If you’re missing your Downton Abbey fix now the series has finished, then a visit to the real Downton is the perfect way to re-live those Sunday nights with the Crawleys. Though even if you’re not a fan of the show (I’m told there are some out there), Highclere Castle is a fantastic property well worth seeing in its own right.
The castle is the home of the real life 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and has been their family seat for more than 300 years. It was designed by the same architect as the Houses of Parliament and there are definite similarities between that and the castle which is an imposing an impressive building.
As the family live there, opening days are fairly restricted as is photography with none allowed inside the house which is even even more fabulous than it looks on TV. As soon as you step inside Downton fans will feel at home, whether it’s in the library where two red sofas face each other and look very familiar, or in the smaller than you’d think it would be dining room.
Then there’s the galleried landing lined with bedrooms where you can lean over and look up at the vaulted ceiling or down into the beautiful Saloon, scene of Downton Christmas parties and where the Carnarvons celebrate the festivities too. To help remember how the rooms were featured in the show there are large photos of scenes but most fans probably won’t need them.
You can’t go inside many of the bedrooms but can look in from the doorways. Her Ladyship’s is familiar from all those Robert and Cora scenes. Edith’s and Sybil’s are there too but not Lady Mary’s which is unfortunately just in a studio in London. Though you can see the room where her first paramour, the Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk, was staying – and hastily returned to after his unfortunate demise.
At the back of the building there’s a tea room where they have hot meals as well as sandwiches and cakes and there’s another one just behind the house as well as the obligatory gift shop. Once you’ve refueled and shopped there’s plenty more to see as the castle has extensive grounds including the lovely Monk’s Garden.
In fact there’s around 1,000 acres of parkland and gardens that were designed by the famous 18th century landscape gardener Capability Brown. Other highlights are the Walled Garden, the Secret Garden, a wild flower meadow and a number of follies. Jackdaws Castle’s is a pillared temple that’s not far from the actual castle and was designed to give a great view of it, which it certainly does.
On to practical matters Highclere is in Hampshire but the closest town is Newbury in Berkshire and its easy to get to from both the M4 and M3. As I mentioned earlier the opening days are fairly restricted and you can only visit for short periods in Spring and Summer. It’s best to check the website for full details.
You can book in advance to guarantee entry but all of these year’s pre-booked tickets are already sold out. It says online that they endeavour to admit people who turn up on the day, but one of the guides told me its usually fine and we had no problems getting in on Easter Sunday, though we did have a back up National Trust place in mind if we hadn’t got in. I was very glad we did though as very much enjoyed discovering the real Downton Abbey and recommend you do it too, whether you’re a fan in need of a fix or just a lover of fabulous Victorian mansions .
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and check out my earlier post about Basildon Park, the National Trust property that was used for the interiors of Grantham House, the London home of the Crawleys.