Fans flock to 'Downton Abbey' castle ahead of film debut

Highclere (United Kingdom) (AFP) –


Bedecked in 1920s dresses, feathered hats and three-piece suits, visitors from across the world have flocked to England's Highclere Castle, scene of the "Downton Abbey" smash TV drama -- and now, at last, a film.

The majestic setting of one of the most popular TV series ever made will appear on the big screen when the very first "Downton Abbey" movie opens in Britain on Friday, and globally later this month.

Winner of dozens of awards since its UK debut in 2010, the period drama about early 20th century aristocrats has mesmerised Yifan Gao, a Chinese student attending university in Scotland.

"Everyone our age knows Downtown Abbey" in China, the 25-year-old said, posing for a photograph in a vintage dress, a glamorous necklace draped around her neck.

"It's charming," she said after taking a six-hour train ride from Edinburgh with two friends to attend a special weekend at the castle organised by producers of the film.

"I used that series to practise my English."

Boasting 200 rooms, four chefs and four gardeners, the 19th-century estate is now home to George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and Lady Fiona Carnarvon, his wife.

The running costs of the estate, which also includes 3,000 sheep, are huge, the earl tells AFP, without going into specifics.

Before the TV series stopped production in 2015, "there were even more people working there, 20 gardeners, 16 people in the kitchen," he said.

- 'Obsessed with the English' -

The number of visitors to the castle has more than doubled to 90,000 people a year thanks to the series, whose tale began with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and ended in late 1925.

The film, which officially premieres at London's Leicester Square on Monday, picks up the plot in 1927, with the Crawley family anxiously awaiting a visit from King George V and Queen Mary.

The castle got all dressed up for the occasion as well, throwing open its doors to fans and filling its driveways with immaculately kept antique cars.

Its sweeping oak staircase and airy rooms decorated with paintings, warmed by fireplaces and attended by servants in period clothes, the castle almost felt like home to especially devout admirers of the shows.

"It felt so familiar, like I have been there before," Daniel Bissler, a 70-year-old Californian dressed in a sky-blue and white striped suit and bow tie the colours of the Union Jack, said after admiring the various rooms and hallways.

"It really captures a very special time in England, when the working class, women, were fighting for their rights," added Shayane Lacey, a 24-year-old Londoner who came with her mother Roya, 54.

Emily Dickmann from Chicago said she felt "almost emotional" after stepping inside the bedroom of Lady Sybil, one of the heroines of the show.

"I think we Americans are obsessed with the English. We don't have lords and ladies, that long history, and it is kind of fascinating for us," she said.