so imagine my excitement when at Highclere Castle I saw old photos of Lord Carnarvon studying maps of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in the same library where Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham gives instructions to Mr. Carson, the butler.

A Tour of Highclere Castle

Since Downton Abbey’s premiere, visitation to Highclere Castle has quadrupled, so I reserved tickets online 90 days before our visit—to assure that it wouldn’t be sold out. (Highclere isn’t open to the public every day because it’s a private home. Tickets gain you entry for 2.5 hours either in the morning or afternoon. There’s a separate admission fee for the Egyptian exhibition.)

The Crawley sisters from “Downton Abbey” Photo courtesy PBS.org

Our first glimpse of Highclere Castle was from the parking area; a bus was disgorging passengers. So we headed first to the loo, as we’d had an hour-long drive, which involved getting lost along the way. What’s a pilgrimage without a long, winding road filled with travail? In our case, we had to brave driving on the left side of the road, and we had to stop for directions twice. One sweet older man at a nearby village told us to cross the bridge, travel up the hill past the estate owned by Andrew Lloyd Weber (the composer of Phantom of the Opera and Cats fame), and straight on until we saw signs.

Once inside the Castle, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we passed through the Entrance Hall into the Library with its gold-plated leather-bound books, red carpets, and carved shelves. It’s odd to be in a place you’ve never been that seems so familiar. Such is the magic of film.

There’s no official tour at Highclere, but each room has a docent who answers questions about that room. Several of them work as stewards during Downton Abbey filming. Their job then—as it is while visitors stream through—is to be sure nothing is disturbed or broken while the light and camera crews are at work.

Highclere Castle’s Music Room is lined by beautiful tapestries displaying monkeys, rabbits, peacocks, and owls. This room isn’t used as a Downton Abbey setting, probably because it’s rather small, but it features a desk that belonged to Napolean.

The regal Oak Staircase. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Smoking Room doesn’t appear in the TV show either, but as the place where the men gathered after dinner, it was also the storage spot for a number of Egyptian artifacts. Funerary jars that were once used as umbrella stands are now in museums.

The lovely green-and-yellow Drawing Room, on the other hand, is the location for a number of scenes in Downton Abbey, as Lady Grantham and her daughters often meet there. During season 2 of the show, the wounded WWI soldiers slept on cots in this French-style room, which was decorated by Lady Almina in the early 20th century.

Throughout the house, tables and walls are covered with portraits of the Carnarvons—from the 17th through 21st centuries. The modern snapshots—far less formal than the paintings—are a reminder that this is still a private home.

There’s other evidence of modern use too. There’s a hair drier on the vanity in the Mercia Bedroom (Lady Grantham’s bedchamber on the TV show—much featured in the scenes in which she nearly died from Spanish flu). Occasional guests stay in the very bedrooms that are broadcast around the world.

Highclere’s Stanhope Bedroom became Mr. Pamuk’s bedroom in “Downton Abbey.” Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Stanhope Bedroom, decked out in red carpet and draperies, was the perfect setting for the scandalous television scenes involving the infamous Mr. Pamuk, who spent his last night in this bedroom following a lethal tryst with Lady Mary.

For the record, Mary’s bedroom and dressing room are actually a stage set and don’t exist in Highclere Castle. Neither do the kitchen and servants’ rooms. Downton Abbey’s entire downstairs is constructed in period style in the London studio.

The Saloon, Oak Staircase and Dining Room

The highlight of our Highclere Tour was the Oak Staircase leading from the Gallery-level bedrooms to the main part of the house. Ken and I paraded down the ornate-banistered staircase like Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary into a large room called The Saloon, the heart of this grand house—and a room that’s much featured on Downton Abbey. Its stone fireplace, carved cabinets, and arched doorways appear in famous scenes such as the Servants’ Ball and the concert for the soldiers. This spot just took my breath away.

The elegant Saloon is overlooked by the Gallery. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

It was delightful, also, to visit the Dining Room, where many an elegant meal—usually partaken of by the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith—is filmed. It must be quite an experience for the present-day Carnarvons to sit at the table under the watchful gaze of the portraits of their ancestors.

Just as we left the main part of the house to go to the Egyptian exhibit, one of the guides asked whether we’d seen Countess Carnarvon, who had been walking through the rooms chatting with them just minutes before. Rats! We missed her. She was probably wearing jeans and blended in with the visitors.

Perhaps it’s just as well…I hadn’t practiced curtsying. But I can’t help thinking it would have been fun to say, “Good morning, Your Ladyship.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

P.S. Many thanks to the Carnarvon estate for use of the photos of the interior of Highclere Castle. You can see slideshows of Highclere Castle photos at the castle’s website.

Originally posted: February 2013

Updated: September 2019

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Highclere’s Georgian-era house was remodeled in 1849 and became the Victorian castle as it appears today. Architect Charles Barry built the spires in the style of London’s Parliament Building, which he also designed. © Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

 

 

King Tut Meets “Downton Abbey” at England’s Highclere Castle

What do King Tut and Downton Abbey have in common? England’s Highclere Castle, the film site for the costume-drama TV series that airs on PBS and the Downton Abbey film.

Highclere Castle is the ancestral home of the Carnarvon family, and during the early 20th century, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon became fascinated by ancient Egypt when he traveled to its warm, dry climate for health reasons. Soon the Earl began to fund archaeological digs in Egypt—including Howard Carter’s excavations, which eventually resulted in the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

In my last post about my visit to Highclere Castle, I didn’t say much about the Egyptian exhibit, so I thought I’d share some impressions.

First, this exhibit is modest compared to the one not far away at London’s British Museum, where you can see the Rosetta Stone. That said, at Highclere Castle, I felt a more emotional connection to the Egyptian artifacts than ever before—even when the King Tut exhibit came to Denver two years ago and I saw actual artifacts from the pharaoh’s tomb.

I believe there’s a certain intimacy—or maybe it’s history—you sense when you’re in a place with an actual physical connection to something or someone. Knowing I was standing in the same house where Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter pored over maps of the Valley of the Kings—the greatest Egyptology discovery in history—gave me goose-bumps.

The Carnarvons: Avid Amateur Egyptologists

Lady Almina and Lord Carnarvon in England, 1923. Archival photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Highclere’s Egyptian exhibition is very personal for the Carnarvon family. The Fifth Earl’s family—especially his wife, Lady Almina, and their daughter, Evelyn—often accompanied him to Egypt and sometimes helped with excavations.

After reading Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, written by the current Countess Carnarvon about her family’s ancestors, I felt a kinship with Almina. So it was delightful to see exhibited a beautiful calcite jar (dating to the reign of pharaoh Ramses II) that Almina helped dig from the ground.

(Or so the story goes. Wearing a corset and heavy, long skirts during the early 1900s, Almina’s contribution might have amounted to brushing off the last of the sand from the calcite jar after someone else did the painstaking hands-and-knees job of unearthing it. But I rather like the idea of Almina getting her hands dirty to excavate a jar that might have been held by an Egyptian pharaoh/god 3,200 years ago.)

The Ramses II calcite jar that Almina reportedly helped excavate. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Another exhibition highlight was a 3,500-year-old painted coffin of a 35-year-old noblewoman named Irtyru, that Carter and Carnarvon excavated from Deir el-Bahri in 1908. The paint on this wooden coffin was so brightly colored that it almost looked fresh. The feet on her coffin showed a lovely pedicure—rendered in gold paint.

The exhibition also displayed recreations of Tutankhamun artifacts, including a convincing reproduction of Tut’s mummy, wrapped in hieroglyphic-covered cloth with jewelry and amulets tucked into the folds. His mummy wears gold sandals, and each of his toes were encased in gold toe covers so that the boy-king could walk in the afterlife. (Tut died at about age 19; he was on the throne for nine years from roughly 1333 BC to 1323 BC.)

What stays with me about seeing these artifacts is their artistry, rendered with exquisite skill. Although we think of the ancient Egyptians as being obsessed with death, I started wondering if they weren’t really more interested with the afterlife. Pharaohs were buried with models of ships that would bear the departed king or queen on their journey across the sky to the afterlife.

These shabti figurines were discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter, who was funded by Lord Carnarvon. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Figurines of workers were included in tombs; they accompanied the pharaoh into the afterlife so they could perform the manual labor needed to live for eternity in the luxury to which the royalty had become accustomed. (Remember, the pharaoh was not just a ruler but a god.)

At Highclere Castle, I noticed that these figurines had been created with sensitive, expressive faces. The artists didn’t fill the tombs with work they cranked out for the masses; they did their best work—even though Tutankhamun died suddenly and unexpectedly, probably of an infection from a fractured leg. Tut had a genetic bone disorder and probably other genetic defects, because Egyptian royalty were famous for marrying close relatives, often siblings. (Tut himself married his half-sister.)

Seeing history through the lens of the Carnarvon family was exciting. Lady Evelyn was the first woman to step into King Tut’s tomb, as she accompanied her father to Egypt in November of 1922 when Howard Carter wired about his find. (Due to illness, Lady Almina was unable to travel for the tomb’s opening.)

The Pharaoh’s Curse

After Carter and Carnarvon opened Tut’s tomb, the event became a media circus with enough drama that it would have rivaled the Lady Mary/Mr. Pamuk sex scandal on Downton Abbey.

At the entrance of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 (from left to right): Lady Evelyn Carnarvon; her father, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon; archaeologist Howard Carter; Carter’s assistant.

The discovery of the tomb was followed by many squabbles among the English archaeologists, accusations (unproven) that Carter and Carnarvon stole artifacts from the tomb, rumors that Lady Evelyn was enamored with Howard Carter, and bitter fighting between the Egyptian government and Carnarvon and Carter about who owned the tomb’s treasures.

And then there was death of Lord Carnarvon, less than five months after the Tut discovery, which fueled the legend of the Curse of the Pharaoh. In reality, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito on his cheek and nicked the bite while shaving. The wound got infected, and Carnarvon became seriously ill from blood poisoning. Weakened, he contracted pneumonia and died in Egypt in April of 1923 at age 57.

Supposedly, the lights went out in Cairo when Carnarvon died. And there’s a story that at the same moment in England, the Earl’s pet terrier howled and dropped dead. Thus the hysteria over Mummy’s curses mounted.

Wonderful Things to See

This all goes to prove that the true stories of people can be more compelling than fiction—and in the case of Highclere Castle, they added layers of color to my visit there.

Highclere Castle in 2012: 90 years after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. © Laurel Kallenbach

Would I have enjoyed a tour of the historic house if I didn’t care about Egyptology or had never seen  Downtown Abbey? I’m sure the beauty of the Saloon, Library and Music Room would have impressed me, but aside from that and the magnificent exterior of the building, would Highclere Castle glow in my memory? Because I had read the Lady Almina book, am an Egyptology buff, and became passionate about the PBS series, the halls of Highclere were alive and filled with wonder.

Our glimpse into the treasures of this English estate house brought to mind the famous quotes from Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon when they first opened King Tut’s tomb. As Carter chiseled a hole in the sealed entrance and peered in, Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied with the famous words: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

Originally posted April 2013

Updated September 2019

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Sleep in a Sustainable Hotel in Mesa Verde National Park

From our balcony at the Far View Lodge inside Mesa Verde National Park, Ken and I watched wild horses graze around the clusters of rooms at sunset. It made for a memorable ending to a day of exploring the park’s unparalleled Ancestral Puebloan ruins.

Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde. Photo courtesy Mesa Verde National Park

Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde. Photo courtesy Mesa Verde National Park

Far View Lodge was eco-renovated to be energy- and water-efficient and to reduce waste—and its modest but comfy rooms offer glorious views of the park. In true National Park style, there are no nightclubs or in-room TVs, and outdoor lights are kept to a minimum. I’m happy to report that during our stay, we inhaled cool night air spiced by the scent of sagebrush and gazed at the vast universe of stars while serenaded by a coyote chorus in the distance.

Aramark, the concession company that operates Far View Lodge and Mesa Verde’s infrastructure in general (tours, hospitality services, waste disposal, restrooms, and non-Park Service staff), has a fairly comprehensive enviro-plan, which is necessary to deal with the many thousands of visitors who visit the park annually.

Among Aramark’s initiatives are:

  • recycling program (paper, glass, plastic, metals)
  • waste reduction
  • water and energy conservation
  • ecofriendly cleaning supplies
  • landscape-conscious construction (to reduce damage to the fragile ecosystems, to blend into the natural view, and to minimize light and noise pollution)
  • bi-fuel trucks and electric carts
  • integrated pest management (IPM) with a nontoxic approach to dealing with insects and rodents
  • sustainable and organic foods, including shade-grown Fair Trade-certified coffee.

Metate Room Restaurant

The Far View Lodge has a wonderful, though slightly pricey, restaurant on premises called the Metate Room. (A metate is a stone tool used by native peoples to grind corn.)

The panoramic view of Mesa Verde from the Metate Room restaurant. Photo courtesy Mesa Verde

The panoramic view of Mesa Verde from the Metate Room restaurant. Photo courtesy Mesa Verde

Ancient meets contemporary in the menu of this evening dining venue. The chef has created dishes that blend regional, sustainable, and organic fare with Ancestral Puebloan traditions. The result was a sumptuous dinner that started with a crisp and tangy house salad topped with black beans and corn and a chopotle-maple vinaigrette. My husband sampled the Corn-and-Nut-Crusted Rocky Mountain Trout served with Anasazi beans and sautéed veggies from a local farm. I opted for the Elk Tenderloin with local chokecherry demi-glace.

Fine, Native American-inspired dining is available at the Metate Room in Mesa Verde National Park.

The Metate Room offers a lovely atmosphere decorated with Navajo weaving, pottery and baskets. Native flute music played softly in the background. I know it’s kind of clichéd, but the wooden flute just sounds right in a place like Mesa Verde where you know you’re looking out the window at the same vistas that the Ancestral Puebloans beheld.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published August 2011.

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Mesa Verde: An Archaeological Pilgrimage

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado (near Four Corners) ranked Number 1 on my destination list after I first visited its intriguing, mysterious cliff dwellings at age five. I credit my fascination with archaeology to this park. A love for all things ancient has become one of my lifelong passions.

My childhood sense of adventure was kindled by climbing log ladders to reach Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings—built by the Anasazi people, as they were called when I was a kid. (Today they’re called Ancestral Pueblo people because they were the forebears of the Pueblo tribes that now live in Arizona and New Mexico.) Hearing stories about Anasazi ceremonial, underground, circular rooms, called kivas, sparked my imagination.

Decades later, Mesa Verde continues to enchant me. I’ve take archaeological pilgrimages there four times since my parents first brought me. Over the years, I’ve never tired of hiking southwest Colorado’s desert landscape or pondering the archaeological remnants of the Anasazi culture, which thrived in the area’s canyons and high plateaus from about 600 to 1300 A.D.

Today, the park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings—the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Cliff Palace is the most visited, and it’s exciting because you can see it from a distance before you hike down to explore it.

Park ranger Tim McNeil, Mesa Verde ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Park ranger Tim McNeil explains the history of Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ranger Interpretation Adds Dimension

Some of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings are open only when you’re guided by a ranger. You’ll need to buy a reserved ticket up to two days in advance at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center or Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum in the national park, or at the Durango Welcome Center in the nearby city of Durango.

Though it takes some extra effort and cost ($5 per person), it’s well worth it. The rangers who led my husband and I through the beautiful dwellings were fountains of knowledge—and their knowledge of history and archaeology helped bring the ruins to life.

You don’t need to know that little windowed niches tucked under the cliffs were for storing corn and beans to appreciate the sandy geometry of the architecture or the permanence of stone. Still, it’s nice to know the function of towers, “middens” or garbage dumps, or about the spiritual significance of the sipapu, a small hole in the floor of the circular kiva. (The sipapu is the symbol of the Place of Emergence, where humans entered through the earth world from the spirit world according to the beliefs of the Puebloans.)

Ladders lead up the cliff to Balcony House in Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ladders lead up the cliff to Balcony House in Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Climbing to Balcony House

To visit the Balcony House ruin, you climb log ladders up a cliff, scramble through Balcony House’s narrow passageway just as the ancients who lived here a millennia ago did.

Four decades after I first visited as a little kid, Balcony House’s tunnel is a tight squeeze for me—yet Mesa Verde continues to charm me. Ranger Tim McNeil described the Ancestral Puebloan diet, which relied heavily on piñon nuts and “The Three Sisters”: corn, beans and squash, which are not only staples, but grow symbiotically.

Looking at thousand-year-old beams and rooms gives me a different perspective—of how short a time we have to live, and how many wonderful antiquities there are to explore.

For details on Mesa Verde, see Visit Mesa Verde.  For information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer

First posted in August 2011

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