Highclere Castle – Hampshire, England

“We must always travel in hope”

Highclere castle, designed in the Jacobethan style in the 19th century by noted architect Sir Charles Barry, has a rich lineage dating back to the 8th century and today transcends national borders and popularity with its depiction in the fictional drama series and movie adaptation, Downton Abbey. Over the course of its existence it has been rebuilt and transformed at several points in history to ensure its continuing prosperity not only to visitors and guests but also its residents the Carnarvon family who reside on occasion in this recognisable and famous location. It’s use and purpose has equally changed and adapted to reflect the needs and demands of those fascinated with its history, the original estate granted to the Bishop of Winchester, transformed during the great wars to a place of refuge and mercy for injured soldiers and evacuated children from the city. Today, visitors are drawn to this majestic house through its use in fictional drama as home to the Crawley family with many rooms and exterior scenes filmed on location in its gardens and grounds. One of the biggest challenges faced by these grand estates is the notion of relevance and purpose in a modern era, reflecting a societal structure irrelevant to many who visit Highclere Castle today. It’s use in media and subsequent attraction has allowed the estate to survive and thrive and writes a new chapter in the history of this ancestral home.

The spectre of modernity overshadowed the estate as it emerged into the modern era, the challenge of funding and remaining financially viable a contention faced by many buildings of this size and stature. Whilst it had been used as a filming location sparingly in recent years it’s use in the series Downton Abbey that provided relief to the Castle’s residents allowing restoration projects to be undertaken that will eventually open up areas that had fallen into disrepair. Visitors today are afforded an opportunity to tour the grounds of the estate in addition to the house itself though certain restrictions are in place, the ground and first floor of Highclere accessible though with the investment of capital received through tourists and visitors to the estate it has allowed restoration work to commence on the derelict tower rooms that look out over the gardens and hills beyond. Once work is complete it is reported these new rooms and areas of the castle will serve to showcase an exhibit of Sir Charles Barry’s work in restoring and designing Highclere Castle, an architect known certainly in the capital for a number of its more iconic landmarks including the Houses of Parliament. That Highclere castle has a similar external aesthetic and quality to the home of our parliament and democracy is no coincidence. It’s a majestic building that speaks to a period in this nation’s history, whose charm and quality has only gained prominence with its inclusion in fictional drama.

“For all these great houses, you have to invest in them. And there has been a deficit since the 1930s. Perhaps in the past an estate and house defined and supported the family and their lifestyle, but today it is quite the reverse: the challenge is how Geordie and I seek to support and look after Highclere.”

Lady Carnarvon, The Guardian 19th September 2015

As with many attractions and destinations in the domestic market there has been a substantial impact given recent global events that has impacted on revenue and income, tourist and visitors only recently returning in the last week to visit the grounds and the estate. Highclere gained significant attention and prominence with the release of Downton Abbey, shifting quickly to become a globally recognised destination for both overseas and domestic visitors. At its peak when tourism took place amongst the filming schedule there was high enough demand through its ticketing system to book months in advance, with the impact of the recent pandemic, and no visitor admissions it was crucial to open and operate in a safe and compliant manner to attract a domestic audience back and hope for an easing of international travel into the country. Whether it can return and operate to a similar level of demand is entirely speculative at this point, it’s current operating model is more set up and directed to allow visitors to tour the main residence safely, equally the vast open space of the estate and gardens gives access with adequate distancing measures in place. It will ultimately come down to market forces and the enduring popularity, for now, of the associated series that draws a global audience in, it has the legacy and history, but as with every destination does it have a future in the new world we find ourselves in is open to speculation.

A Visit In The Modern World

Located in the heart of Hampshire, close to the North Wessex Downs, the estate itself is one of the countries national treasures and an absolute delight to visit. A short drive from London, despite the fictional northern setting of the series, it certainly lives up to the characterisation of the nation’s green and pleasant lands with forests and hills surrounding the stately home in all directions. The easiest and most convenient way to visit the location is by car, with adequate and plentiful onsite parking available to directly outside the castle itself. Certainly, given the balance of your visit between the estate, gardens and grounds in more detrimental, weather conditions there is a certain leap of faith to take when booking in advance that your given day will yield a pleasant environment on your arrival. Entry to Highclere itself is through a booked ticketing system, important historically to allow an even passage of people to enter the premises, crucial now to ensure the site is a viable and safe atmosphere for visitors during this pandemic period. Given they are open, as with many attractions you do put a certain level of faith in ensuring a safe and accommodating experience without having a detrimental impact on the joy of actually being there. Today a single route takes you through the more iconic rooms and locations of the interior of Highclere, allowing access to the drawing and dining room into addition to the main cubistic shaped hall. Certainly given its age and stature you can draw slight comparisons to other attractions of this type, notably Hampton Court with a similar age and lineage though benefiting from the royal connection. To a greater degree.

Without question, fan’s of the series will recognise many of the filming locations which were shot with minimal alterations to the main residence. It cannot be understated the impact and legacy the show had on the continuing survival and prosperity of Highclere as noted previously, the opening seasons of the show causing a substantial increase in paying visitors that allowed certain restoration works to be undertaken. That connection is present on your visit, with poster boards in the interior reflecting certain key scenes and angles that allow you to put the rooms into context on your visit. As someone who has watched the occasional episode it’s certainly enjoyable to see and visit a filming location such as this, in contrast to other such exhibits or series in a studio environment which has to create the aged, aesthetic look and feel of the world, a great details of the series which alluded to grandeur and wealth were filmed entirely using the features and items in the residence itself. From the rich, red hued furniture, the ornate bookshelves giving a real age and stature to the residents of Downton in the fictional setting, it didn’t have to try hard to create the feel of a stately home as the castle exudes that feeling and atmosphere in nearly every room you visit. You are reminded on occasion this is a families residence, a notable number of rooms used for filming very much in their original state, other’s, giving indication people to sleep and stay in Highclere whether as visitors or guests of the Carnarvon family who entertain from time to time.

There’s a fascinating duality to the building, images of the fictional Crawley family in addition to the large poster boards littered about in various locations providing context contrasting to the more personal photos of the real residents and relatives who own and live upon the estate. It shares a similar approach to other stately homes of this nature that have opened to visitors such as Beaulieu Estate in the New Forest and the Montagu family home. Perhaps one of the main issues experienced in Highclere is the restriction in photography within the residence itself. Of course this is entirely the right of the property owners, it is an actual home with personal images and photographs on the shelves and desks reminding you of the history of the Carnarvon family with some notable figures in its history including the current serving monarch and prime minister over the years. You are reminded at numerous points both in the booking process and on arrival, photography within is not permitted, as such this isn’t put upon the visitor. That said, as a tourist attraction that relies on the sentimentality of its audience and appeal of the show, it does feel like a curtailment that may have to change or certainly adapt to a demanding audience that craves that experience shot. For instance, visitors to Highclere will recognise immediately the drawing and dining rooms and the main hall, used during principle filming and a great deal of the series in the shots filmed upstairs. You do wish you could capture a shot or image, even as a means to make additional income you feel there would be potential to have an official photo taken at the wooden desk or one of the red couches.

Unfortunately they have decided not to allow any photography within the house, a personal decision I can accept but certainly a missed opportunity that would be welcome I imagine by tourists and visitors to the estate from abroad who enjoy visiting these stately houses, a policy not universally consistent in other historical houses such as Beaulieu or non residential palaces such as Hampton Court. It was enjoyable to walk around the interior of the house, it is currently and perhaps always was, designed around a one way system that takes you throw the drawing room before going up to the first floor and visiting a number of the bedrooms overlooking the main hall. As noted, some used in filming still had a certain aesthetic and quality to them that allowed you to see the connection to the series, others had a few personal touches and qualities, a modern alarm clock or bathing products that revealed the more lived in nature of Highclere. Descending the wooden staircase into the hall was a welcome treat, it was one of the areas I did recognise from the film and series though you did come perhaps to appreciate and recognise the different filming techniques and styles that give a wider impression of the interior of the house, everything seemed a little more compact and smaller in contrast to its depiction on screen. You exit through the lower basement, not the kitchens and servants quarters as featured in the series as these were shot in London, allowing access to a seperate Egyptian exhibit you can purchase tickets to see or the main exit into the courtyard. The staff inside are knowledgeable and friendly, giving both context to the real world family and home in addition to an impressive knowledge of the series. An enjoyable if somewhat, limited experience.

Walking The Grounds

The estate around the main residence is a beautiful area to walk around, surrounded by the hills and forest of the North Wessex Downs that make this a visually appealing natural environment to explore with the iconic and recognisable structure of the house serving as the main focus for visitors to see and capture. Immediately outside the exit to the house is the courtyard with the obligatory gift shop offering a variety of items though a welcome touch at the moment a temporary store outside that allows you to purchase popular items without going inside and minimizing your exposure to other people. Here you will find the facilities though of course adapted and restricted somewhat to abide by current legislation. There are a variety of catering options, a booked tea room is present on site which certainly is a very popular option to have afternoon tea in the shadow of the residence. Equally you can purchase refreshments to enjoy at one of the outdoor seating areas. On this occasion we took the opportunity to enjoy a G&T sitting outside the house with the estates Highclere gin a very enjoyable tipple to consume. I have no issues with a little self promotion or locations such as this offering their consumables to enjoy, it speaks to a lost opportunity at events such as Christmas at Kew which also sell a variety of licensed ales, beers and gins but don’t really offer or sell these visibly when walking around the grounds. There is something delightfully in character with the spirit of the location walking around the grounds and gardens of Highclere with a Gin or glass of champagne that really sets the tone of your visit.

There is a loose direction to explore the grounds, with a number of follies present at various locations providing key points to explore and marvel at. You do wonder for instance when you look at the Temple of Diana what it’s purpose was, though of course designed and place entirely for entertainment and spectacle. The gardens and grounds themselves were landscaped by Lancelot Brown in 1770, today an attractive addition to the estate although perhaps a little disorganised or simplistic in comparison to dedicated botanical gardens such as Kew in London. There is a circular pattern to explore the grounds, walking away from the house towards the memorial for the fallen airmen leads you to one of the estates follies and a bench or two to stop and enjoy the natural surroundings. You can push further out to explore the grounds, it is a lovely area to walk though a little uneven under foot. Certain parts you do find yourself walking over grass underfoot that when wet can be a little slippery and unstable to walk over. There is a great deal I imagine to prioritise when deciding what to invest and improve, a set walkway would be one area they could certainly look to create that would allow stability when exploring the gardens and open areas of Highclere. Walking towards the secret gardens you pass the wildflowers that look majestic in the sunlight, you glimpse the spires of Highclere Castle sticking up into the sky which makes a fantastic vantage point to capture on film as well as a great nature preserve for insects and bees which is certainly a common practise and popular in local councils at present.

The gardens are lovely to explore if a little chaotic to navigate around though adding I suppose to the character of the estate. In the absence of a set path you are left to navigate this area of your visit, coming across a variety of flowers and flora that smell wonderful after a fresh rain and look majestic in the sun. Venturing down one path you find your passage blocked off from entry requiring doubling back and looking for another gate or door to go through. It lives up to its name as the Secret Garden but certainly feels a little disorganised in part. It has the feel almost of a maze to explore though instead of a central meeting point, another open space and garden to discover. Whether intentional or not, it’s good fun though as noted, a set path would give guidance where to go and what to see, it does allude to this on the map provided on entry but doesn’t really come across as depicted there leaving you to navigate blindly which is part of the experience but equally, a little disorientating. Emerging into the Monks Garden was a refreshing experience and a delightful area to see and walk through. The vast green arches have a feel of the larger botanical gardens, with a feature in the centre making a nice focal point. Around the gardens are a number of outdoor focal points, benches where central characters sat in the series which is a nice addition for those looking to recreate those moments and gain context to the filming locations. A nice juxtaposition between the fictional world of Downton Abbey and Highclere Castle as an attraction in it’s own right.

Following the path in this direction returns you to the exterior of the house and one of two marked photo angles to capture the residence from. You’d imagine on busier days this would be a popular vantage point but a small blessing on this occasion it was quiet enough to capture a photo or two without a great deal of people in the background. One of the interesting aspects of the house is its rectangular structure, viewed from head on a square front that does give it a narrow aspect however walking around Highclere Castle does provide a better vantage point that gives clarity on its size and grandeur. From the photo point near the gardens you do capture one of the best angles of the house to get a photo from. Equally near the entrance way though with the queue system in place you probably won’t capture that isolated front entrance view prominent in the series. On a summer’s day it would be lovely have a picnic and eat in the grounds of the estate though in the current circumstance this has been restricted for now, though from observation visitors have simply moved to enjoy the green field of the parking area creating a strange unintentional picnic area around their cars. Departing the estate felt like an adventure almost on its own with a long scenic drive that takes you to various heights affording some fantastic views of the surrounding area, passing a number of structures and follies before exiting through the London Lodge. Highclere Castle is without doubt the central attraction and focus of your visit, however the estate itself is glorious to see, with a stunning natural backdrop and environment that really does make this feel like a grand addition to any tour of these stately ancestral homes before the fame of its most recent fictional appearance is taken into account.

In Summary

My visit to the estate was purchased and booked long before this pandemic and crisis came to prominence and fundamentally changed how a great deal of this attractions sustainably operate. Highclere Castle to a modern audience found fame with its use in the series of Downton Abbey, a cultural phenomenon that gained acclaim far beyond the domestic market depicting a period of English etiquette and class long consigned to history. Given its location and relative ease of access when the world was a little more open and easier to navigate, it was a viable and attractive location to visit with the good fortune of being a short distance from London and surrounded by the North Wessex Downs an incredibly isolated and majestic estate to walk around and explore. With the perfect storm of circumstance affecting a great many locations, it was with glad tidings they were able to open during the Summer Season and allow visitors to return once more and enjoy the house itself and the gardens surrounding it. It had already been designed to allow a single route around the interior, as such unlike other attractions which had to put this into practise in short order it was already catered for quests to return and with a large open space to enjoy could perhaps allow greater numbers to visit than other museums and houses. Certainly from what has been observed and reported, Highclere has benefited enormously from visitors looking to capture a little of the spirit and grandeur of the Downton Abbey series, within the interior of the house seeing the rooms of the residence which gave life to the Crawley family was a treat as it added a lot of context and depth to that show.

As it fades from the cultural zeitgeist with the movie perhaps a fitting conclusion to this series whether it continues to draw a similar crowd for a similar purpose, especially with the confines in place at present remains to be seen. It is a majestic building that has certainly benefited from the show but as noted was struggling to remain viable before hand, and with a diminishing appeal over time will need to look at ways to remain relevant to a modern audience. The series, and to an extent Highclere certainly taps into a part of the cultural class based mentality, creating this illusion of grandeur and opulence, drinking a glass of champagne in the gardens of an estate is a practise reserved for the well to do but beyond that, where is the appeal for the casual visitor or local resident who perhaps shuns or rejects this societal structure. With a new found resurgence in socialism sweeping across the western hemisphere and a push for wealth redistribution, suddenly an ancestral home that exemplifies and is the personification of class and wealth in this country seems a little archaic. Certainly, through discussion there is an understanding by its current occupiers the need to remain relevant in the modern age to ensure its prosperity for generations hence, the question remains what direction Highclere will chose to follow to ensure its survival. A situation of life imitating art with the show asking many of the same questions, is there a place for large residence such as these in our society, who pays for their upkeep, how do they remain financially viable in the absence of tithes and donations from the working classes.

With limited finances for investment, I respect the direction and drive in what areas they have looked to improve. The website and booking options for instance were reportedly improved to bring it to standard for a modern attraction. Certainly it looks crisp and clean when booking and making reservations and gives you confidence when attending. The house is fascinating to see, the gardens majestic although certain areas could be improved upon in time, the footpaths around the garden are almost entirely absent in part which can create a slight challenge in wet conditions, the absence of facilities with the exception of the courtyard a little uncomfortable at times. The house adopted quickly to the current circumstance, whether it will continue to adapt moving forward remains to be seen, Downton Abbey gave the location a platform to build its reputation upon, prior to that use a function location of sorts, now certainly appealing to those with the ability to pay to use this as an iconic venue for their engagements. I enjoyed my visit to Highclere Castle, having never really invested time in the series for me it was purely the pull and attraction of the estate from an historical heritage perspective, the architectural design of Charles Barry was delightful to see and not a connection I had put together before visiting and seeing the exterior in person. Moving forward, I hope it can find and continue to have a purpose for a spectrum of visitors, competing in a challenging market and remaining viable as the memory of its latest incarnation begins to subside. It’s a reflection of an aspect of our historical national character, one that deserves to remain relevant and in discussion for generations hence.

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