Growing up in the grounds of a castle with secret rooms stuffed full of Egyptian treasures, Harry Herbert had a happy, if unusual childhood. The 300-room Highclere Castle is now famous for being the location for the TV series and movie Downton Abbey. Harry joined Ryan Tubridy to share some of the incredible history the building has witnessed.
Harry says that the real-life Highclere household functioned just like the fictional Downton one, right up until the middle of the last century. Staff swished up and down stairs and backed gracefully out of dining rooms, working as servants. They also, however, frequently became friends and confidants of those they served.
By the late 1980’s, the Hampshire stately home was in need of extensive repairs; selling cups of tea and plant holders weren’t going to be enough to save it. Then a stunning discovery came to light. Family butler Robert Taylor revealed a stash of Egyptian treasures found in a hidden space between two rooms. He had kept them a secret for 30 years, until the Earl he served had died. Harry’s great-grandfather, “the Indiana Jones of his day,” was part of the team that found the Tomb of Tutankhamun. The 5th Earl (and his dog) died suddenly in Egypt and this caused some family members to be gripped by superstition around the discovery.
“My grandfather wouldn’t have the name Tutankhamun spoken in the castle: he was scared to death of being zapped by the curse.”
The publicity following the discovery of the Egyptian artefacts brought the cash rolling in. The family embraced every opportunity to fund the upkeep of the castle, from weddings to sporting events and ultimately to film shoots, including the TV series, and now movie, Downton Abbey.
“If you have a stately home and you’ve got to keep the roof on with these huge costs in repairs the whole time, Downton Abbey was the absolute jackpot.”
Harry, who’s married to celebrity chef and champion of Irish food producers Clodagh McKenna, says life at Downton as portrayed on screen is true to life as he remembers it from his youth in the 1960s, the tail end of the upstairs/downstairs regime.
“Those characters all existed in my childhood.”
Highclere Castle is a living, breathing home that has been kept alive where many other old estate houses have crumbled. Harry claims of the 300-room pile:
“It’s a lot cosier than you’d think it would be!”
You can hear more about Harry’s great-grandfather, his pursuit of the tomb of King Tut and the curse that killed him, here.
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