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.