NEWBURY, England - An early-morning mist settles over the winding roads and rolling hills dotted with sheep, just waking to another day beneath steel-gray skies. It's a setting straight out of a Hollywood script. Then the bucolic charm is interrupted by the chatty cabdriver who shares everything he knows about Highclere Castle, the warring neighbors and all the tourists who have been showing up in droves.
"That's where Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber lives," he says as the cab passes a nondescript hedgerow. "His estate is just over there and they don't get along with the owners of Highclere." That comment sparks some interest. Didn't know he lived near. As it turns out, Sir Andrew made an unsolicited offer to buy Highclere from George "Geordie" Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, whose family has been there for more than 300 years.
"Yeah, they don't like each other. This is where Watership Down is as well," he continues. Watership Down is a hill and is also the setting for the 1972 novel and 1978 film of the same name about rabbits.
While all that is fascinating, it's incidental to the reason people are making the hourlong pilgrimage from London to Hampshire County. They're coming to see Highclere Castle, which has a starring role in the PBS "Masterpiece" hit series "Downton Abbey," created by Julian Fellowes.
You can almost hear the familiar piano and strings of the period melodrama's theme as Highclere comes into view. Nestled in the countryside about five miles from the town of Newbury (pronounced "Newbree"), the house as it is today was begun in 1838 by the third Earl of Carnarvon and completed in 1878.
"Highclere has been around a long, long time," says Lady Fiona Carnarvon, who is married to the eighth Earl and is mistress of the manor. Even before that there had been a house on the land for 1,300 years, she says. An Iron Age fort, which also dates back 1,300 years, is visible from the estate, but to visitors it's just another verdant bump in the landscape.
Rather than being greeted by household staff at attention, visitors come upon a gate to present their ticket. The sandstone facade and those familiar turrets framed by old cedars make it hard to stop staring. For fans it's like meeting a cast member. Walk up the path and you're standing in front of the massive, wooden doors with black metal wolf-head handles that hold a partial deer's leg in each mouth. Nothing says "welcome" like a satiated predator.
As in a museum, visitors can use the headset guide that explains the rooms you are viewing. Velvet ropes and strict house guides/guards keep everyone corralled as you go from room to room.
Tours are timed, and a guide leads each group through the rooms beginning with the Library. Family photos are everywhere, so it's a curious mix of home and television set. During filming, any obvious modern-day object is put away, although other than the photos there aren't many. Even the furniture is used in the show, including the books, which date back centuries.
The Carnarvons thought carefully before allowing Highclere to be the setting for "Downton Abbey."
"I did indeed have some trepidation," admits Lady Carnarvon. "I think you're mad not to have trepidation. We thought about it quite carefully, the pros and cons."
The castle is closed to tours during filming. During that time, the guides watch the film crew in shifts and either Lady Carnarvon or the castle manager is on site. "If they have some questions, you know, can they remove that door or can we stand on our head, we are there to answer, 'Yes, I can stand on my head, but no, you can't remove the door.' "
The international spotlight has been on Highclere before. It was the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, who along with Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. Five months later, he was dead from a fatal mosquito bite. He was in Cairo when he died and it is said that his dog Susie died at Highclere the exact same time. The fifth Earl is buried on a hill overlooking the estate. Some of the treasures from his excavations were found hidden in a cupboard between two rooms in the house and are now on display in the basement, along with original photographs. An avid Egyptologist, he also enjoyed the occasional seance, and they were held at Highclere.
The fifth Earl's wife, Almina, was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild. She made Highclere Castle famous in her own right, converting it to a hospital for soldiers during World War I ("Downton Abbey" included a conversion of the castle to a convalescent home for injured soldiers during its second season) and a safe haven for children evacuated from London during the Blitz. It has hosted prime ministers, aristocrats and royalty. The state dining room features
a huge painting of Charles I astride his horse by Flemish realist Van Dyck. Family portraits dating back centuries adorn the walls.
"Downton Abbey" fans will be impressed with how much of the house is exactly as it is on the show. Even the view from the Library to the east lawn is familiar. You can almost picture Lord Grantham and his faithful hound inspecting the grounds. While the Ladies' Parlor, Dining Room and main staircase look just as they do on the show, the second-floor rooms are less elaborate and not as easily identified.
The one true letdown is the downstairs. There is no kitchen with the big wooden table where the servants eat. That part of the show, as well as the attic bedrooms, are filmed at a set built at Ealing Studios in London, 60 miles away from Highclere Castle. A cafeteria and the Egyptian exhibit are downstairs in the castle.
You can enjoy some local fare with ale or wine for lunch before you go outside to the little gift shop. A word of warning: It can get very crowded when the tour-bus groups are finishing and the lines to check out with your Highclere candle or tea towel or ball cap can be long. One of the must-haves for "Downton" fans and history buffs is "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle" by the Countess of Carnarvon.
If you have time while waiting for the train back to London, take a look around the quaint little town of Newbury. There are plenty of pubs to stop in for a nip and bite or you can take a walk along the picturesque canal where locals feed the swans.