While you're waiting for 'Downton Abbey' to return, you could visit Highclere Castle, where it's filmed
The site of the hit PBS series is open to the public, so visitors can see where Lord Grantham and the Dowager Countess exchange barbs
If only that sign had been posted 90 years ago, “Downton Abbey” fans may briefly think to themselves, Matthew Crawley might be alive today.
Well, all right, not “today.” If he were alive today, he would be somewhere around 117. Not even Dan Stevens could keep his eyes that blue for that long.
But Matthew — the resident hunk of “Downton Abbey” — could have been alive for the show’s fourth season, which runs this fall in the U.K. and comes to PBS in the States on Jan. 5.
One of the few criticisms of “Downton Abbey,” a beautifully written, splendidly acted, marvelously filmed and thoroughly charming soap opera set in Britain just as World War I and the Roaring Twenties were rearranging midlevel British aristocracy, has been that each season only lasts seven weeks and therefore addicts must wait 45 weeks for the next one.
Happily, there are ways to ease the withdrawal, and one is to visit the epicenter of the whole enterprise, the real-life Downton Abbey, which is Highclere Castle.
The castle sits around the middle of a 1,000-acre estate some 70 miles west of London. It has been in the Carnarvon family since 1679, meaning they’re still the new kids on the block. Previous structures on the site had housed clergy and nobility since sometime in the 800s.
The estate has been whittled over the years from 6,000 acres to its current, still impressive size. For instance, it would be a trek to walk from the main road to the castle, across pasture after pasture dotted with black-faced sheep.
Yes, it is true that for those of us in the Colonies, repairing to Highclere requires some effort.
But if life were always easy, Matthew and Lady Sybil would still be with us, Mr. Bates would never have been imprisoned and Thomas would not have had to spend his life in the closet.
Contrary to the impression sometimes conveyed by scenes of life for Lord Grantham and the Crawley family at Downton Abbey, real life hasn’t always been a smooth ride at Highclere, either.
Like many grand British estates, Highclere has been pressured for decades by the cost of simply keeping it open. Castles don’t maintain themselves any more than they heat or cool themselves, and the decision to lease it for “Downton Abbey” and open it to the public has clearly provided a welcome windfall.
For that reason or not, docents and staffers positioned in each room are unfailingly cheerful, eager to answer questions and well informed on castle history.
They are, however, no help at all on any matter dealing with the content of the show.
Leaking script secrets is, understandably, a fireable offense, though it’s clear that the staff here — like the downstairs staff at Downton — does know things.
Because they are there when things happen.
Drawing room at Highclere Castle
Furniture gets moved a lot at Highclere, since its interior rotates among three major functions: the set of a TV series; a showcase for thousands of strangers; and, oh yes, a part-time home for the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.
The State Dining Room, where Lord Grantham reads his well-ironed morning paper and the good china comes out for the formal dinners that produce some of the show’s most biting dialogue, has in real life a single table set for eight. It is pushed to the side of the room, allowing visitors room to walk through.
When the visitors leave, the docent explains, the table is returned to the center of the room. It can be elongated to seat 22, and the Carnarvon family uses it for occasions like Christmas dinner.
Serious fans of the show — and if you’re not, why are you here? — will remember a scene from almost every room on the Highclere tour.
The plush library at Highclere Castle
All the upstairs bedrooms look across at the corridor where Lady Mary, Anna and Lady Grantham hustled his body after his inconvenient demise.
While the rooms look as elegant in life as they do on television, they also look smaller, which is a trick Highclere has played before.
The docent in the central Reception Hall explains that his room is “light and welcoming ... But at the same time, it also has a grand scale that can have the effect of making a visitor feel insignificant.”
Familiar as the inside of Highclere feels to “Downton Abbey” fans, the outside holds surprises.
A sign announces curves
The lawn was the site of the lovely party that Lord Grantham interrupted to announce the start of World War I.
Beyond those spots, however, the estate also has a wildflower meadow and delightful gardens, including a medicinal garden, a white garden and a classic walk-through with billowing flowers on either side.
For whatever reason, the show seems disinclined to visit those areas.
In any event, Highclere has done well with the “Downton Abbey” gambit. Reservations for the 2013 season were sold out by June, and work crews are rebuilding and enlarging the entrance gate.
One can only imagine what the Dowager Countess would have to say about this invasion of the proletariat. But purely as a means of extending a way of life, she would at least admire its creativity.
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