One of the best new PBS dramas in years, Downton Abbey was filmed on location in Berkshire, England at the real-life Highclere Castle, home of the Earl of Carnarvon since the late 1600’s. The series features Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens. The original screenplay was written by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes (who also wrote Gosford Park and the The Young Victoria) and opens with these evocative lines:
“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.” (quotation from PBS website)
In the tradition of popular 1970’s Masterpiece Theatre series Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey is set in early twentieth century England, opening with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The lord of Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham, has a wealthy American wife, three marriageable daughters, but no son to inherit the family estate.
When his expected heir is killed on the Titanic, the Earl (Robert Crawley) reaches out to a third cousin once removed, Matthew Crawley, to be groomed for the Earldom. Matthew is a young middle class solicitor in Manchester who has some difficulty adjusting to his new status, especially since the Earl’s eldest daughter Mary is filled with resentment that she will not be the heir. (Mary had been unofficially engaged to Patrick, the deceased heir.)
Romance and intrigue are also taking place below stairs as a footman attempts to blackmail a Duke with whom he had a same-sex relationship, a valet with a limp from war injuries harbors a mysterious secret, and the housekeeper entertains a marriage proposal from a past love. The series is a period drama with many modern twists. It has vivid characters, plot points that would make Jane Austen blush, and exquisite production values. The estate itself is more than a backdrop; it becomes one of the main characters since its future hangs in the balance.
Highclere Castle Portrays Downton Abbey
According to the PBS website, series creators had Highclere Castle in mind as the setting for Downton Abbey from the start, although they considered dozens of stately homes. Although Downton Abbey is supposedly located in Yorkshire in Northern England, the real Highclere Castle is in Southern England, about 60 miles west of London.
While most Jane Austen dramatizations are set at relative bland Georgian Regency homes, the creators of the Downton Abbey series wanted a different look for this early 20th century story. Highclere Castle was significantly overhauled in 1839 to become a highly ornamented Victorian statement. The reworking of the Georgian home into a Victorian castle was masterminded by architect Charles Barry, who is famous for designing the current Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. His Victorian style imitated the Elizabethan era, with elements of the Gothic. For purposes of the Downton Abbey series, the bold architectural statement was desirable. In addition, the sumptuous interiors-library, dining rooms, staircases, and bedrooms-were excellent backdrops for the characters.
Highclere Castle is surrounded by 1000 acres of parkland, with the naturalistic landscaping designed in 1774 by renowned landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown. These grounds were the setting for a garden party and a foxhunt during the filming of Downton Abbey. Because the castle lacked the sort of “downstairs” servants’ hall envisioned for the series, those scenes were actually filmed in a specially built studio set. Outdoor scenes in the “village” of Downton were filmed in an Oxfordshire town.
How to Get There
The castle can be visited easily as a day trip from London. The estate is located just south of the town of Newbury, in Berkshire, about 60 miles west of London. Drivers can take the A4 West out of London to the M4, exiting at junction 13 (Chievely) onto the A34 (Newbury Bypass). Frequent trains to Newbury depart from London’s Paddington Station. The trip takes about an hour.
Another option is to book a mini-coach day tour from London with britmovietours. The Downton Abbey tour includes not only Highclere Castle, but also the Oxfordshire town where the town scenes were filmed, and a visit to a steam railway. This 8 ½ hour tour will be offered during July and August 2011 and costs 65 GBPs for adults and 55 GBPs for children. Newmarket Holidays offers a two-day trip that includes Oxford and Henley on Thames as well as Highclere Castle. The trip rates begin at 119 GPBs and participants can be picked up at various points in the UK. Available dates are April through August.
The castle and grounds are open to the public seasonally. In 2011, the castle is open to visitors during the following periods:
Sunday, April 17 through Tuesday, May 3, except April 29 (all seven days)
Late May Bank Holiday
Monday, May 30 and Tuesday May 31
Sunday, July 3 through Thursday, September 1, except August 28 (Sunday through Thursday)
Hours: 11:00 to 4:30 (last admission 3:30)
Admission charge for castle and grounds:
Adults 9 GBPs
Seniors 60+, Students, Disabled 8 GBPs
Children (4-15) 5 GBPs
Admission charges are higher for visitors who wish to view the Egyptian artifacts exhibit.
A tea room serves refreshments and light meals. There is also a gift shop. Both the tea room and the gift shop remain open until 5:00 pm.
Highclere Park, Newbury RG20 9RN, United Kingdom
The 24-hour telephone information line for the latest opening hours, etc. is:
Website of Highclere Castle
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Website
“A Victorian Fantasy, in Stone,” by Philip Kennicott, in the Washington Post, Saturday, January 29, 2011.
“Head of the Class,” by Hank Stuever, in the Washington Post, Saturday, January 8, 2011.
British National Rail Enquiries