Beyond Downton: Secrets of Highclere Castle on PBS

Secrets of Highclere Castle premieres on PBS Sunday, Jan 6
Photo: Courtesy of Lord and Lady Carnarvon

As those of us in the States count down the final days until the third season premiere of the spectacularly popular British series Downton Abbey, PBS is offering a real-life look at one of the show’s most iconic stars. Highclere Castle, the phenomenal 1,300 year-old estate which plays the role of the fictitious Downton, is one of England’s most recognizable estates, and it boasts a history as rich and fascinating as the stories embroiling its television counterpart. In Secrets of Highclere Castle, viewers are given an unprecedented tour of the 5,000 acre estate as guided by the castle’s real-life aristocratic inhabitants, Lord and Lady Carnarvon, and their dedicated staff. Costing upwards of $1,000,000 per year to maintain, the estate boasts not only the grand castle, but also farmland, woodland, wildlife, gaming grounds, and historic buildings crafted by the home’s aristocratic predecessors, all of which requires its own staff and management in order to see that the illustrious Highclere’s present glory continues for future generations. Secrets of Highclere Castle not only offers viewers an in-depth look at the vast estate, but also a dedicated examination of the proud history of Lord Carnarvon’s ancestors and the castle’s role in an impressive selection of historic events. The estate’s history ranges from ties to the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb to the nursing of wounded soldiers during the First World War under the direction of Lady Almina Carnarvon, the American heiress whose fortune saved Highclere much in the way that the fictional Cora Crawley’s money saved Downton. (The present Lady Carnarvon recently told Almina’s story in her book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.)

PBS Presents Secrets of Highclere Castle
Photo: Courtesy of Lord and Lady Carnarvon

Without question, one of the most alluring elements of British period dramas are the astonishing houses and the grandeur of their styles, from the decorating to the height of standards for living within their walls. I’m constantly enamored with the regality of the estates, and Highclere is certainly one of the most beautiful to be immortalized on film. From the opulence of the estate, watching dedicated butler Colin Edwards set the table with immaculate precision, to learning the stories behind some of the most expensive antiquities in the home, Secrets of Highclere Castle looks easily like a fairy tale. But reality has played an all-too-prominent role in the life of Highclere as well, and the documentary also examines how Lord and Lady Carnarvon realistically balance their budget to preserve the estate for future generations. All the information combined with the natural historic splendor of Highclere makes for a wonderfully well-rounded examination of the edifice we all know and admire thanks to its presence on Downton Abbey. The utterly breathtaking footage of the castle’s sprawling grounds and resplendent interiors are nothing short of enchanting for fans of Downton, and the detailed history of the estate fascinates just as much as the impressive views. This is a program that educates as it entertains, and it will be premiering on PBS just before the first episode of Downton Abbey’s much-anticipated (are you as excited as I am?!) third season. I highly recommended tuning in early for it!

Secrets of Highclere Castle will premiere on PBS on Sunday, January 6th at 8pm EST. As always, find more information and check your local listings on

Disclosure: An screener of the program was provided for the purpose of review