From Fiction to Fabulous: On Location in Berkshire, England
Written by Joan Lerch
In 2011, when I first became enchanted with what would become the most successful show in the history of the PBS “Masterpiece” series, I tried recommending it to friends. The reaction was a polite “no thanks,” because an English costume drama was just too stodgy to contemplate. A few years later, these same friends were dressing in period clothing and hosting watch parties.
Even if you were not among the 120 million viewers in more than 200 countries who were captivated by “Downton Abbey,” you might recognize the stunning Italianate-style country house that has been home to the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. Remodeled and reimagined through the centuries, Highclere Castle as it now stands was designed for the 3rdEarl by Sir Charles Barry, architect of London’s Houses of Parliament. Today, the 300-room castle is home to George Herbert and his wife Fiona, the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.
While Highclere and its 6,000 acres are open to visitors in the summer, I wanted a more intimate experience, so when I learned of an exclusive Art & Architecture lecture given by Lady Carnarvon herself, followed by lunch and a private tour, it was the best possible excuse to head across the Pond.
After arriving by train in Newbury, Berkshire, I settled into a cozy guest house and then went exploring. Charming, walkable and oh-so-English, Newbury is made even more picturesque by the romantic Kennett & Avon Canal that meanders through the town.
Along the footpath, I happened upon the Teashop by the Canal— an old stone treasure of a place to sip Earl Grey and admire the preening swans. Later in the evening, I enjoyed a warm welcome and great food at Bill’s Restaurant in the pedestrian-friendly Market Square. (This experience was enhanced by a delightful server named Daisy, which also happens to be the name of the very first character viewers met when “Downton Abbey” premiered— a lovely coincidence.)
During its six record-breaking seasons, “Downton Abbey” told the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, from news of the Titanic, through World War I and concluding in 1925. While much of the story was filmed in Highclere, the castle’s kitchens were too modern, so an era-appropriate kitchen and servants’ hall was built at Ealing Studio in London. (Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, said this presented continuity challenges, as actors left the kitchen with platters of food, only to emerge into the dining room two weeks later.)
Having arrived in Newbury after two rainy weeks in Guernsey, I hoped that the castle would be awash in sunshine, because if I was going to replicate Lord Grantham’s walk up that famous gravel driveway, an umbrella and wellies would really spoil the vision.
But as my driver turned into the estate, the weather was perfect. And when I got my first glimpse of Highclere beneath an impossibly blue sky and enormous fluffy clouds, I was, in a word, gobsmacked.
The lecture was held in the Saloon, perhaps the most recognizable room in the castle, with its soaring 50-foot ceiling and second-floor gallery. Described by Lady Carnarvon as “physically and socially the heart of the house,” the wallcoverings in the Gothic-style space are fashioned from leather brought from Cordoba, Spain by the 3rd Earl.
Following the lecture, we toured the main state rooms, including the exquisite library, home to more than 5,000 books. At one end, a section of faux volumes is actually a hidden door that leads to the music room. Ascending a secondary staircase gave us the opportunity to walk the entire gallery, before returning to the saloon via the magnificent 19th century main stairs.
After an alfresco lunch and a few hours of garden exploration, I was relaxing in the courtyard, reliving every sublime detail of a perfect day, when a lilting, familiar voice said, “Hello! Would you join me for a glass of champagne?” And there at my table stood Lady Carnarvon, smiling and holding her own flute of bubbly.
Managing to stammer, “of course,” I was a bit panicked— if there is a rulebook for drinking with a Countess, I didn’t have a copy. But within minutes, she had me laughing and chatting like we were old friends. Warm, gracious and with a glimmer of mischief in her eyes, Lady Carnarvon is the author of several well-researched books on Highclere history, in addition to being a talented speaker.
In the years I have been exploring England’s manor houses and palaces, I’ve tried to imagine the people who lived there— picturing Anne Boleyn dancing at Hampton Court, or Winston Churchill spending his school holidays at Blenheim Palace. But this time, I didn’t have to use my imagination.
The original “Downton Abbey” cast will light up the big screen with the premiere of the feature film September 20.