My Day at Downton Abbey…I mean, Highclere Castle

Today I went to Highclere Castle, which is better known these days as the main set for Downton Abbey. Admittedly, I would never have known about the castle, if not for the show…and I would venture to say probably 80% of the visitors there today were in the same boat. I would say that overall I had a good experience, but I do have some criticisms of the site and the way it’s set up for visitors. Fair warning, this is a long entry…and there is a lot of venting involved from a slightly angered Museum Studies graduate student. 🙂

Plung below the cut if you dare!

This bit of site-seeing has been the most expensive thing I’ve done, simply because without a car, it’s not an easy place to get to. I took the train from Pewsey to Newbury (£9.80 for my to and from ticket), and then a taxi from the Newbury train station to Highclere Castle (£17 both ways…so £34) and then a £14.50 student admission into the castle, gardens and special exhibition. That doesn’t include the tea and cake I had after my tour, or the souvenirs I bought at the gift shop. More on the gift shop later. So that’s roughly £60, which is the equivalent of $95. Gasp. I know…it’s a lot. And I’ve been putting everything on my credit card which will be paid down the second my student loans hit…and who knows when I’ll be back in England. So I consider it money well spent.

Due to the train schedule, I was at the castle by 9am, even though the house doesn’t open until 10:30am. So I bought my ticket and enjoyed the grounds and gardens while I waited. I am so glad I was as early as I was, because I basically had the place to myself before the slew of busses started arriving just before 10am.

So…on to my tour of the house.

Now, first we have to acknowledge that the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon do still reside in this house a few months out of the year. Filming for Downton series three wrapped up officially last week and the house will be open for visitors until the end of September and then access will be limited again. For the most part the house looks as it does in the show, but the various contemporary features, primarily all the framed family photos sitting on all the tables and other furniture, is actually quite jarring. Somehow the glossy colour photos set in a random assortment of frames just didn’t fit in with the beautiful old library, smoking room, drawing room, etc. But again, it reminds you that this house is not Downton Abbey…it’s a living breathing household.

Throughout the house, there are labels that connect the rooms back to the show. This is particularly useful with the upstairs bedrooms where the basic fabric of the room is recognizable, but a lot of the furniture is different. So, for example, in Lady Grantham’s bedroom, the chaise lounge is missing, and there are contemporary toiletries sitting on the vanity. Lady Edith’s room doesn’t have a four-poster bed, and Lady Sybil’s bedroom has different pictures on the walls.

However, aside from the few room-defining labels, there is absolutely no interpretation. And I have to say, I was astonished at some of the photos hanging in the upstairs hallways…black and white photos from England’s colonial past that could be misinterpreted by some people…but maybe I’m still scarred from my experience with the Rikli albums I had to work with for Exhibitions last Spring, where the German photographer went through Colonial Ethiopia. The photos at Highclere were from Uganda, and Earl so and so, with Sultan so and so…etc etc. It just left a bad taste in my mouth I guess.

The tour takes you through the first floor, avoiding the main saloon hall, up through the upstairs bedrooms…well…you get to lean into the doorway, you can’t actually walk into the rooms, and then ends with a decent down the grand wooden staircase into the saloon. But you can’t walk into the middle of the saloon either, it’s all roped off. And then you have to exit down through the basement, which I thought was ironic.

I would say overall, the house would not be nearly as interesting without the show and imagining the beloved characters walking through the house with you. The interpretation is basically non-existent until you get to the very last room, the dining room, whereby they finally decide to give you some information on the history using well-printed albeit flimsy poster board displays. And not being able to actually walk into half the rooms is a little disheartening as well. I mean…put a runner carpet over the rug if you’re so concerned about scuff marks and such. I think this site is highly problematic because it is still lived in…so the usual arguments about restoration, reconstruction and interpretation can’t even happen.

Now, one of the interesting other parts of this house, is the existence of its Egyptian special exhibit. The Carnarvon family has been long-connected with what they call exploration in Egypt, and what I would call glorified tomb-raiding. I was hesitant to go into the exhibit at all, because I am obviously predisposed to feel that those objects have no business being in the hands of a private family, and should be in a publicly funded museum. But in I went, and the further I went through it, the angrier I got.

First of all, the exhibit is in the basement. Okay…so a collection’s manager might say that’s good for the objects, and sure it is. But from a visitor experience point of view, I don’t want to be “minding my head” and straining my eyes to see things! The cases and wall labels/plaques look ancient…the colours were horrendous and there was absolutely not logical flow to the exhibit whatsoever. It was a jumbled mess of self-congratulating pompous rubbish.

Yay…your great granddad discovered the tomb of King Tut…let’s pat ourselves on the back for four entire rooms when the objects themselves should be the stars! Textiles were displayed with creases, beaded necklaces were draped out and over the wooden boxes they were found in…which is all great for aesthetics, but I’m pretty sure that centuries old textile would like to be lying flat! The displays were utterly reminiscent of the cabinets of curiosities the Victorians so loved, but in all the negative ways.

There was no guide to the exhibit, and like I said before, you wouldn’t know where to go from one place to the next. The first two rooms were artefact heavy, and then the next two were all about the family…wax figures posing over an old desk with a map of the tomb included. Puke.

I didn’t even stop to read half the labels because the first ones were so bad. Text everywhere, random concepts explained, nothing tied together with anything else. I hated it…in case you couldn’t tell by my description so far.

The objects in that basement belong in a special collection management facility, and belong in a museum where people can see them and learn from them. Keeping them there just glorifies that colonialist ideal of going to a foreign place, digging and stealing (yes, I think it’s stealing) what you can to show off at your next dinner party back home.

Okay, now that I have that off my chest, back to the house. I went through around 10:30am, and the amount of people was reasonably tolerable. You had to wait a minute or two to get into some rooms, but for the most part it flowed. I attempted a second tour through just before I left at 12:00pm, and it was absolutely jammed with people. It was awful. And hot and stuffy. So I basically walked past a bunch of people and saw the few things I wanted to see again and got the heck out of dodge.

Photography is not allowed inside the house, although I managed to sneak one good one of the main saloon with my iPhone.

Thank you iPhone for being so discrete. Hah. But normally, I’m okay with a no-photo policy, so long as you offer decent postcards in the gift shop to make up for it. No such luck here. I bought two, and they were mediocre at best. The photos looked like they were taken in 1990, with weird hues to them, and some of the collage postcards had photos of the family in them, which I thought was really awkward. Why would I buy a postcard of the house, with the actual Earl and Countess in it? It’s not like they’re the royal family…and even then I wouldn’t buy it. I came to see the house, I want a good postcard of the damn house. There was a random assortment of Egypt related things you could buy, a bunch of really ugly jewellery, and then an assortment of things branded with the Highclere Castle logo.

Nothing Downton Abbey related. Nothing.

Now, I understand that the house existed and has its own history outside the show. But when you are a heritage site with limited funding and the majority of your visitors came to see the house because of that show, wouldn’t you bank on the fact that they would scoop up all kinds of Downton related souvenirs??? When I was in the store I heard several people say they wished they had Downton stuff. It just seems like such a missed opportunity to me. And I’m by no means a proponent of commercialism at heritage sites…but the man directing traffic outside in the car park said it best, “That show saved this house. The upkeep is so expensive. They wouldn’t be able to do it without the show.”

Exactly. The show saved the house. So sell some gosh darn Downton stuff will you please???

I felt like the family didn’t want to acknowledge that their house was only important to the majority of visitors because of the show. And I get it…they’re aristocratic and probably a bit full of themselves…but why not embrace Downton while you can? The show won’t last forever, and the hype will die down…but in the meantime, I would cash in on it as much as possible.

At any rate, if you love the show like I do, I would recommend at least one visit. If you don’t love the show, don’t go. It’s not worth it. The only thing that kept me going through my visit, was thinking about the characters and the stories that took place in the rooms and on the grounds in the show. It was walking down the staircase like Hugh Bonneville does in the first episode with Isis, and it was Mary sitting out on the bench under the tree reading, and it was Mr Bates walking down the pebbled path, that made me enjoy my visit.

All that said, I’ll let it rest. 🙂 I’ve written more than enough. Brevity has never been a talent of mine. All the photos in this entry are from my iPhone, and were obviously taken with Instgram to give them that old look. I took lots of better ones with my real camera.

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5 thoughts on “My Day at Downton Abbey…I mean, Highclere Castle

  1. Best sentence of this post: “It was a jumbled mess of self-congratulating pompous rubbish.”

    I can imagine it was very romantic for you to stand in the same spots as Matthew and Mary. I’m glad you at least got to go even if it wasn’t what you had hoped for.

    And yes, brevity has never been a talent of yours. Especially when it comes to your boyfriend. But that’s why I love you 😉

    • Oh you mean the “dissertation” length letters I write you 🙂
      When we finally get to travel to Europe, we’ll do England and we can do Highclere together 🙂

      PS: I was very proud of that sentence that you liked lol. Every now and then I come up with some good sentences.

  2. Mike’s right (I assume that’s Mike!) – best sentence in the whole post! That one sentence is what reminded me most of a similar experience I had recently – I went through the Jim Williams house in Savannah, GA this summer. That’s the one where “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” takes place. It’s admittedly on a much smaller scale than the castle and “Downton Abbey,” but reading your post put me right back there. I didn’t know a thing about the book/movie when I walked in, and the tour was exactly what you said about this castle – self aggrandizing b.s. I was utterly disgusted with the whole experience – from the pompous and arrogant tour guide, to the lack of interpretation, to the Jim Williams glorification. The Williams House, however, has figured out the marketing aspect, and their gift shop is full of trinkets and such related to the book/movie. As for the looted artifacts, your description reminds me of the King Tut’s Tomb exhibit that I saw at the Luxor in Vegas a few years ago. Except I’m pretty sure they didn’t have any real artifacts there (I hope they didn’t have real artifacts there – although for the amount of money I paid to see the exhibit I might reconsider that stance). But it was still glorifying tomb robbery, and very much in the same “cabinet of curiosities” vein. We did an exhibit at ASU where one of the students found some looted materials in the university’s collection, and decided to put them in a case with the only interpretation being a big 11″ x 17″ label with “LOOT?” written on it in huge letters. It got the attention of the administration, and they made the student take the installation down. Not sure why, especially in an institution of higher learning, there is such fear of the discussion about looted materials, what constitutes looting vs. legitimate artifact collecting, and what should be done with looted materials in museum collections. That could have something to do with it being ASU, “the Harvard of academics” according to one typically drunk undergrad on the Daily Show, but I digress. The whole incident made me want to do an exhibit and associated programming on loot, repatriation, and the role museums should play in resolving these types of issues. It’s a particularly touchy issue for us in the Southwest, but it’s certainly not limited to this area – Egyptian materials are probably the most well known instance, but the UPenn Museum of Anthropology ran into problems with their exhibit on Chinese mummies a couple years back (of course, human remains come with their own set of problems), and there’s the Kennewick people in Washington (again, human remains are the most well known issue, though Kennewick Man is but a single incident in the long history of repatriation issues in the Pacific Northwest). Here in the Southwest we have people still, to this day, who go out into the dessert or the mountains and find things as innocuous as potsherds or projectile points, to religious artifacts, even human remains once in a while. And rather than calling someone, they pick it up for themselves. I came to work one morning a couple years back, and there’s a note on the front door and a little Dixie cup full of potsherds. The note said something to the effect of “I found these on a hike and now I think I should return them. They were found 40 to 120 miles southeast to northeast of Chandler.” Yeah, thanks, jackass. This just became my problem. Luckily, they were nothing more than a couple of potsherds, but who knows where they came from, what else might be at the site, and what this person may have disturbed to get these few sherds. I guess we can have find hope in humanity that this person realized they’d done something wrong and did what they thought was right to rectify that?

    • Nate that was definitely the longest reply I’ve ever gotten to a post! 🙂
      But I can appreciate it as one museum person to another.
      My BA is in Anthropology, so I know a bit about the issues in the American SW, but my focus was primarily African Studies.

      I can’t imagine how frustrated I would be if someone dropped a Dixie cup of stuff on my doorstep… common sense just doesn’t seem to be so common anymore. lol.

      I’m glad that this issue at Highclere Castle is getting some publicity. I feel like this family has been quietly sitting on these things for so long and now people are starting to notice and starting to talk.
      Once I’m done with school and graduated (December 15th here I come!), I’m going to do some research and see if I can’t turn this into some kind of conference paper/post type thing.

      Thanks again for leaving such a thoughtful comment! It was great to read. 🙂

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