As my shuttle van drove through the park gates and wound its way up Highclere Castle’s imposing driveway, the driver began playing the Downton Abbey soundtrack. While in any other circumstance this might have felt a bit too on the nose, the John Lunn-penned theme only heightened the effect of seeing the castle’s grand Jacobethan-style sweep and surreal spires for the first time. Even before exploring the library, the latest selection for The Daily Beast’s monthly series, The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries, I was swept away with the fantasy of the building I was finally seeing in person.
In person, celebrities almost universally tend to be smaller than you’d imagine. However, the Hampshire, England estate is proof that roughly £137 million can buy you plenty of room to stretch out—more than was ever documented in the PBS drawing room drama. In addition to the 300-room main house (two floors of which are open to tours), the rolling land also houses a handful of guest cottages, a chapel, immaculately sculpted gardens, and the most British of institutions—a tea house. How big, exactly, is 1,060 acres? In 1700, the owners constructed a series of follies, Greek-themed, purpose-free structures meant to take up space and draw the eye to nature. Compare that to the average flat in London, which has 43 square meters of floor space.
But it took time for Highclere to grow into the tourist hub it is now, even before visitor numbers doubled with the dawn of Downton.