Downton Abbey – a period drama that screams elegance, oozes romance and has a little sprinkling of light-hearted humour. I have been a fan of the TV series ever since it first graced our screens here in the UK in 2010. The characters and storylines just captured my attention from the word go and I love how it even has the tendency to make me laugh out loud. Queue the many brilliant one-liners from the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith)! As such a big fan of the show, I have always wanted to visit the magnificent family home in which Downton Abbey was filmed – Highclere Castle.
That day finally came this May bank holiday weekend! I’ve been trying to get tickets to Highclere Castle for a couple of years now but due to the fact that it’s only open to the public for a few weeks each year coupled with the shear popularity of Downton Abbey, I haven’t had much success! I decided to get super organised this year though and ordered our tickets in December 2018.
Driving through the estate, I kept my beady eyes open for a first peak at the castle, even if it was just to see the turrets in the sky. When Highclere came into view, it was simply a breath-taking moment. For years, I’d only seen the castle on screen but now I was seeing it with my very own eyes!
First, a little history about this magnificent Victorian home. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1842, the same architect who designed the Houses of Parliament. It has been the home of the Carnarvon family for over 300 years and the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon still reside here today! The 5th Earl of Carnarvon famously helped archaeologist Howard Carter discover the Egyptian tomb of Tutankhamen. Today, visitors to the castle can also visit the Egyptian exhibition in the cellars where real artefacts can be viewed and admired.
When booking your tickets to Highclere Castle, you can either choose the morning (10:30am-1pm) or afternoon (2pm-4pm) admission slot. We chose the morning slot and to avoid the initial rush of people, we decided to plan our journey so that we arrived around 11am. Many people had this idea as we were then waiting in a little bit of a queue to get into the castle! It was definitely worth the wait though once we saw what was inside.
Stepping through the front doors, you immediately turn to the left to start the tour in the library. This is a magnificent room decorated in dark mahogany and royal reds with over 5,650 books adorning the shelves. You can just feel the rich history in this room, peppered with modern day life as you can see a variety of family photos on elegant side tables. For Downton fans, this room is easily recognisable as it’s where the family, particularly Lord Grantham, spend a large amount of time. It was quite surreal walking through the room that I had seen so many times on screen!
Next, we walked through the pretty music room with its 16th century Italian silk embroideries gracing the walls and onto the drawing room. This room is where the ladies of Downton spent a lot of their time and is easily recognisable on screen by its beautiful green French silk on the walls.
The tour will then take you upstairs where you get to view a few of the bedrooms that were used in Downton Abbey. These include Lady Sybil and Lady Edith’s rooms plus the famous ‘Red Room’ where Kemal Pamuk stayed in the first season. At this point, we hit a bit of a bottleneck of visitors so prepare to progress through the house slowly and in an orderly line! On the plus side, it gives you more time to admire the bedrooms and the various pictures hanging on the walls.
One of my favourite parts of the tour was being able to walk down the grand oak staircase into the Saloon. I felt like Lady Mary, sweeping her way down to the dining room in one of her glamorous dresses! The saloon is truly the heart the castle with its comfy armchairs and impressive 50 ft high vaulted ceiling. Downton fans, this is the room you will often see the maids and waiters crossing in a hurry as they tend to the family in the dining room.
We finished the tour by walking around the dining room. This room wasn’t as grand as I imagined it, I think due to the lack of sparkling wine glasses and striking silverware on the tables as seen in Downton Abbey! There are many fascinating paintings hung on the wall though, including Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I which dominates the room.
If you have paid to go into the Egyptian Exhibition, you will go down to the cellars and enter this after the house tour. If you’re interested in the history of Ancient Egypt and the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb then it’s definitely worth seeing. I loved seeing all the genuine artefacts from the tombs and examining all the hieroglyphics.
There are three tearooms on site where you can indulge in a slice of cake and stop for a bite to eat before or after your house tour slot. We decided to bring our own picnic as we had read beforehand that there are plenty of benches in the grounds where you can sit and eat. After lunch, we then wandered around the gardens and continued to take plenty of photos of the grounds and the outside of the castle. The gardens are beautiful and I can imagine that they would be even more colourful if you visited in the summer months. You can explore the Monks’ Garden, Secret Garden and Wood of Goodwill.
Before heading home, we just had to visit the gift shop for a souvenir. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have any Downton Abbey gifts whatsoever. I’m not sure if this perhaps has something to do with the licensing of the show but nevertheless, I was hoping to get something Downton related!
On your way back to the car, I’d recommend stopping at the cute van on a sunny day. They sell a selection of snacks and refreshing drinks such as champagne, Pimms and G&T’s which you can enjoy in one of the deck chairs.
I absolutely loved our day at Highclere Castle. Whilst I was visiting mainly due to my love of Downton Abbey, I would thoroughly recommend visiting even if you are not a fan of the show as this magnificent Victorian mansion is something worth seeing with your own eyes.
Top Tips for visiting Highclere Castle:
- There is strictly no photography allowed inside the castle but you can buy postcards featuring beautiful pictures of the rooms from the gift shop
- No pets are allowed inside the grounds or castle so leave your pooch at home
- Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to wander around the castle as you won’t be allowed back in after your morning or afternoon slot
- Read the information cards in each room as they include really interesting facts about the castle
- Take a picnic if it’s a nice day as we saw that the tea rooms can get very crowded
- Rucksacks and big handbags aren’t allowed inside the castle so make sure you travel light
- Book well in advance. It’s a popular place so get organised!