We couldn’t be more excited about the return of Downton Abbey! And what better way to prepare for the new series than to get to know the star of the show a little better? No, not Lady Mary, but the spectacular Abbey itself. Or rather, its real-life alter ego – Highclere Castle. Here are a few fascinating facts about this magnificent stately home that was used for filming Downton:
1. Ever wished you could live at Downton? Well you can if you’re the eighth Earl of Carnarvon George Herbert and his wife Countess Fiona Carnarvon. The beautiful Victorian building and the surrounding estate (which is about four times the size of New York’s Central Park) have been home to the Carnarvon family since 1679. Highclere was always destined to become Downton – as a friend of the Carnarvon family, Julian Fellowes had the castle in mind as he wrote the series.
2. Remember Downton Abbey becoming a home for wounded soldiers in series two? The scriptwriters didn’t have to look far for inspiration for that storyline – it happened at Highclere. During the First World War, the fifth Countess of Carnarvon transformed the castle into a military hospital for soldiers arriving from Flanders. A bedroom and dressing room were used as an operating theatre and recovery room, and the Countess headed up the nursing staff herself.
3. The fascinating history of the Carnarvon family doesn’t stop there. The fifth Earl of Carnarvon cultivated an extraordinary Egyptian antiquities collection, and in 1922, along with archaeologist Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Rumours of a ‘mummy’s curse’ surround the Earl’s death: when he died, the lights in Cairo went out and his favourite dog, Susie, howled and died. Today you can see some of the Earl’s collection at the Egyptian Exhibition Room in the cellars of the Castle.
4. Many of the props shown in Downton have a story at Highclere. The bells in the kitchen of Downton Abbey are replicas of the kitchen bells at Highclere – each of which has a distinctive pitch so the servants know which room is calling without having to look. And Lord Grantham’s mahogany desk in the living room actually belonged to Napoleon!
5. Downton wasn’t the castle’s first brush with fame. Highclere was also a location for Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 thriller Eyes Wide Shut starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, as well as the 1987 film adaptation of The Secret Garden. For more film locations in the UK check out our Film and TV section.