By Rachel Elbaum, TODAY contributor
As the eagerly awaited season 3 of “Downton Abbey” finally aired in the U.S. on PBS, fans tuned in to watch Lady Mary marry long-time love Matthew Crawley and see her sister Edith walk down the aisle at her own abortive wedding. But the Crawley sisters aren't the only brides at the castle. Highclere (the castle’s real name) has long hosted weddings for those looking for an extra-special venue.
“There has always been a lot of interest in Highclere Castle as a site for weddings,” Dean Yardley, managing director of wedding planning site Hitched.co.uk, told TODAY.com. “The grounds are fantastic and the building is magnificent. ‘Downton Abbey’ has gone on to make more people than ever aware of it.”
Last June, Sarah Ashley was thrilled to walk down the grand staircase that is so often seen on the show. Her guests were just as excited to get a firsthand glimpse of the castle where the show is filmed.
“We looked at a ton of different venues (but we) couldn’t get that staircase out of our heads,” said Ashley, who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with her British-born husband. “We saw other places and no other place compared. We plan to buy all the seasons of ‘Downton’ to keep as a reminder of where we got married; it’s such a great way to hold on to our wonderful memories.”
But getting married like a member of the nobility doesn’t come cheap. Just the rental of the castle, one of the U.K.’s more expensive venues, will set you back nearly $30,000, and that’s without food and liquor. What you get in return is the right to use many of the upstairs rooms; access to the Egyptian artifacts exhibition in the basement, where many of the staff scenes are filmed; and the run of the castle’s grounds for the day, including its clay pigeon shooting facility.
“It’s so flamboyant on the outside, which is part of what makes it so popular for prospective brides and grooms,” said Damien Lovegrove, a wedding photographer who often works at the castle. “There is a definite magic about the place. That being said, the more popular it becomes, the more some people are put off. I have known some couples who have canceled their weddings there since it became a model of TV glamour.”
In addition to being a hot spot for events, Highclere, just over an hour outside of London, is still a working castle and the part-time home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnavon, whose family have owned the grounds since the late 17th century. The couple inherited the castle in 2001, just two years after they got married. They now run the castle together with a full-time staff of around 20.
“Our view is that we’re long-term stewards of the estate for the next generation, leaving it for the future generations to enjoy,” said George Herbert, the Earl of Carnavon, in the documentary “Secrets of Highclere Castle,” which recently aired on PBS.
Since the show came out in 2010, Highclere has seen a surge of interest in its past. Last year, the Countess of Carnavon published “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,” which debuted in 20th place on the New York Times best-seller list, and every spring and summer the castle sees an influx of visitors as it opens its doors to the public.
And even for couples for whom a wedding at the castle isn’t an option, the show’s popularity has spurred them to include “Downton”-style period details in their ceremonies.
“Brides are choosing Edwardian-style corseted dresses with lace and beading, hiring vintage cars, introducing feathers and brooches into their bouquets and headdresses, as well as choosing 1920s-inspired wedding stationery,” said Jane Riddell, the owner of U.K. wedding planner Planned for Perfection.
Sonita Gale got married at Highclere in 2004, long before “Downton” aired, and understands well why the castle is so popular with both fans and brides. She and her husband loved the castle so much that they booked it again last year for a 10th wedding anniversary party planned for the summer of 2014. And echoing the TV show, she is thinking of designing the event around a 1920s theme.
“It was such a perfect wedding, and we always wanted to go there again for a swanky affair with our two kids,” said Gale, who runs a film production company, Galeforce Films. “What better place is there to celebrate 10 years together?”
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