Creator and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes introduces the setting for the story, Downton Abbey, in his script: "The sun is rising behind Downton Abbey, a great and splendid house in a great and splendid park. So secure does it appear, that it seems as if the way of life it represents will last for another thousand years. It won't." Indeed, on the cusp of the end of an entire way of life, the house, portrayed by Highclere Castle, transcends location and becomes a character -- and one of the biggest stars -- in Downton Abbey.
The Highclere Castle of today was achieved through several iterations, most of them overseen by the Carnarvon family, who have lived there since 1679. The original Elizabethan house was built on the site of a medieval palace and later rebuilt as a classical Georgian house. But it was the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon who, in 1839, created the Highclere Castle of today. He commissioned the architect of the Houses of Parliament, Charles Barry, to replace the Georgian house with a castle built in the high-Elizabethan style, which incorporated Gothic elements in a nod to English medieval great halls. The Renaissance revival style was inspired by the energy and innovation ushered in by the young, new Queen Victoria.
Highclere Castle's 1,000 acres of parkland was designed in 1774 by renowned landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown in his trademark, naturalistic swaths and sweeps of grass, trees and water. The house's interior was finished in 1878, and within its walls history was made as the Egyptologist and 5th Earl of Carnarvon financed Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.
British and world history intersected again with the castle as it was converted into a hospital during the First World War. During World War II, it was home to more than 100 children evacuated during the Blitz.
Highclere Castle makes the ideal location for Downton Abbey, the house that embodies an everlasting way of life -- one which is nevertheless changing before its inhabitants' very eyes.
Much of the very choreography of movement within Downton Abbey remains the same as in days gone by, but the Grantham family's conflicts and ensuing conversations reflect the dilemmas of a rapidly changing world. (Meanwhile, in the splendid bedrooms, it is largely the same centuries-old dramas and intrigues of men and of women that play out.)
Outdoors, in the Castle's parks, a foxhunt provides an opportunity for the eldest daughter, the marriageable Mary, to break from the bounding dogs and galloping horses and take the jump with the intriguing Turkish diplomat. Later, a sparklingly perfect garden party, laid out all starchy white and vibrant green before the great Edwardian house, is the setting to the official end of an era.
To hear Executive Producer Gareth Neame tell it, Highclere Castle was the inevitable location for Downton Abbey. "When Julian and I were first working, I asked if he had any ideas for a house and he said he had always had Highclere Castle in mind; in fact, had had it in mind for Gosford Park as well," Neame said.
"But I felt I had to do due diligence, so we spent some months and saw dozens and dozens of houses -- I must have seen 12-15 on my own -- and then came back full circle to Highclere Castle," Neame added. "Why we selected Highclere is its unique architecture. So many of these stately homes are Georgian Regency types, the kind you see in so many Jane Austen adaptations, whereas our production designer pointed out that Highclere's high Victorian style makes it a statement. Its supreme Victorian confidence clearly said we were in a different era."
The house's absolute perfection for the role is echoed by production designer Donal Woods. They simply had to embrace the house, not difficult for Woods, for whom details like the 14' high van Dyck portrait of Charles the I, or the 17th century Spanish leather wallpaper, as well as the original Victorian light fittings (installed in a wonderful parallel to Downton Abbey -- by the 6th Earl of Carnarvan's new American wife), were joys. "We just took out the Lord and Lady Carnarvon's modern life, and brought in palms, elements of Edwardian dining life, and updated the state rooms to give them a modern feel. We were able to design by choice because we had secured the right building to begin with."
For the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, the owner of Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey was a very exciting prospect to be involved with. He describes how, unusually, every day they came to film, "Highclere was cast in sunlight, in an incredible golden glow, as if one might have of one's childhood." So warm and sunny was this light, unusual in the microclimate that Highclere typically experiences sitting on top of a hill, that in a scene where the maids prepare the house in the morning by lighting fires and opening shutters, the filmmakers needed to spray a special oil in the library to create the look of dust floating in the light -- no small concern for the Lord and Lady whose collection includes books dating from as early as the 16th century.
On occasion, Edwardian and present day life collided, often during the Earl's walks with his yellow Lab, "who was not so keen on meeting the 'acting' yellow Labrador, and would greet it hackles up." The Carnarvon's dogs otherwise found amusement in the production, hiding under the film's tables, hoping tidbits would fall.
On the occasion of the fox hunt, the filming took all day and avoided the lawn so that it wouldn't be torn up by hooves for a wedding which was to occur the next day. "Just as they had finished everything and they were milling around, we were visited by a ghost of gamekeepers past -- a wild fox -- which appeared, and actually came and sat and watched the proceedings, then took off toward the gardens, hounds in full pursuit across the lawn, in preservation of its life," Lord Carnarvon said.
Just as keeping the great house in the family is the goal of Downton Abbey's Granthams, so too is it of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, who have gone to great lengths to preserve the estate and keep it in the family, in spite of the enormous expense. Amidst concerns that funding the restoration of the castle would require selling off parcels of its land, the Carnarvons are working with English Heritage, the national trust for Britain's historic homes, to fund essential repairs.
Some income to support Highclere Castle's restorations has come from the filming of Downton Abbey as well as some other productions: Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the Jeeves and Wooster series. Fortunately, Downton Abbey will return to Highclere Castle for a second season.
Highclere Park, Newbury RG20 9RN, United Kingdom | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Highclere Castle features several seasonal openings of its state rooms, bedrooms, Egyptian exhibition and gardens throughout the year, all detailed on its website.