Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Real castle behind Downton Abbey: Highclere and the Earls of Carnarvon

As savvy TV and movie viewers have come to realize, most locations that they see on screen are created through a combination of extravagant budgets and talented set designers. Even when luxe exteriors are genuine (such as on “Gossip Girl” or “Revenge”), the interiors are created on sound stages. The PBS hit “Downton Abbey," now in its second season, is the lush exception to this rule.

Downtown Abbey castleThe real home of TV’s grand Grantham clan is Highclere Castle, an estate by Charles Barry, who also built the Houses of Parliament. He completed Highclere Castle in 1842 on 1,000 acres of English countryside near Newbury, on land inhabited since 1672 by the Carnarvons.

The current Lord and Lady Carnarvon (Geordie and Fiona to their friends) have discovered that allowing the cast and crew to infiltrate their home and grounds provides gains that are not merely financial.

“The best part has been sharing this romantic castle and home with so many people from around the world,” Lady Carnarvon said. “And ‘Downton’ has helped revitalize an interest in history.”

The author of the new book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle” (Broadway Books), Lady Carnarvon admitted to a downside of having attractive actors and actresses traipsing through her house clad in sumptuous Victorian fashions.

It's an invasion, she said. “The thick wires and cables snaking everywhere, the cameras, the trollies, the white vans obscuring the drives and the dust that collects as a result.” Her advice to anyone who’s thinking of letting their own home become an onscreen one? “Have a good sense of humor!”

Right now, as the third season of the show has just started filming, Lady Carnarvon is keeping a close eye on the family heirlooms, not to mention her dogs, which love scarfing food from the catering tables. But she did find time to talk with us about Highclere’s richly appointed rooms, which are nearly as big a lure as the show’s romantic plots and family intrigue. The result is the following list of 10 things you may not know about the real “Downton Abbey”:

1.  In a real-life incident that mirrors the show this season, Lady Almina, the fifth countess (and the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild), turned Highclere Castle into a hospital for World War I soldiers in 1914. “She became a skilled nurse and healer of men’s spirits as well as bodies,” Lady Carnarvon said. “There are hundreds of letters here at Highclere from parents who wrote to give thanks to her. They were so grateful for her telegrams letting them know how their sons were getting on. There are stories about the nights Almina sat up with the men, some of whom had seen so much they weren’t sure they wanted to go on.”

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