Longstanding friend of the Carnarvon family, Julian Fellowes had Highclere Castle in mind as he wrote Downton Abbey. He often commented he wanted a house which spectacularly testified to the confidence and soaring optimism of the Edwardian period.
The success of Downton Abbey took everyone by surprise from the first nervous apprehension whether anyone would like the first episode or stay with it for the second or third… the series has become a phenomenon with appreciative viewers all around the world.
Downton Abbey follows the lives of the Crawley family and the servants who work for them, whose lives were changed forever during the First World War.
The world of Highclere Castle and Downton Abbey were changed irrevocably by the First World War. Post 1918 life in both Highclere Castle and its altar ego Downton Abbey continued, as did the families living within its walls but the characters had developed swiftly through force of circumstance as new opportunities presented themselves.
Inside Highclere Castle
There are 11 bedrooms on the first floor, some of which can be seen by visitors, and 40-50 on the next floors which are no longer used and cannot be viewed by visitors. They have been gradually refurbished by the 8th Countess over the past 5 years, using prints and drawings from the archives recording some of the visitors and history here.
The opulent Stanhope bedroom is decorated in rich red, recalling its decoration for the visit of the Prince of Wales in December 1895. The Dressing Room next door has just been redecorated.
The Arundel bedroom and its dressing room were used as an Operating Theatre and Recovery Room respectively during the First World War, when Almina, the 5th Countess, (with Lord Kitchener’s blessing) turned the Castle into a military hospital, heading the nursing staff herself.
Mercia bedroom is noted for the charming four-poster bed decorated with 18th century silks and matching furniture.
Quite a few of the bedrooms are used for the filming of Downton Abbey.
The stone staircase behind the green baize door leading from the Saloon, winds up three floors and down to what were the old staff dining rooms, the cellars, sitting rooms, utility areas and kitchens.
One hundred years ago perhaps 60 members of staff were living in and around the Castle, so it was a big operation with a House Steward, butlers, footmen, housekeepers, maids, kitchen staff and hall and steward room boys.
The “Downton Abbey” set team have partly recreated the lower flight of these stairs at Ealing, so that the actors can leave the Castle and go down in to the set at Ealing Studios where the staff rooms are filmed. The stairs here at Highclere lead down to the woodshed, a back door and originally into the staff dining room and scullery. They are now the entrance to the Egyptian Exhibition.
Two main staircases were and are used by the family and their guests: the Oak Staircase and the Red Staircase.
Thomas Allom’s great oak staircase fills the tall Italianate tower built by Sir Charles Barry in 1842. Messrs Cox and Son of London took nearly a year to carve and install the staircase between December 1861 and October 1862.
The Red Staircase leads up to the second floor and the former nursery rooms.