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Real castle behind 'Downton Abbey' (w/video)

  • Highclere, on a 1,000-acre estate west of London, is one of England's more stunning Victorian castles and the setting for the popular TV show, “Downton Abbey.” (VIRGINIA MASON)

The lines between truth and fiction are easily blurred at Highclere, one of England's more stunning Victorian castles and the setting for the PBS Masterpiece series Downton Abbey.

There are similarities between the Carnarvon family that's inhabited the “great and splendid” home since 1679 and the Crawley clan featured in the lavish television drama.

It's true that Lady Almina, the 5th countess of Carnarvon, converted Highclere Castle into a hospital in 1914 to handle wounded World War I soldiers, as depicted in Downton.

But sometimes, visitors to Highclere Castle are befuddled.

On our visit last fall, tour guide Margaret Bell delighted in recounting the story of a woman who insisted Bell was wrong about the gender of the children of Lord Carnarvon.

“She couldn't separate that the present earl has two sons and Lord Grantham (in the TV show) has three daughters,” she said of the visitor, who became indignant. “She left in high dudgeon.”

Less than 50 miles from London's Heathrow airport, Highclere was our first stop after picking up our rental car and reminding ourselves, “Think left, think left,” as we drove the English way, the opposite side of the road back home.

Unscathed by the traffic roundabouts, and with a little help from GPS and Siri's directions, my wife and I soon found ourselves on the 6,000-acre, park-like estate in rural Hampshire, wondering “was this narrow, hedge-lined road the one where they filmed Matthew Crawley's fatal car crash at the end of the last 'Downton Abbey' season, leaving Lady Mary with their newborn child?”

And then, through our jet-lagged eyes appeared the honey-colored, stone palace, resplendent in a rare blue-sky background.

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