Downton Abbey isn’t nearly as dramatic as the real history, says Clare Balding

The broadcaster loved Highclere Castle as a child– now she returns to the home of the Granthams

We come into the Highclere Estate and, through the trees, get our first glimpse of Highclere Castle. Thanks to the ITV series Downton Abbey, the castle is now famous on both sides of the Atlantic as home to the Earl and Countess of Grantham. What the scriptwriters invent, though, isn’t nearly as dramatic as the real history of the place and the people who have lived in it.

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The grand Gothic castle that stands proud in the centre of the estate was designed in 1838 by Sir Charles Barry, on the instruction of the third Earl of Carnarvon. Barry had just finished building the Houses of Parliament, and you can see the similarities in the intricate stonework, narrow towers and turrets.

During our childhood we never went inside the castle, but we saw it often enough from a distance when Dad was playing cricket on the estate, when we went drag-hunting there or rode round the cross-country course. Dad trained horses for the Queen and therefore had plenty of dealings with Her Majesty’s racing manager, Lord Porchester who would become the seventh Earl of Carnarvon. He never lived in the castle and regarded it as an impossibly expensive place to maintain, but his eldest son, Geordie, has taken a very different view since he ascended to the Earldom. 

The castle is now open to the public and is used as a wedding venue – infamously, for one of Katie Price’s marriages: a Cinderella-themed one, I believe, with Peter Andre as the pumpkin. Snobs suggested that Highclere had gone downmarket, but I just see it as part of its transformation into a modern, money-making estate. You’ve got to make a few mistakes to find out what works and, anyway, if a woman wants to dress as something out of a fairy tale and arrive in a pink carriage covered by a sheet because Wotcha! magazine has bought the exclusive, who are we to judge?

Downton Abbey has taken Highclere into a different league of financial security, and its owners should now be able to keep the castle from crumbling for generations to come. The castle may get all the headlines, but the grounds are magnificent. The park was designed in the 18th century for the first Earl by Capability Brown and has more than 50 Lebanon cedars, planted for maximum architectural effect and still standing proud nearly 300 years later.

Lime trees, ancient oak, copper beech and silver birch mark our way as we tentatively skirt the estate. Even though it’s a public right of way, it feels odd to be walking across the estate of someone you know without having told them you’re coming.

The most renowned Earl was the fifth, who was keen on the then newly invented automobile (he suffered a nasty car accident in Germany in 1901, which left him very weak), racehorses (he founded Highclere Stud in 1902) and Egyptology (he started going to Egypt after his car accident, in search of warmer weather. 

He was also quite keen on spending money but, rather fortunately, he had married the illegitimate daughter of Edward de Rothschild who came with an enormous dowry and an annual allowance for her husband. Spending it wasn’t difficult for the fifth Earl. Cars and race-horses are not cheap hobbies, but even more expensive was his new passion.

While in Egypt, he met a young archaeologist called Howard Carter, who persuaded him to provide the backing for his digs. They had mixed success, put the archaeology on hold during the First World War, then went back to excavate what they could in the Valley of the Kings, which was assumed by most to have been plundered dry. 

Having spent the modern equivalent of £10 million financing Carter for over a decade, Lord Carnarvon was running out of patience and money. During a house party for Newbury Races in 1922, he told Carter it had to end. By now, they were searching for the elusive tomb of Tutankhamun, the boy king who had died or been murdered around 1223 BC. Carter was desperate, and declared he would finance his last season himself. Carnarvon relented and in November 1922 received a telegram from Carter saying: “At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations.”

They had struck gold, and a heap of other treasures besides. Carnarvon travelled to Luxor to share the joy of uncovering the greatest ancient find of the 20th century. Four antechambers were packed full of artefacts and, when they finally reached the sarcophagus,

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Carter found the only mummified Egyptian pharaoh that hadn’t been disturbed and ruined by robbers. It took him and his team ten years to classify and clear the contents of the tomb. Sadly, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of his investment. Four months after descending the stairs into the tomb he died from an infected mosquito bite. The “Curse of Tutankhamun” was born. Legend has it that at the moment he died in hospital, his dog let out a howl and dropped down dead at home.