Behind the scenes at the “real” Downton Abbey!

IMG_6951Nicola here! Last week I had the pleasure of a visit to Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which is the location where much of the hit TV series Downton Abbey is filmed. I was pretty excited about this trip as not only do I enjoy the TV programme very much I also love visiting historic houses so this was combining two of my favourite things.

With Downton Abbey the house is far more than just a setting; it feels like a character in itself. As we drove towards it the house was immediately recognisable. It’s enormous (fifty bedrooms!) and grand in a way that only a Victorian mansion can be (it was built in 1838). It’s not the first building on the site. There was a medieval hall at Highclere, a manor house and a classical Georgian mansion before the transformation that created the current castle. It is said that the grand central tower of the house cost a fortune and Lord Caernarvon’s land agent warned his employer that the plans were “pregnant with the most alarming danger to your Lordship’s pocket.” Despite this, the 3rd Earl was determined on a grand plan and when the house was finished it dominated its surroundings in the most dramatic way.

Before we went on our tour of the house we strolled across the parkland and admired the cedar treesIMG_6945 that were part of the landscaped grounds created in the 18th century. We had Rochester the Guide Dog Puppy with us and as he is a Yellow Labrador we thought we would do our own version of the Downton Abbey opening credits, filmed on my mobile phone with my husband standing in for Lord Grantham. Alas Rochester was not as majestic as Lord Grantham’s Labrador Isis, who had her own storyline in the second series, but he did love wandering through the park. Although NBC was also filming that day at Highclere I think I can claim that Rochester was the star of our particular show. He was made very welcome by staff and visitors alike and the sight of this small guide dog puppy descending Highclere’s fabulously grand central staircase as though he was to the manor born was very funny.

The interior of the house was also instantly recognisable from the TV programme. I loved the dining room, where so many of those splendid dinners in Downton Abbey take place, and the magnificent oak staircase that ascends from the Saloon up to the Gallery and the Gallery Bedrooms. It is around this landing that some of the bedrooms are situated that are used in the filming. We saw “Lady Grantham’s room”, “Lady Edith’s room” and “Lady Sybil’s room” and also the room given to the cad and bounder Kamal Pamuk in the first series. This is decorated with bright red flock wallpaper and is known as the Stanhope Room. It was refurbished in 1895 for the visit of the then Prince of Wales. It was also great to meet some of the room stewards who had their own anecdotes to tell of the Downton Abbey cast and the filming. Mrs Patmore the cook, Mr Carson the butler and the Thomas the footman were their favourites!

The oak stairsHighclere wears its Downton Abbey connections lightly with only a few signboards in the rooms to tell visitors of a specific link to the TV series. This leaves plenty of room for the “real” history of the house. I loved the Library, which resembled a gentleman’s club and was furnished with Georgian and Regency desks and tables. My favourite room though was the lovely south facing drawing room, which felt warm and intimate because it was comparatively small. I could quite imagine the ladies withdrawing there for tea and a chat!

The Castle became a centre of political life during the late Victorian era and in the 20th century it saw different uses during the two World Wars. During the First World War it was a hospital for wounded officers. In this the storyline in the TV series mirrored the real history of the house. 

My favourite part of the visit was discovering about the life of a servant at Highclere during the Edwardian era. Once again, Downton Abbey mirrored reality perfectly. Guests at Highclere ranged from Royalty toThe Saloon politicians, Egyptologists to aviators. Behind the green baize door (there really was one, and a stone flight of steps leading down to the servants’ hall) the butler reigned supreme with Lord Caernarvon’s valet and the housekeeper also at the top of the pecking order. The butler ran the castle, looked after the wine cellar and waited on the family at dinner. He was also expected to announce visitors, take calling cards, escort departing visitors from the premises, organise the post and oversee the secure closing of the house each night. The valet managed the Earl's personal accounts as well as his wardrobe and travelled with him. The Highclere footmen had navy coloured livery and buttons sporting the family crest. They were all required to be clean-shaven and the more handsome and presentable the better it reflected on the family! 

IMG_6972After lunch in a marquee on the lawn – with Rochester being offered a drink of water out of special Highclere china! – we took a tour of the gardens. The Monks’ Garden has surviving Georgian walls and arches and is a beautiful and tranquil place to walk. The grounds are dotted with "follies;" decorative ruins in classical style designed to enhance the view.

We finished the day climbing Beacon Hill to theIMG_7025 grave of the 5th Earl of Caernarvon, the Egyptologist who with Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Highclere Castle was framed in the distance, the perfect view to end a wonderful day.

Is there anywhere that has featured in a film or TV programme that you would like to visit? Have you even been “behind the scenes”? I am offering a copy of Dauntsey Park, my Edwardian-set book, to one commenter between now and midnight Thursday!

The Gilded Age – Dauntsey Park, an Edwardian historical romance

Dauntsey park - UKNicola here! Last week saw the UK reissue of my 2008 Edwardian historical romance The Last Rake in London with a new title, Dauntsey Park, and a gorgeous new cover. I was tickled pink when a UK magazine described the book as "perfect for fans of Downton Abbey," The Oxford Times said that it was "everything a historical romance should be and more", and another review described is as "a particularly fine Edwardian romance."

Over on my website I’ve been blogging about the inspiration for the story and various aspects of my research. I found writing an Edwardian-set book absolutely fascinating and the parallels between the period and my more accustomed era of the Regency to be intriguing. There were similarities – both were gilded ages, at least for the top of society – and both saw immense social, political and technological upheaval.

Today I thought I would blog about a few favourite and random facts I discovered when I was researching the Edwardian age. I hope you enjoy them!

The Buccaneers and Dollar Princesses

First up, those fabulous American heiresses! One influence on Edwardian high society that has always fascinated me was the arrival of the “dollar princesses” into the British aristocracy. The later Victorian and Edwardian period was a time when high society was becoming more open; rich industrialists, self-made men, heiresses, even foreigners (gasp!) were able to enter the ranks, enriching the coffers of the old nobility.

Mary Jo has written a wonderful blog post about the buccaneers here:

We also see the influence of the American heiress very strongly in the smash hit TV programmeDollar princess Downton Abbey. Cora, Countess of Grantham, was a dollar princess or “buccaneer”, the daughter of a self-made man, whose money saved the Grantham family from financial ruin.  The American heiresses influenced society a great deal from fashion – their preferred couturier was the House of Worth in Paris – to interior design. Cora’s character was apparently based on that of Mary Leiter whose social success was assured when she went to a ball during the London Season as “a statuesque beauty in a stupendous Worth gown” and danced with the Prince of Wales. She married George Curzon of whom she most romantically said when he came through the door she felt “that the band was playing the Star Spangled Banner and that the room is glowing with pink lights and rills are running up and down my back with joy.”

Ashdown House, where I work, also had its own Buccaneer, Cornelia Martin, whose fortune saved the Craven family. She was fabulously rich, extremely stylish and became very admired. I have blogged about Cornelia here.


Edwardian dinner tableAh, those tables groaning under the weight of eight courses! By the Edwardian age many affluent families would aspire to a French-trained chef who would be paid the princely sum of £100 or more per year. The food served at the Edwardian dinner table not only had to taste fabulous, it also had to look wonderful too. There was no holding back: glazed boar’s head was a favourite dish, as was roast lobster decorated with seaweed. Sweet dishes were enormous too – hills of bonbons, huge bowls full of exotic fruit and tiny cakes. Flowers would be preserved in gelatine and filled with cream and fruit. It’s amazing the ladies could fit in those Worth gowns but then your corset would restrain the worst excesses.

 The Franco-British Exhibition of 1908

 I had never heard of the Franco-British Exhibition before I researched Dauntsey Park, but I discoveredThe Franco British Exhibition that it was a huge exhibition that aimed to display and promote the industrial achievements of both countries. Alongside the displays of machinery and products there was a wide range of fairground attractions and sideshows. My favourite was the Flip-Flap, which was like a swinging boat with two carriages. It carried 50 people in each carriage and went up 200 feet, giving a panoramic view of the exhibition and of London beyond. There was also a huge helter skelter, a Canadian toboggan ride, a recreation of “old London” before the 1666 Great Fire and, curiously, a recreation of the 1889 Johnstown Flood. There was even an Irish Village, based on Ballymaclinton, which contained part of President McKinley’s grandfather’s cottage.

The Franco-British Exhibition was a fashionable event and visitors were expected to wear their best clothes for the outing. I was amazed to read that there was a type of “uniform” expected of the visitors. The style of the day, as outlined in Donald Knight’s ‘The Exhibitions’, was, for women, either grey or green costume, with braid and button trimming, white collar and cuffs, lace blouse, fawn felt hat with brown ostrich feathers, brown handbag, fawn gloves; or poplin skirt, bolero jacket, white lace blouse, straw hat decorated with ribbons/flowers, gloves and parasol. For gents the fashion was lounge suits of worsted or tweed (herringbone, plain or striped) in brown, grey or navy, single or double-breasted jacket and waistcoat; shoes were starting to come in but most men wore boots, and bowler hats or straw boaters. Young girls dressed entirely in white, with black lace-up shoes, boys in kneebreeches, blouses with lace collar and cuffs or a jersey, and sailor suits. For the working class, it was Sunday best, white blouse and short jacket for women; black suit, flannel shirt and cap for men; knickerbockers, shirt and cap for blouses with lace collar and cuffs or a jersey, and sailor suits. Even on a day out the different ranks of society could be recognized by their clothes.

The Night Clubs

Moulin-rouge-702In Dauntsey Park my heroine, Sally Bowes, owns a London nightclub called the Blue Parrot. The nightclub in the book is modelled on the Moulin Rouge in Paris because I wanted it to be fairly racy and the Moulin Rouge was certainly that! The Blue Parrot was a little ahead of its time – the first Edwardian nightclub in London was said to be The Cave of the Golden Calf, which opened in 1912. The Cave was legendary for its drinking and dancing, but it lost money rapidly and closed after only two years.

In my story the Blue Parrot is a very fashionable but exclusive venue, a favourite haunt of King Edward himself. It is not rowdy or too overtly sexy. It offers musical cabaret, drinking, good food and gambling for high stakes, all in the most tasteful and opulent of surroundings, destined to appeal to both the aristocrats and the self made members of Edwardian society.

I’m giving away a copy of Dauntsey Park to one commenter between now and midnight Thursday. All you have to tell me is whether you enjoy books set in the Edwardian period and if so what you like best about them. And if you don’t enjoy historical romance set in that era it would be interesting to know that too. One reader once told me that knowing that World War I was on the way ruined her pleasure in the Edwardian period. What do you think?