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Real castle behind 'Downton Abbey' (w/video)


But sometimes, visitors to Highclere Castle are befuddled.

On our visit last fall, tour guide Margaret Bell delighted in recounting the story of a woman who insisted Bell was wrong about the gender of the children of Lord Carnarvon.

"She couldn't separate that the present earl has two sons and Lord Grantham (in the TV show) has three daughters," she said of the visitor, who became indignant. "She left in high dudgeon."

Less than 50 miles from London's Heathrow airport, Highclere was our first stop after picking up our rental car and reminding ourselves, "Think left, think left," as we drove the English way, the opposite side of the road back home.

Unscathed by the traffic roundabouts, and with a little help from GPS and Siri's directions, my wife and I soon found ourselves on the 6,000-acre, park-like estate in rural Hampshire, wondering "was this narrow, hedge-lined road the one where they filmed Matthew Crawley's fatal car crash at the end of the last 'Downton Abbey' season, leaving Lady Mary with their newborn child?"

And then, through our jet-lagged eyes appeared the honey-colored, stone palace, resplendent in a rare blue-sky background.

There is a similarity between Highclere Castle, with its pinnacles and towers, and the House of Parliament in London, as architect Sir Charles Barry designed them both.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's first words on seeing Highclere in the late 1800s were said to be, "How scenical! How scenical!"

It's understandable that he compared it to something dramatic and theatrical. As we stood with mouths slightly agape, taking in the surreal manor, others nearby struggled to describe it.

"It's so symmetrical," "The mass of it fits," "It's the towers," were just some of comments I overheard made by one American couple trying to encapsulate how the castle dominates its surroundings.

American tourists top the list of those seeking out Britain's castles and country estate homes, with more than one million Yanks annually taking in a tour of Britain's historic buildings, according to the London Times.

A global audience of 120 million for "Downton Abbey," in addition to millions more for Harry Potter films, have invigorated the British tourism industry.

We were told that the number of visitors who come to Highclere during the July through September period that it's open to the public has increased more than tenfold, going from about 150 daily to more than 1,600 on average since the television series aired three years ago.

Michelle Dockery, who plays the part of Lady Mary in the series, says American audiences have seized on the parallels between "Downton Abbey" and the royal family:

"They don't have an aristocracy, so they got this endless fascination with ours," Dockery told Radio Times magazine. "They see a link with Kate and Will's wedding, the Queen's jubilee and the royal birth. All these events happened around the same time 'Downton Abbey' was being broadcast in the U.S. and the audiences there see it as a window onto how the royal family lives."

Coincidentally, Mary and Matthew's baby is named George, like the British prince who was born in 2013. And the royal couple are fans of the show, according to cast members.

Queen Elizabeth II has been a regular visitor to Highclere through the years. Generations of the Carnarvons were involved in horseracing and bloodstock throughout the 20th century, and the 7th earl was racing manager to Her Majesty from 1969 until his death in 2001.

There are other fascinating events connected to Highclere.

One involved the 5th Earl, renowned as "Motor Carnarvon" for his fast and furious driving of early motorcars, which also brought him numerous speeding fines and crashes. He was advised to travel to warmer climes to recuperate from his injuries, which took him to Egypt.

It would lead to a fascination with ancient Egypt, his decision to bankroll English archaeologist Howard Carter and the sensational discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb and treasures in 1922.

In the basement of Highclere, we viewed an extensive exhibition with replicas of King Tut's tomb and the artifacts.

But it is the upstairs opulence that impresses the most: baroque ceilings; gold silks and embroideries; green French silk wallpaper; Belgian tapestries; and the gothic, Medieval-hall-like center of the castle with its heraldic shields and coat of arms.

Family portraits date to the 1600s, set amid marble busts, gilt leather wall hangings and carved stone fireplaces.

A mahogany desk was owned by Napoleon. There is a sumptuous, Italian marble table with panels of flowers and birds inlaid with semi-precious stones. Other prized furniture was made by the most renowned cabinet makers and craftsmen of their day.

The well-plotted, high-class soap opera that is Downton Abbey is a celebration of privilege chronicling the intertwined lives of the upper class and their downstairs servants, with Highclere Castle serving as a ready-made set.

Many of the rooms look just like they do in the series, which began its fourth season Jan. 5, taking us to the early 1920s and the start of the Jazz Age.

We made our way through the bedrooms belonging to fictional Lady Grantham, Lady Sybil and Lady Edith, as well as the state dining room, where we were reminded of the acerbic comments made there by the Dowager Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith.

We also toured the "pleasure" gardens with their romantic temples, arches and gates.

And we emerged in time for a welcome spot of tea and scones in the castle caf?