Highclere Castle, a resplendent English country mansion, is the setting for the Emmy Award-winning TV drama, as well as home to the myth of the “Mummy’s curse”.

What do Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun and the British television drama Downton Abbey have in common?  The answer lies in a resplendent country mansion in southern England known as Highclere Castle.

Located 105km west of London in rural Hampshire, Highclere Castle sits amid a quintessential English landscape of gentle hills, ancient water-meadows and soporific villages where thatched cottages still outnumber tiled roofs. Appearing regally at the end of a long gravel drive, its impressive Italian Renaissance-style facade ringed by vast manicured grounds will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever tuned into the Emmy Award-winning TV drama, Downton Abbey. But, while actors such as Maggie Smith steal the drama’s top accolades for their rousing depictions of Edwardian-era aristocrats, Highclere Castle’s less-heralded role as the country seat of the fictional Earl of Grantham in Yorkshire is equally evocative.

In real life, Highclere’s earls are the Carnarvons not the Granthams, a hereditary British peerage that traces its noble family lineage back to 1628. The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere since 1679, witnessing everything from the Industrial Revolution to the two World Wars, and overseeing the house’s transformation in the early 1840s when English architect Sir Charles Barry rebuilt it in spectacular Renaissance Revival style. With its soaring towers and decorative turrets, it invites comparisons with Barry’s other great work, the Houses of Parliament in London.   

While many of the erstwhile Earls of Carnarvon were renowned politicians, their fame was overshadowed by the escapades of the 5th Earl, better known as George Herbert (1866-1923), a keen Egyptologist, who, along with British archaeologist Howard Carter, unearthed the gold-adorned tomb of boy-king Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1922. Considered the greatest find in archaeological history, Herbert had little time to bask in its success. He died bizarrely the following year, probably from blood poisoning contracted through an infected mosquito bite, leading the newspapers of the day to speculate that he had fallen prey to a “Mummy’s curse”.

Highclere has been open to the public since 1988, but, in the last two years visitor numbers have more than quadrupled, thanks to the popularity of Downton Abbey, whose broadcasting rights have been sold to more than 100 countries. With opening times confined mainly to the summer months (check the website for sporadic winter openings), the onslaught of “Downton-mania” has led to busy car-park attendants and plenty of in-house bottlenecks. But, factor in the castle’s extensive grounds, its highly civilised English tearooms and some fascinating Egyptian artefacts courtesy of the 5th Earl that are bivouacked in the cellars, and Highclere is well worth the two hour drive from London.

Many exterior and interior shots from the TV drama are filmed at the castle, meaning Downton fans will feel eerily at home strolling through its plush rooms, in particular, the church-like Great Hall with its multiple Gothic arches. Other treasures include a library containing more than 5,500 books, a writing desk once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte in the sitting room, and a 1635 portrait of dashing English king, Charles I, by Flemish Baroque artist Anthony Van Dyck that hangs in the dining room. Strategically-placed family photos in many rooms remind you that Highclere is still home to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon who divides his time between the castle and a more modest house on the estate.  

The separate Egyptian Exhibition in the castle cellars begins with a photographic trajectory of the life of the 5th Earl, George Herbert, whose penchant for automobiles left him victim of one of history’s earliest serious car accidents. Retreating to Egypt to convalesce in the early 1900s, Herbert was thrown into the orbit of archaeologist Howard Carter who he enthusiastically sponsored to search for ancient remains in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Despite a decade of digging, interrupted for four years by World War I, the work threw up little bounty, until, at a crux meeting at Highclere in June 1922, Herbert agreed to finance one last push focusing on finding the tomb of the fabled King Tutankhamun. The gamble paid off. In November 1922, Carter thrust his candle through a slit in an unearthed doorway and cast his eyes over the almost perfectly preserved 3,300-year-old tomb of Tutankhamun. “Can you see anything?” implored Herbert impatiently. “Yes, wonderful things!” shouted back the stunned Carter.    

Today, the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb belong to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, from where they are periodically leased out to museums around the world. What you see at Highclere are mainly replicas, although the mock-up of King Tut’s golden coffin looks magically realistic to the untrained eye. While Herbert procured numerous original artefacts during his years excavating in Egypt, most of them were sold to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1923 to pay for his death duties. The few that survived were hidden at Highclere and forgotten about, until rediscovered by a butler in the 1980s. The originals now sit among the exhibition’s Tutankhamun replicas, spearheaded by a decoratively painted 3,500-year-old mummy case of a young noble lady found near Luxor.  

Back in the daylight, Highclere’s extensive grounds, like numerous English country gardens, juxtapose the wild with the manicured. Dotted around 1,000 acres of rolling parkland are a secret garden, an arboretum and an attractive wild flower meadow. But, the real eye-catchers are the follies. These opulent mini-temples, whose function was entirely ornamental, were the wealthy 18th-century gentleman’s alternative to garden gnomes. Visitors can wander at will from the pillared Jackdaw’s Castle, to the hilltop Heaven’s Gate folly, to the Grecian Temple of Diana while pondering pharaoh’s curses, Maggie Smith’s Edwardian hat collection and the aristocratic sight of Highclere Castle winking in the distance.

The third season of Downton Abbey will air on PBS in North America starting on 6 Jan 2013.