Highclere Castle: Landscapes by England’s greatest gardener
England's stately Highclere Castle, where the critically acclaimed series Downtown Abbey is shot. PHOTO COURTESY HIGHCLERE CASTLE
The man acclaimed as England’s greatest gardener designed the landscapes at scores of stately houses. But none of Capability Brown’s works has been so widely seen as the one that was the setting for Downton Abbey. The costume drama that became an international sensation was filmed at Highclere Castle, about a 90-minute drive west of London. It has been the ancestral home of the Earls of Carnarvon for more than three centuries.
Where the fictional Lord Grantham would take leisurely strolls with his dog Isis, the real life Lady Carnarvon enjoys morning bike rides with her canine friends. She and the genial Lord Carnarvon hosted a group of international journalists for a tour of the house and grounds.
“These extraordinary views you never take for granted. They represent the English landscape,” said the 8th Earl, George “Geordie” Herbert.
“I am really a life tenant here and my job is to hand it on at least the same, if not better, to my son.”
In an interview with Postmedia Network, he said Lord Grantham’s struggles to keep Downton afloat through changing economic times reflect the reality of managing grand English estates. Highclere draws some income from farming — wheat, barley, oats and some sheep — but low commodity prices have made agriculture a struggle.
“Looking after the whole estate is a big challenge. And there are times when you wake up at night and wonder how you’re going to deal with it,” said the earl.
His father opened Highclere to visitors in 1988, adding a tidy revenue flow that included weddings and conferences. Then came Downton Abbey. Although several estates were considered for the setting, Highclere was always the favourite. Its practice of only opening to the public in the summer months made it easier to schedule filming. The crews would arrive in February and depart in July, typically shooting the Christmas special in the heat of summer.
Downton’s popularity sparked a fourfold increase in visitors to Highclere. Online tickets typically sell out for the entire season. The boost has allowed the estate to reduce the number of weddings it hosts.
“It’s a lovely problem to have, selling out,” said Lady Carnarvon, during a stroll around the grounds.
She said the family always stayed on the property during filming, moving to a house adjacent to the castle. “We tried to set the tone that it is a home and not a set,” she said.
A home filled with priceless artwork and furniture. Antique china would be packed away during filming to protect against any errant elbows from members of the film crew. The desk owned by Napoleon Bonaparte also went into storage.
The lady of the house, although grateful for the priceless marketing opportunity, was also protective of the heritage.
“I was always saying ‘can you please not pick that up?’"