In Depth

The real Downton Abbey: inside Highclere Castle where hit show was filmed

As the feature film of the ITV drama receives praise from critics, here’s a look at its most iconic filming location

The first reviews of the eagerly awaited Downton Abbey movie have praised it as a warm, easy-going adaptation of the smash-hit ITV drama.

The show’s transition to the big screen is, according the BBC’s Caryn James, “delightful fun, even though the plot is obvious almost to the point of stupidity”, while The Hollywood Reporter describes it as “satisfyingly sumptuous”.

Peter Bradshaw writes in The Guardian that the movie “is at all times ridiculous – but, I have to admit, quite enjoyable”. 

He adds: “In order to get the full, authentic experience, you’ll need to see it on the small screen, on 27 December, with a quart of eggnog inside you and enough Quality Street to trigger a diabetic coma.”

The release of a major feature film has naturally revived interest in the real-life filming locations for Downton Abbey - and none more so than Highclere Castle, which doubles as the titular abbey on screen.

Here’s a look inside the famous castle used in the show:

History

The real Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, an enormous country house located five miles south of Newbury in Berkshire, around 60 miles west of London.

The first mention of a property on the current site in any document was in 749, when Bishop William of Wykeham built a medieval palace there, iNews reports. Almost 1,000 years later, in 1679, it was bought by Sir Robert Sawyer, Attorney General to Charles II and James II, and rebuilt as Highclere Place House.

In 1838, Sir Charles Barry, the architect who also worked on the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, was commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon to create a new building. Work on Highclere Castle in its current form began in 1842 and was finished in 1878.

According to The Sun, the castle’s “giant estate includes 5,000 acres of land”, 11 bedrooms, servants’ quarters and a “room for entertaining the upper classes”. Recently Which? consumer magazine revealed the property to be worth around £72m. INews reports that the “author of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, reportedly had the castle in mind when writing the series”.

According to Travel and Leisure, the castle “has become a totem for the show, with fans making pilgrimages to see where their favorite series was shot”, adding that an estimated 1,200 people visit Highclere each day the house is open to the public.

Who owns it now? 

Currently, Highclere is the home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, whose family have lived there since 1679.

Prior to the premiere of Downton Abbey, the couple “admitted their Berkshire estate needed £11.75m worth of repairs, including £1.8m of urgent work on the main house”, the Daily Mail reported in 2012. However, the success of the show and subsequent interest in the property allowed the pair to undertake the major renovations through profits from ticket sales.

Lord Carnarvon, 55, said the show had “taken the pressure off”, adding: “At the time that we were approached about Downton, it was just after the banking crisis and it was gloom in all directions. We had been doing corporate functions, but it all became pretty sparse after that.

“Then Downton came along and we became a major tourist attraction,” he added. “It has been a wonderful thing for us and our visitor numbers have doubled.”

Where the key scenes are filmed

The Sun reports that “much of the exterior shots of Downton Abbey and most of the interiors are both filmed at Highclere Castle”.

In the main building are the dining room, Lord Robert’s library, the sitting room, the family bedrooms, the grand staircase and the salon.

However, the “downstairs” sets, such as the kitchen and servants’ quarters - along with some of the upstairs bedrooms - were constructed and filmed at Ealing Studios.

The Downton Abbey movie will be released in UK cinemas on 13 September. American fans will have to wait another week to see it, with US release set for 20 September.

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