They say never meet your heroes as you’ll only be disappointed when their humanity is revealed, but I say ignore that entirely. Sometimes you have to. Sometimes you have to get on that train, walk through those gates and simply revel in the crazy amazingness that is England. Case in point – Downton Abbey. Wait, I mean Highclere Castle…
(At this point you might want to make a cup of tea before the photo overload that was our visit…)
One winter evening a few years ago, our Sundays were transformed. We were channel hopping, hoping to find something vaguely decent to while away the last few hours of the weekend. We didn’t realise quite how much of an effect that flicking over to the high-class shenanigans of the aristocratic Crawley family and the dramatic lives of their servants would have on our winter evenings.
In case you live under a rock, Downton Abbey is a period drama (one of the TV genres British filmmakers are incomparable in). Beginning in 1912, Robert, Earl of Grantham, and his American-born wife, Cora, live with their three daughters—Mary, Edith, and Sybil—and domestic staff at Downton Abbey. Their way of life has existed for generations, but news arrives that threatens the future of the title and estate.
The stories feature love, death, murder, war, skulduggery and the odd cameo by Kiwi Opera stars. We all seem to have favorite characters; Upstairs – eldest daughter Mary who is stunningly beautiful and aloof, sweet caring Sybil who runs off to marry the Irish socialist chauffeur, Edith who is unlucky in love, Isis the dog who is a nod to the Egyptian expedition of the real-life Lord Carnarvon, Cora the rich American ingenue bankrolling the crumbling estate and Robert himself, master of all he surveys. British treasure Maggie Smith plays the wonderful, wonderful Dowager Countess with razor-sharp wit.
Downstairs is a hotbed of gossip, modern adaptation, butlers, cooks, scullery maids bettering themselves, footmen kissing girls who should know better, mischief at summer fairs, village fetes and the constant polish of shoe leather. Carson the butler keeps his team mostly under control, aided by the Scottish housekeeper, a decreasing phalanx of maids and footmen ensure the family are beautifully dressed for every meal, romance runs through corridors and passion slips through the steamy lids of freshly hand baked meals.
Many of the storylines are filmed on location at Highclere Castle, meaning that ticket days for the public are scare (around 60-70 days a year I believe) which is still home to the current Lord and his family. They dine under priceless original van Dyck portraits, take tea under shimmering chandeliers, sleep in true to life damask chambers, hang their picture frames crooked, keep their delightfully trashy paperbacks in rooms full of tales, sit under crossed sabres, lean against ancient carvings and get to sweep down that infamous staircase.
To say we were excited to visit is a bit of an understatement.
It was so cool. *fan girl right here*
We wandered through the vanted hallways, our group of young’uns amongst the largely elderly visitors, (chortling at some of the hair-raising comments and questions they had of the volunteers), re-lived so very many (often beautifully unbelievable) plot twists and imagined ourselves as British aristocracy. We ached to take photos, bloggers all (namely Jacintha Urban Pixxels, Jess Jessonthames, Rebecca Runaway Kiwi, Elaine and our ringleader Sam Globetrotter Postcards) plus my Mr Kiwi, as we explored the stunning library, drawing rooms, dining rooms and sweetly noted bedrooms. It is everything you think it will be, and more.
Emerging into the enormous grounds, we posed amongst a litany of follies often the scene of many emotional discussions (for the characters I mean not us), wandered along the nodding floral borders of the secret garden, admired the orchard fruit hanging heavy on the vine and discovered the hit of the day…
(my subconsious thinks these below were quince?)
…the stunningly dramatic wildflower field where we stood and clicked away until our hearts (and memory cards) were full to brimming.
Just one more?
Alas, in the words of the acerbically fantastic Dowager Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith, “No guest should be admitted without the date of their departure settled.” As we made our way back down the manicured pathway with sadness in our hearts and our cameras firmly in our grasp, we all just took one more moment, one more look at our TV screens made real.
Designed by the architect of the Palace of Westminster, Sir Charles Barry, In the mid-19th century, Barry remodelled what was a Georgian house into a Victorian palace for the 3rd Earl. We discovered Lord Carnarvon assisted in the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, the castle has upwards of 300 rooms (including 50-80 bedrooms, of which only 14-15 are still used), heating is pretty fickle for the on/off inhabitants and like many of the great English Estate houses, Highclere is on the site of a former ecclesiastical property – hence the name Abbey.
We played the theme tune standing at the gates, and on our way back out again as some things you simply have to do. Our tickets to Highclere Castle were booked rather far in advance (they are quite rare) but we learned there are limited numbers of tickets available in the mornings to walk up guests.
Simply stunning, even without the Labrador bum waggling in frame.
Very well, milord.