I love the fact we can watch Downton’s seasons a full 4 months before they debut in the States. Tonight, my American friends sit down to watch the last episode of Downton Abbey, Season 3. What shall we do during the 7 month wait for a new season? I suggest planning a trip to Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey.
Located approximately one hour from London by train, Highclere Castle is the stately home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Sir Charles Barry built the present house in 1842 on top of an existing Georgian home, which was built on the site of an Elizabethan home, etc. While the estate has been a part of the Carnarvon family for over 300 years, there is evidence of building on the site dating back 1300 years.
We took a train from Paddington station in London to Newbury and hired a cab to drive us the remaining way to the castle. We wound our way past miles of lovely countryside before turning up the mile-long, tree lined driveway. As you round the final corner of the drive, you can see Highclere Castle’s glorious gothic turrets through the trees. You can almost imagine the curtains twitching as Lady Edith watches you pull up the drive.
Admission tickets, purchased either on-line in advance or from the little shed near the gates, are timed in order to manage the crowds. We had about 1.5 hours to explore the castle grounds before being admitted to see the house. The castle landscape, designed by Capability Brown, lends itself to endless wandering through fields and across lawns. We visited the tea room for a light lunch and convinced ourselves we needed a double-chocolate magnum bar to eat on the lawn while watching military planes, both ancient and modern, flying over the castle. I’m pretty sure the flyovers aren’t part of the usual day out at the castle, but it was fun to watch. We walked through gardens and orchards, peeked into greenhouses and tried desperately to recreate the opening scene from Downton by walking up to the house from the fields below while loudly humming the opening music. We nailed it, even without the dog. The house also hosts a collection of Egyptian artifacts from the Tutankhamen tomb, discovered by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, but we didn’t have time to visit the exhibit before our scheduled time at the house.
We joined the visitors queue outside the giant front doors at the appropriate time and waited for Carson to open the door and welcome us inside. Sadly, he was not available and we had to make do with the lovely greeters that gave us a brief overview of house rules and a quick outline of the self-guided tour.
Visitors are allowed to wander through the glorious dining room where the portrait of Charles I hangs over Carson’s sideboard and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) throws her infamous one-liners at unsuspecting guests. Visitors can also see the library, used as Lord Grantham’s office and study and the glorious “saloon”, where the family gathers and the Grantham sisters plot their various schemes. Upstairs, visitors file past Sybil and Edith’s bedrooms as well as the “Rose bedroom” where Lady Mary and Mr Pamuk had their passionate, ill-fated romp. Unfortunately, all of the below-stairs scenes of Downton Abbey are filmed in a studio in London and not at the house.
The house and grounds are stunning and make a fabulous day out, even for non-Downton Abbey fans. Make sure you check opening dates and times before you go, as the family is in residence most of the year and Highclere is not open year-round. You can check visitor information here.
Things to know and other random bits about Highclere Castle:
The 8th Countess of Carnarvon wrote a book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” to raise funds necessary to restore Highclere Castle. The Castle was falling into serious disrepair in 2009 and required a minimum of £12 million to prevent it from falling into complete ruin. The book, film fees and publicity from the Downton Abbey series generated enough funds to make necessary repairs. There was a bit of a neighborhood tiff between the Earl and his neighbor, Andrew Lloyd Weber. When Weber heard about the plight of the Carnarvon estate and offered to buy Highclere Castle to store his art collection. The Carnarvon’s were not amused.
Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, nursed and housed recovering soldiers in WWI at Highclere Castle just as it did in the second season of Downton Abbey.
You can book weddings and special events at the castle.
Highclere Castle is a two hour drive from central London. Alternatively, you can take a train from London Paddington to Newbury and a cab to the Castle (cab fare approximately £25 plus tip). It is also possible to take a bus from London Victoria to Newbury.
Make sure to arrange your return trip to the train station with your cabbie before you step out of the cab at Highclere. The wait to return to the train station can be long if you do not.
Driving to Highclere from London takes approximately 2 hours.
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