Countrywise visits Highclere Castle to get behind the scenes at the setting for the hit ITV series, Downton Abbey. Viewers get to learn about how the house really was turned into a convalescent home for officers during the First World War, meet the writer Julian Fellowes, find out the house’s connection to Tutankhamun and discover the connection to the design of the Tiger Moth.
The seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, Highclere has been inhabited since the 12th century, has an estate that has been shaped by Capability Brown and even has an ancient iron-age hill fort. It is this fort that led the 5th Earl of Carnarvon to strike up a friendship with Howard Taylor, the noted Egyptian archaeologist, whilst he was recuperating from a motoring accident in the warmer climes of Egypt. The young aristocrat had first experiemtned with an archaeological dig on the hill fort on his home estate, sparking a lifelong passion for ancient history. The friendship between the Earl and Taylor led to the Earl’s patronage of Taylor’s search for the tomb of Tutankhamun – ultimately ending with the discovery of the tomb of wonders which still tops world discoveries to date.
Geoffrey De Havilland used the estate as a testing ground for the first flights of his Tiger Moth prototypes, bravely flying a circuit of the Highclere grounds when he was entirely uncertain of the aircraft’s ability to fly – or land!
The Edwardian era really was the heyday of the estate so beloved of the Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. The 5th Earl and his wife entertained the very cream of society whilst experimenting and exploring the finest the world had to offer at the time – digs in Egypt, motorcars and aircraft – whilst maintaining the traditional estate activities of farming, deer stalking and horse riding.
The current Lord and Lady Carnarvon admit to not inhabiting the house full time – instead choosing to live more practically in a smaller house – as Highclere is rented out for weddings (£10,000 for exclusive use of the house), filming and some public open days.
Rupert Brook’s famous poem “The Soldier” is somewhat quoted out of context at the close of the program, but does not detract from a thorough exploration of a traditional aristocratic English estate.
Countrywise – The Real Downton Abbey – airs at 6pm – 7pm on Sunday 18th September 2011 on ITV for UK audiences only.