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Any fan of Downton Abbey will be familiar with the unmistakeable façade and stunning interiors of Highclere Castle, which plays the role of the imposing family home of Lord and Lady Grantham at the centre of the fictional Downton Abbey estate in the Yorkshire Dales.

Highclere takes its name from the village and civil parish it's located in, some 90km south-west of London in the county of Hampshire. The house and its grounds have a long and illustrious history stretching back several centuries. The first recorded structure on the site of the present house was a mediaeval palace belonging to the original owners of the parish, the Bishops of Winchester (thought to be the reason Julian Fellowes included "Abbey" in the fictional name of the estate).The estate passed into Crown hands in the 16th century when Henry VIII appropriated the land from the Catholic Church.

The Attorney General for England and Wales, Sir Robert Sawyer, owned Highclere in the late 17th century and on his death in 1692 he bequeathed the property to his son-in-law, Thomas Herbert, the 8th Earl of Pembroke (who was married to Sawyer's only child, Margaret, pictured left), and the estate has remained in the Herbert family ever since.

On the death of Robert Herbert in 1769 the estate passed to his nephew, Henry (pictured below Margaret Sawyer). Henry was made 1st Earl of Carnarvon (in the title's 3rd creation) by George III in 1793, which marked the beginning of the association between the Carnarvons and Highclere.

The house that we see on Downton Abbey today was built between 1839 and 1842 when the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon resided at Highclere. The architect was Sir Charles Barry, whose most famous work is London's Houses of Parliament. Sir Charles Barry also designed country estate, Clivedon, made infamous in the 1960's by the Profumo affair. The original house is pictured below, to the left of images of Westminster Palace and Clivedon.

Highclere remains the private estate of the Carnarvon family, whose current owners open the home to the public over the Easter long weekend and during the summer months, and it is these visitors that help support the upkeep of one of Britain's finest buildings.

10 Fascinating Facts about Highclere

  1. The 5,000 acre Highclere estate is 5 times the size of New York's Central Park and the house itself is the largest mansion in Hampshire.
  2. If Highclere were put on the market today, it would be valued at approximately £150,000,000 (AU$270,000,000)
    • Stamp duty would set you back a further £10,500,000 (AU$18,900,000)
    • Your spending wouldn't end there with an annual upkeep bill of £830,000 (AU$1,500,000)
    • It makes Australia's most expensive home at $57,500,000 seem a bargain (the Saunders Street Mansion in Perth).
  3. The number of rooms in Highclere has been estimated by the current owners to be between 250 and 300. Around 50 of the rooms on the upper floors remain unusable (I wonder what secrets lie behind those locked doors!).
  4. The system of bells depicted in the television series would have had a different tone for each room, enabling the servants to know who was calling wherever they were "downstairs".
  5. At the height of its Edwardian splendour some 80 staff were employed at the estate. This figure is close to today's number of employees, although the majority now work on ensuring tourists visiting Highclere are well looked after.
  6. In 1914 Highclere was converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers by the 5th Countess of Carnarvon (Lady Almina, pictured below the image of Highclere taken during WWI). The home contained a fully functioning operating theatre, even more impressive than the convalescent home depicted in Season 2 of Downton Abbey.
  7. Speaking of Lady Almina, she was married to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon in 1895. At the time the Earl was deeply in debt and it was rumoured the marriage was one of convenience; Almina came with a £500,000 dowry (AU$45,000,000 in today's money), while Almina gained a title; strangely reminiscent of Lord and Lady Grantham's early marriage stories in Downton Abbey.
  8. The current Lady Carnarvon believes Highclere is haunted by numerous ghosts, and claims to have seen the ghost of a footman who committed suicide at the house in the Victorian era. Not surprisingly, actress Shirley MacLaine who plays Lady Grantham's mother Martha Levinson in Downton Abbey is also on record as saying the home is haunted.
  9. Downton Abbey is not the first time Highclere has been used as a location set. It also features in the films The Secret Garden (1987), Stanley Kubrick's controversial final film Eyes Wide Shut (a scene set in the familiar Saloon is pictured below left), and in the 2010 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
  10. Visitor numbers to Highclere are strictly controlled, and group visits are fully booked out this year and in 2015. However Golden Compass has secured access to the home and grounds as part of its 18 night "Britain's Downton Era" program next year, and with Golden Compass receiving timed entry to the house there will be no waiting in line for our participants.

We have also created a YouTube channel where you can watch some short films on the History of Highclere, including interviews with the present Lady Carnarvon about the house and Lady Almina. Access the films here.

Find out about our 19 day tour of Britain's Downton Era departing August 2015. One highlight of the program is a guided tour of Highclere, which is already fully booked for group visits in both 2014 and 2015.

Visit Get Up & Go magazine for your chance to win two places on this unique tour !

Keep visiting our blog to read more stories about "Britain's Downton Era".
Next: The devastating impact of the Great War on the British Aristocracy.

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