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

  • Highclere castle, one of England’s more stunning Victorian castles and the setting for the popular TV show Downton Abbey. The 1,000-acre estate is located west of London, in Hampshire, about 5 miles south of Newbury, Berkshire. VIRGINIA MASON 2013

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.

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