Heroes at Highclere: Downton Abbey has brought fame to this English castle

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HAMPSHIRE, England — Sometimes fact is more fascinating than fiction. This is certainly true at Highclere Castle, better known to fans worldwide as the real Downton Abbey.

The grand English country estate doubles as the atmospheric backdrop for the fictional dramas of the aristocratic Grantham clan. But the real life events of Highclere’s lords and ladies rival those played out on the critically acclaimed period drama.

With 2014 marking 100 years since the beginning of World War I, some of these events still resonate today, and were certainly fodder for Downton creator Julian Fellowes — a friend of Highclere’s current earl and countess of Carnarvon (Geordie and Fiona Herbert to their friends).

The Highclere-Downton parallel is particularly notable in the Brit-hit’s second season, which focuses on the war years, the impact on its upstairs-downstairs characters, and the Abbey’s use as a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers.

During World War 1, Lady Almina Herbert — the 5th Countess of Carnarvon — transformed Highclere Castle into a military hospital. The socialite- countess-turned-nurse personally tended to wounded soldiers, sent progress reports home to their families, and spent a considerable chunk of her personal fortune equipping the hospital and its operating room, Fiona, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon, told visiting journalists last week.

Soldiers who were treated at Highclere — including some from Canada — later described it as "paradise," she added.

The countess — who, along with her husband, works tirelessly to promote the castle — tells the story of those years in her book Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.

In addition, there are some "500 letters" from doctors and parents — even one from a Winnipeg woman, who wrote to thank Almina for taking care of her brother — Lady Carnarvon says.

Downton has brought not just recognition but real fame to Highclere, which now sees legions of fans in the 60 or 70 days it opens for public tours that sell out quickly.

"It’s all a bit mad really," the countess says.

But "you do get used to it," her husband adds.

And while the lord and lady certainly capitalize on the exposure, using the money to "keep the roof on" and make other badly needed repairs to the enormous building (estimated to contain "between 200 and 300" rooms, no one has done an official count), they also organize many fundraising events to give back in the best tradition of their ancestors, Lord Carnarvon says.

Real life events come full circle at Highclere this year, where preparations are under way for fundraising events to commemorate World War I. The signature family event — Heroes at Highclere — will take place Aug. 3 and will acknowledge the ongoing sacrifices made by soldiers, their families and civilians caught in modern day conflicts.

Heroes at Highclere will begin with a multi-denominational memorial service led by Lord Carey (the former Archbishop of Canterbury), and continue throughout the day with activities such as a reading of In Flanders Fields (written by Canadian soldier, physician and poet Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae), an airshow featuring the Red Devils parachute team and World War II aircraft (Tiger Moths, Fokkers, Spitfire, Mustang and B-17 Fortress), vintage vehicles, musical performances — including Elizabeth McGovern (Downton’s Lady Grantham) with her band Sadie and the Hotheads, and Alexandra Burke — guest speakers, old time fairground, hot air balloons, shopping village, beer tent, charity auction and more.

Elements of the legendary 1914 Christmas truce — the unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front that saw soldiers from both sides of the conflict come out of the trenches to greet each other, sing carols and even play football — will also be reenacted, Lord Carnarvon says.

A football pitch and grandstand are being constructed and German footballers are flying in to join an all-star English team for the game.

"Soldiers just laid down their arms that Christmas … it was one little moment of humanity, quiet and peace," he added.

Proceeds from the day will go to various charities including Oxfam and those aiding civilians in Syria. The castle is not open for visits that day but people who attend the event are invited to visit July 31 or Aug. 5.


— Advance tickets for Heroes at Highclere are available online for about $46 (adults), $18.50 (children), or $110 (family), with reductions for service men and women. Tickets can also be purchased on the day of the event at slightly higher prices. For details, see highclerecastle.co.uk.

— When I visited Highclere last week, filming of the ITV show’s 5th season had just recently wrapped. It airs in September in England, and in January on PBS in North America. Vision TV airs past episodes.

— During shooting, some of the Downton cast reportedly stay at the nearby Carnarvon Arms, the estate’s former coach house, which offers basic rooms but quite a good restaurant with a menu created by celebrity chef Marco Pierre White.

— Visit England has a wealth of travel information. For information, see visitengland.com.