Inside Highclere Castle, The Set And Real-Life Muse For Downton Abbey

Photo Credit: ForbesPinnacles jutting into the sky, Highclere Castle is a place millions of Americans are familiar with — even if they haven’t heard the name before. The sprawling British estate is where Downton Abbey is shot, the wildly popular PBS series that depicts daily life in a British mansion during the early 20th century. But Highclere isn’t just a backdrop, it’s a real-life muse for the series, one of the last operational ‘great houses’ still occupied by lord and lady and accompanying staff.

“It’s possibly the most important Victorian House still lived in in England today,” says Lady Fiona, the charming 8th Countess of Carnarvon (and real-life equivalent of Downton’s Lady Cora Crawley). With her husband, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon George Herbert, the couple call Highclere home, employing a roster of domestic staff, hosting royal guests (as well as commoners) and gleaning income from the surrounding farmland.

Located in England’s southern county of Hampshire, Highclere Castle is the seat of the Earl of Carnarvon, owned by the Herbert family since 1679. The property’s history goes back 1,300 years, when it was owned by the Bishops of Winchester (hence the term ‘abbey’). Since the 17th century, the great house has gone through several architectural incarnations: it was renovated in Elizabethan style, converted to a classical Georgian home, and then underwent an extensive expansion in the 19th century under the direction of Charles Barry, a Renaissance revival architect who added the soaring tower and bath stone exteriors that grace the castle today. The accompanying gardens were sculpted by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, an 18th century landscape architect who designed more than 170 gardens including those of the royal palace.

Surrounded by 1,000 private acres of parkland, the castle itself is huge, boasting as many as 300 rooms – the inhabitants say they don’t know how many exactly. (As Lady Carnarvon wryly told the Telegraph in 2010, “I suppose if you know how many rooms you’ve got, you haven’t got a very big house.”) Between 50 and 80 of these spaces are bedrooms, an estimate based on the constantly changing designations of rooms due to remodeling. The Countess says the family regularly uses different rooms “because it’s good to move around.” There are three main staircases including the hand-carved Oak Staircase, the “Red Staircase” that leads to the second-floor bedrooms and nurseries, and a stone servant staircase running from the main floors down to the bottom levels that was once used by house staff in much the same way depicted on Downton Abbey.

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