Secrets of Downton Abbey's Highclere Castle

Behind the scenes (and doors) of Downton Abbey and its real life counterpart.

Downton Abbey Highclere Castle
Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Perhaps no other show on television has better captured the reality of 20th century aristocratic life in England than Downton Abbey, with its award-winning costumes, historical accuracy, and attention to even the most precise of details. For those of you who don’t follow the series, Downton is filmed at Highclere Castle, a country house located in the English town of Newbury.

“The whole story of Downton Abbey tells you that the days of being able to maintain the number of staff you needed to keep those houses going was going to end—and it has ended,” says Downton’s historical consultant Alastair Bruce. The estate—which is available for tourists to visit during certain times of the year—is entrenched in history, dating back to the 17th century (though the now-standing manor was rebuilt in the 19th century). Naturally, with history comes secrets, and from secrets, ghost stories and forgotten tales arise.

As the finale of Downton Abbey’s last ever season approaches (to American audiences, at least), fans are grasping for as much Downton-related intel they can get. The editors here at T+L are no different, so we decided to catch up with the two people who know the estate best: Lady Carnarvon, formerly known as Fiona Aitken (aka the real-life Countess of Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern in the series) and the aforementioned Alastair Bruce, who served as historical advisor, to get the scoop on what really goes on behind the estate’s closed doors.

Alastair, tell us a little bit about your role as historical advisor, and how you got involved with Downton.

Alastair Bruce: "I’ve known the show’s creator [Julian Fellowes] for many years. I really cut my teeth with him—he’d already done Gosford Park and The Young Victoria—and I did the King’s Speech, and then Downton Abbey came along. I just find myself getting involved in quite a lot of these programs that look back on how the British aristocracy used to live and operate, anytime between 1789 and the present. I was really there to support the producers in keeping a level of consistency with the period Downton covers, and to support the directors who are trying to turn Julian’s work into gripping entertainment—but keeping it as historically accurate as is possible within the fact that it’s not actually filmed at the time.

I do have other jobs—I’m a commentator of Royal, National, and Religious affairs on 24-hour British television [Sky News], so very often there were things going on like the Royal Wedding, the anniversaries that the Queen had, the Olympic Games…all of those things I had to often cover. But on the whole, I was able to do both. I remember just before the Prince [William, Duke of Cambridge] appeared for the first time on his wedding day, I received a call from the set and answered a question about gloves. I then was able to just go straight into the commentary."

Lady Carnarvon, many fans of Downton expect you and the Earl live a similar life to what’s depicted on the show; is there anything about your life at Highclere that viewers might not expect?

Lady Carnarvon: "I think that is why I started writing a blog. There are so many aspects to life here! I start the day going for a bicycle ride with the dogs, and then to see the gardeners, and to meetings about enquiries, events, building projects or further ideas. Yet, I do also stop and plan weekends to invite friends—new and old—when the Castle is full of laughter and conversation, glamorous gowns, and carefully constructed menus. I sometimes ask a pianist or singer to perform on a Saturday night. It is a proper weekend! Highclere is a place to gather people from different parts of the world, as it happened in the past, and to explore challenges and relationships."

So tell us some secrets about Highclere Castle.

AB: "I remember my cousin [Jean Margaret Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon] being ashen white when I told her what the opening sequence of the show would be. If you remember, Daisy gets up, gets the whole house going and they clean before the Earl of Grantham comes downstairs. Mrs. Hughes is going around and the camera focuses in on the chain around her waist carrying all the keys, and Jean—she’s the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon—she went white because there is a ghost at the house who is a former housekeeper, and you know she’s around because you can hear the keys jangling at the end of her chain. And Highclere Castle was built, so we’re told, on the original foundations of the original priory hall, where monks lived and where they had their refectory."

LC: "Geoffrey de Havilland made the first flight from Highclere on September 10th, 1910 having heard about the Wright's brothers. He had never actually seen a plane. And Richard de Walden was given the pall to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1398. On a completely different track, I found the most enchanting children's sketches and letters to their mother the Countess of Carnarvon in Victorian times. I would like to begin to restore the nurseries this coming year."

What’s with the bell system in the kitchen? Does it really work?

LC: "It is a very clever system, because not merely does a bell ring, but a small red disc flicks over to mark the room where Lord or Lady Carnarvon or a guest rang the bell. Therefore, if a footman heard the bell, he knew where he was summoned. There is also a simple phone there to speak. I am getting it partly working again, which I thought would be fun especially as all the school children stop there, so that would surprise them!"

Downton Abbey Highclere Castle
Alamy Stock Photo

How many rooms are there at Highclere Castle? And what about the kitchen, which is featured on almost every episode. Does it really exist, or is it a set?

LC: "There are 200 to 300 hundred rooms and 1,300 hundred years of history. We do have very old kitchens, but they are full of wonderful modern equipment instead of the old ranges. There is still a patisserie room, a stillroom, etc. We are hoping that fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy the app [which was released this past January] where we can share some of the details and open some doors."

What are some other things that fans and readers might not know about Highclere?

LC: "[We have] beautiful gardens and parkland (for 1,000 cars), and we have a farm and woodland beyond that, of another 5,000 to 6,000 acres. Many of the cottages in Downton are at Highclere, as are many of the roads and the riding scenes (filmed with our local hunt). And people [can] come to Highclere for private tours or weddings, or to enjoy the special events."

AB: "I know they [Highclere] run weddings and events. You can have a corporate event there. And Highclere, because it’s built on top of a hill, there’s no garden close by. Almost all aristocratic wives adored their gardens, as they had plenty of time on their hands and they spent a lot of time on them. But we never really see the garden at Highclere, because it’s so far away from the house. Think about it—you’ve never seen it. You can go to the garden, but when you’re there, you can’t see the house.

It probably doesn’t come across, because they always try to make the place look wonderful—but it’s excessively cold, because it was built by the medievalists on the top of a hill. It’s very odd. mostly, people didn’t build on hills, but this priory was. And the castle was really put up with the money of the Earl of Carlisle, who married a daughter into the Herbert family (Lord Carnarvon is actually a Herbert by surname) and they built this huge, great, Gothic castle that was actually built by the same person who built the houses of Parliament in London. That’s why they look very similar."

Alastair, are there any scenes that really registered with you as an accurate portrayal of aristocratic lifestyle at the time?

AB: "I remember one of the directors was going to shoot a scene showing tea with the Dowager Countess and the Countess. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and he said, 'Let’s do it outside.' And I persuaded him to move the staff there, too. So the plan went ahead, and there’s a lovely point in the middle of the conversation where Thomas (played by Rob James-Collier) who was then a footman, walks straight back down to the house along the grass—and I love the decadence of that decision by a family like that, to just move everything into the garden, yet everything is still done to the highest possible standard. And everyone’s immaculately dressed. The important thing is that, would the staff have come out—would they have worn boots? No. They’d clean their shoes. What matters is, they must look immaculate. And it’s up to them how they look after their equipment."

Downton Abbey Highclere Castle
Alamy Stock Photo

Lady Carnarvon, how many months during the year did you and the Earl live at the Castle during filming? Or were you there all year round?

LC: "Downton was here on and off from February through to mid-July each year, and we were there in the Castle all the time. It meant we were on-hand at the start of each day, which was usually quite early, and then our staff and office team began to arrive at more normal hours."

Are there any rules or customs from the period Downton covers (1912-1926) that you’d like to see reenter society today?

AB: "Yes. I don’t particularly enjoy the American import over here. Very often, when I go out to a restaurant, I want to have a conversation about something quite serious or emotional or whatever. And you’ll notice that in Downton Abbey, although the table is constantly served, the staff never speaks to the family unless they’re spoken to. And now, if I go to a restaurant, I find this rather unattractive American custom, which is the staff rushing up—and they don’t wait for you to finish a sentence. You might be telling your beloved that you’re bankrupt or something, and they just burst 'Is everything all right with the meal?' I find that terribly invasive.

I know it’s a great privilege to be served, and I never overlook what a privilege it is, but I don’t particularly want to become close friends with the person who’s serving me. I don’t particularly want to enter into much conversation with them. I want to sit down, eat my food and if I’m not happy, I’ll tell them. But apparently now, they’re informed by American training that you have to check if the people are happy with their food all the time. I’m amazed that people put up with it. And I love the service in America, [they’re] much better at it than we are in many senses—but this invasion is terribly off-putting."

What will you miss most now that Downton has finished filming?

LC: "We will obviously miss the recess in January and the arrival of the long white caravans and the lorries vans followed by the crew and cast. [But] the Castle is rarely empty, and we had quite a full calendar before Downton. The filming was fitted around it, which means we have many events to look forward to!"

AB: "We used to have a read through of the first five episodes with Julian and all the actors present in very early February just before we’d start filming. And just before we started, I’d stand up and give a talk about the history of the period that was going to be covered in the coming series. I loved doing that—I could take people on a sort of adventure, a rollercoaster into time. So I’ll miss that, and I’ll probably just miss the friends! We had a lovely producer called Liz Trubridge who really was the heart of the soul that was the production of Downton Abbey. On a hot summer’s day, she never missed the opportunity to raise moral when people were exhausted, and up the beautiful drive to Highclere Castle, in all it’s gorgeous, gothic, splendor, would come an ice cream van."

Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9pm on MASTERPIECE on PBS.

Adeline Duff is an Editorial Assistant at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @adelineduff.

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