If you like really big houses, then watching the popular British soap opera Downton Abbey — and drinking in its setting, Highclere Castle — is sheer delight. For American viewers of the show’s second season, which debuted in the U.S. Sunday on PBS, there’s a delicious voyeurism in watching the melodrama play out against the backdrop of a massive English country house, with its giant rooms, long corridors, and spectacular decoration.
The land on which the house sits — at more than 1,000 acres, the estate is larger than New York‘s Central Park — has been in the family of the current owner, the Earl of Carnarvon, since the 17th century. The mansion itself, which boasts at least 50 bedrooms, is a Victorian trophy house built for the third and fourth Earls. With its colossal size and distinctive corner turrets — which make it look like the Palace of Westminster, designed by the same architect, Sir Charles Barry — the Castle might be worth some 150 million British pounds if it were sold today. (Though as a real estate agent, I’m not sure how to write an ad for it: The current occupant, Fiona the eighth countess of Carnarvon, was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying, “I suppose if you know how many rooms you’ve got, you haven’t got a very big house.”)
(VIDEO: Take a Tour of Highclere Castle)
Indeed, by any standard, it is a very big house — and digging into the architectural and historical backstory of the ornate mansion, completed in 1878, is a lot of fun. Here are a few choice details:
- The Castle’s Saloon, which is triple-height to a 50′ ceiling, is the Victorian equivalent of a home theater. The second-floor gallery surrounding the room provided an open arcade for minstrels to entertain the residents downstairs. In the days before electronic amplification, the room’s vaulted roof would have provided high-quality performance acoustics.
- If the house caught fire, the evacuation procedure from the upper floors would have resembled an emergency airline deplaning. The maids would have slid through tunnels of canvas spread over iron hoops, reports Tom Sykes in the Daily Beast. As such, the danger of getting caught up during escape was significant, and so in case of fire, maids were urged to don sweaters before popping into the chutes.
- Why “Abbey”? Like many of the great English Estate houses, Highclere is on the site of a former ecclesiastical property. (When then-king Henry VIII turned against the church in the 16th century, he appropriated lock, stock, and barrel.) Used by the bishops of Winchester in the 12th century, even now, it boasts a “monks’ garden.”
- The row of bells shown in the downstairs quarters is photogenic, but in actuality, each bell would have been constructed with a slightly different tone — so that the servants could hear which room to go to, even if they weren’t looking directly at the entire row. Many American mansions were also constructed with the bell system (the intercom, or dare I say, the cell phone of its day) — Victoria Mansion in Portland, Me., is a good example.
- Zoning continues to be a problem: British Tabloid the Daily Mail pointed out last year that the current owners are interested in developing the fringes of the estate, leading them to butt heads with neighbor Andrew-Lloyd Webber (who is himself a life peer, appointed by the Queen with the rank of Baron).
- The back of one of the doors in Downton Abbey is covered with baize, a green wool material that we think of as covering the surface of a pool table. That served, according to Old House Journal, as soundproofing. The Downton kitchen’s soda-crystal scrubbing, for example, would have been much louder than today’s whisper-quiet dishwashers.