Few haven't heard of the PBS Masterpiece blockbuster "Downton Abbey," the imported-from-Britain upstairs/downstairs-themed drama series focusing on the turn-of-last-century Crawley family.
"Downton Abbey's" biggest star, incidentally, isn't family members like patriarch Lord Grantham or feisty grandmum Dame Maggie Smith. The star of the series is -- according to Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays Lord Grantham -- the castle, known in real life as Highclere. "It's the center of the whole show around which everyone revolves," he said in a television interview.
Starting in 2014, Viking River Cruises', a national sponsor of Masterpiece, began organizing exclusive and intimate tours for its passengers, which includes a half-day guided tour of the 200-plus room Highclere Castle, situated on 1,000 beautifully rolling acres in England's Hampshire, as part of a new Oxford-based pre- and post-cruise tour option for its Seine River cruises. Now, mind you: Highclere Castle is open to the public now and again, but what's different about Viking's tour is its exclusive and private access, and the chance to enjoy it as a house, as opposed to the museum-like experience that's geared to the general public.
We got a sneak preview of Viking's tour when Highclere Castle graciously opened its massive doors to Cruise Critic. Here's what we discovered.
Photos: Highclere Castle
The Castle From the Drive
The biggest thrill for this "Downton Abbey" fan is that a visit to Highclere offers a trip to a castle and a film set. It's also the private home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. You motor up the very same drive as characters from the series do, and you walk in the front door, leading into the impressive saloon, like an invited guest. The big surprise? As big as the castle is, it definitely looks a lot more massive on the television screen than it does in person. However, Fiona, Eighth Countess of Carnarvon, was quoted in "The Telegraph" saying she really didn't know how many rooms there are in Highclere. "I suppose if you know how many rooms you've got, you haven't got a very big house."
Still, its provenance is alluring. Highclere was built in the 19th century by Sir Charles Barry, also famous for rebuilding the Houses of Parliament, and it's been continuously inhabited by the Carnarvon dynasty since then.
Sit down and have a cup of tea (or a glass of Champagne) in the Saloon, the heart of much of the action on "Downton Abbey." This graceful, Gothic period room is essentially the atrium of the castle, and it spans two floors, with skylights on the vaulted ceiling. The Saloon is elegant, in its way, and it's definitely familiar via numerous scenes filmed there, but the lasting impression you get is from its surprisingly cozy ambience. Fresh flowers, lots of family photos and really comfortable chairs (and please, feel free to curl up there) all contribute.
The library, with its walls of ancient books, numbering some 5,650, and scarlet-covered velvet couches offering visual pop, is typically the setting for serious scenes on "Downton Abbey." Also present is the desk where Lord Grantham, the family's fictional head, is often seen pondering over paperwork. True tidbit: When the show's filming there, it uses most of the castle's own furnishings (though the Carnarvon family photos and tchotchkes are put away). The only real difference for avid viewers: The eagle-eyed might notice the desk at which Lord Grantham sits (and which is pictured to the right, just behind the columns) is actually moved to the window so he can eye the expansive grounds designed by famed landscape architect Lancelot "Capability" Brown.
The Drawing Room
On our tour, our guide, who has worked at Highclere for more than a decade, animatedly discusses the estate's history. And while we're interested to know that this beautiful, glowing room, a favorite haunt of the ladies of Downton, is lined with bolts of French silk in the most lustrous shade of green -- and that there are all sorts of bits and bobs that might be historic and, oh, yes, that the desk in the music room belonged to Napoleon -- all we want to know is the backstage scuttlebutt. What's it like there during filming? She wouldn't say too much, though we did hear that there's at least one member of Highclere staff on hand at all times during filming (to make sure things don't get broken, among other things) and that of all the castmembers, the two actors who seem most enthralled with castle's history are Bonneville and Jim Carter (Carson, the butler).
Beyond the staterooms, the tour also visits the Smoking Room (which is not used by "Downton Abbey") and smells impressively smoky. There's also the State Dining Room, which is best known for its valuable portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck. Continuing with the family theme, there are also numerous paintings of Carnarvon ancestors who fought in England's 17th-century civil war. In a blend of past and present, the dining room was not dressed for filming during our visit. The small dining room table is dwarfed by the majestic surroundings. (Of course, once you fit it with its 11 leaves and add crystal and china, undoubtedly it is more impressive.)
Photo: Mark Brogger
Upstairs, as many as 11 bedrooms might be open for viewing. But the one every fan of "Downton" wants to see is the Stanhope Bedroom. Though its history is beguiling -- it was designed during Queen Victoria's day for a visit by the then-Prince of Wales -- it's the set of a famous season 1 scene of the show, during which Lord Grantham's daughter, Lady Mary, succumbs to a passionate night with a young Turk who's then found dead in the bed. All of the rooms we saw were elegant (and castle appropriate), but there were jarring modern touches in them (such as books on the nightstands by the likes of Frederick Forsyth, Lee Child and Tom Wolfe) that remind you this is a lived-in castle. In all, the house has more than 50 bedrooms; these are the only ones open to the public.
Photo: Mark Brogger
Curious to see the sprawling basement, where "Downton" servants are often filmed cooking, cleaning and quarrelling over a massive scrubbed-wood dining table? You're out of luck. Those scenes are filmed at London's Ealing studios because cavernous, turn-of-the-century basements outgrew their usefulness in the mid-1900's.
In this case, though, there's something pretty cool in its place. The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, a passionate pursuer of Egyptian art and antiquities, is famous to this day for his discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. The exhibition features items he collected that date back some 3,000 years.
Photo: Mark Brogger
By no means is Viking River Cruises the only outfit to offer tours of Highclere Castle. (You can plan your own visit by going to its official Web site.) But the Viking River tour, which features a special Champagne welcome on a tour co-created by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, is only available to North American passengers who book either its "Cities of Light" or "Paris & the Heart of Normandy" cruises. The three-day pre- or post-tour departs from Paris via Eurostar. Highlights include a visit to historic Oxford with a walking tour of its university; a trip to Blenheim Palace, where Sir Winston Churchill was born; travels through England's gorgeous Cotswolds district, full of quaint villages; and an overview tour of London. The cost of the three-day pre- or post-cruise tour is an additional $1,399 per person.
Photo: Mark Brogger