An iconic symbol of the British aristocracy and the landed gentry, Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey in the addictive TV series) is the private home of the storied Carnarvon family who have lived at Highclere since 1679. Built in an era of soaring optimism and near British omnipotence, Highclere Castle is the architectural culmination of the eras zeitgeist. In actual fact, the current Highclere Castle was remodeled and rebuilt out of an earlier Georgian mansion by Sir Charles Barry in 1839–1842 (after he had finished building the Houses of Parliament). Highclere is in the Jacobethan style and faced in Bath stone. For detailed information about the spectacular design of the castle, check out my extensive feature on Highclere Castle.
Our focus here however is the spectacular, cerebral and picturesque garden of Highclere Castle. While I adore Highclere’s bold visual combination of exterior stone vertical sections juxtaposed against the equally bold horizontal stone detailing (which are in contrast to the slender proportions of the towers), what truly sets the castle’s architectural splendor off to its fullest effect are the magnificently simple and elegant gardens leading to and from the castle, allowing the scale, detailing and power of the design to truly be expressed.
The Highclere Castle gardens were originally designed by Lancelot Capability Brown, THE preeminent British Landscape Designer of the era who excelled in cultivating natural beauty in country estates, or what was to become known as the Picturesque aesthetic. The estates owners, the passionately preservationist 8th Earl and Countess Carnarvon, have faithfully kept Brown’s aesthetic as the garden has grown over the years. The 1st Earl of Carnarvon was the one who rebuilt and redesigned the park/gardens in 1774–1777, relocating the estates village in the process (in fact the remains from a church are at the south-west corner of the castle). Highclere has had many famous Garden Design connections over the years including the 18th century seed collector, Bishop Stephen Pococke, who was the one who brought the Lebanon Cedar seeds after a trip to Lebanon (this is a time BEFORE mass nurseries, mail order garden catalogues and easy to purchase seeds and plantings). In keeping with the Picturesque Design theme, there are various follies strewn about the estate in locations that are meant to feel as if they have always been there and you are “encountering them for the first time”. The point of a folly is to create a quiet, contemplative space in which you could connect both with the garden but as well the past. To the east of the house is the epic folly, the Temple of Diana, a stunning classical structure erected before 1743 with Corinthian columns. Of special garden note is the hybrid holly Ilex x altaclerensis (Highclere holly) that was developed here in 1835 by hybridising the Madeiran Ilex perado (grown in a greenhouse) with the local native Ilex aquifolium.
Today, the garden is a beautifully calm and luxuriant example of the British Picturesque with its abundant rhododendrons, lush azaleas, and acres of acer trees. When walking the gardens, keep in mind how these plants had to be imported from the Americas, India, and the Far East. An extensive garden at this time signified not only great wealth, but as well passion, drive and horticultural fortitude. Personally, I’ve always loved the Kitchen gardens of these storied estates (especially the fruit tree plots) both for their subtle beauty but as well their functionality in keeping the larders well stocked with treats all year round.
Highclere Castle is set in 1,000 acres of sweeping parkland, manicured lawns, heritage woods and stunningly created gardens. This “horticultural heaven” creates a palpable tranquility and has simply breathtaking views across the rolling downlands of North Hampshire and the Kennet Valley. The actual ground the current Castle stands upon was the site of an earlier house, which in turn was built on a previous mansion, WHICH IN TURN was built on the foundations of the medieval palace owned by the Bishops of Winchester for nearly 800 years. This is why some areas of the gardens predate the castle by centuries.
The epic and sumptuously romantic Temple of Diana is an 18th century folly (shouldn’t everyone have an epic folly in their backyard?). The purpose of which was to create a stunning focal point in the garden in the background for the eye to travel to, as well as create “moments” of reflection in the garden. The temple folly in this case is SO extravagant that it transcends the normal range of garden ornaments/structures to which it belongs and is actually a historical monument to the era and their passion for the Picturesque.
Nearer to Highclere Castle on the East Lawn is the multi pillared Temple called Jackdaw’s Castle, another epic folly, this time built by Robert Herbert in 1743 to provide the required picturesque view from the Castle AND provide a garden venue from which you could appreciate the majesty of the castle itself. Being located near the castle proper, this folly has been used extensively for garden events/parties and romantic dinners for centuries.
Located a short walk from the Castle is the Monks’ Garden (shown above) whose name is derived from the Bishops of Winchester who owned the land for 800 years. Records show that the Monks’ Garden in 1218 (as in the YEAR 1218… truly mind-boggling) had 61 fruit trees which were replanted in 1364, when 44 apple and 27 pear trees were planted. Today, its ecclesiastical history is preserved & adapted, but with more of a decorative garden spin with the espaliered medlar and pear trees climbing the ancient walls amidst the centuries old yew topiary. Lush and luxuriant climbing roses create a Red Queen garden effect in June and the walled garden is filled with penstemons, agapanthus and perennial geraniums. Lavender grows under the walls whilst an expansive glass conservatory is filled with Tea Roses for cutting as well as peaches and nectarines.
Nestled quietly behind the high yew hedge of the Monks’ Garden lies the famous and celebrated White Border garden. A simply stunning display of monochromatic gardening, lush with ornamental pears, crambe, agapanthus, hydrangeas, roses, and other plants providing wonderful foliage throughout with a sea of fresh white blossoms.
The Garden Gate into the Secret Garden
A hidden gate in the Georgian brick wall of the White Border garden leads into the enchanting Secret Garden. A superb walled garden with its own micro-climate that is full of curving herbaceous borders, serpentine paths and a SPECTACULAR riot of colour in July and August. From the sheer HEAVEN of the Secret Garden you can walk to the new arboretum (created by the wonderfully passionate 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon). In fact, the Earl has recreated a beech avenue (which was originally planted by Robert Herbert in the 1730’s) to join the two points of interest. Added to this area are different sorts of oaks, beech and crab apples which have been planted along with lilacs, philadelphus, daffodils and narcissi for the spring.
A bit of a walk past the Secret Garden lies the Wood of Goodwill (I ADORE gardens that have names for every area, don’t you?). A new area to explore, you can find 38 native British trees as well as unusual recently planted beech and oak. In the spring the grassy areas are full of daffodils whilst a newly planted walnut walk leads to a Rose Arbour and Wild Garden.
A bracing walk up the hill from the Wild Garden takes you past an Etruscan temple (yet ANOTHER spectacular garden folly). This 18th century folly was originally built for the northern part of the Estate and moved to its present day location near Penelope’s Wood to the south of the Castle. One side of the folly has a wild flower meadow which is wildly popular with visitors in summer months. From here you can take one of the extensive woodland paths for an afternoon walk. Given the EPIC scale of both the castle and the garden, plan a weekend to truly savour the magic of Highclere Castle.
Located in the garden are hundreds of cedar trees, planted over 250 hundred years ago, grown from seeds given to the 1st Earl of Carnarvon.
Looking towards the Castle from the Wildflower Meadows
Highclere castle at night for a spectacular event (scene from Downton Abbey)