I don’t think it would be exaggerating when I say I’ve seen every episode of Downton Abbey at least one hundred times. I could probably quote the entire show, pilot episode to series finale, by heart. So for my 23rd birthday, I treated myself to a private tour of the castle that serves as the set to the famous British drama.
Highclere Castle is stunning. I’ve watched just about every documentary about the grounds and estate. The importance of Highclere Castle is so much more than a good set.
The castle was something of my dreams. Imagine it: “Lady Caroline’s Room” filled with flapper dresses and flutes of champagne.
Nestled perfectly between Bath and London, it was so easy for me to stop for the day and night in Newberry. I was lucky enough to book the tour during my two week solo trip to the UK last November. Normally open to the public, the estate was closed. They were filming the Downton Abbey movie so the estate was closed for production, except for a few exclusive tours. I felt like I had the castle all to myself, even though I was with forty other visitors.
I arrived in Newbury two hours early. I was too excited, shaking like a giddy fangirl. To go to a place that has brought me such entertainment and wonder, it was magical and electric. As I walked around the magnificent building, it is easy to understand why Julian Fellows, the creator of Downton Abbey, set the drama at Highclere Castle. I was only allowed to photograph the exterior of the building, but that still left me with a huge amount to capture. Arriving early left me with plenty of time to explore the grounds.
My favorite scenes kept playing in my head as I walked up the gravel road. Lady Mary read a love letter on that bench in Series I. In Series II, Edith had a drama, romantic moment with a World War I soldier in that corner of the garden. Etc., Etc.
Using different angles and compositions, I tried to capture the beauty of the architecture. Even though I was there all afternoon, I didn’t feel like I got one perfect snapshot. I’ve ended up with dozen of Downton photos in my collection. After about an hour of wandering, I slowly made my way to the front doors, where the tour was set to begin. I stood with the others anxiously awaiting the grand doors to swing open.
Left with my thoughts for a few moments, I started to daydream. I imagined pulling up to the elegantly imposing facade in a fancy carriage, as a young Lady Of Society attending a ball. Totally lost in my head, I almost didn’t notice when one of the guides appeared. While I couldn’t take pictures inside, every detail is etched in my memory. And when those memories get a little fuzzy, I can always just turn on my favorite episode of Downton. It’s exactly the same. Only a few modern day family photos of the current Lord and Lady of Carnarvon are placed on the mantles.
We gathered in the Great Hall to have an introductory speech. I explored each little nook and cranny I could. Since they were in the middle of filming, the house was set up exactly how I imagined. We separated into smaller groups and given options on which room to start our tour. I jumped at the opportunity to explore the dining room, where so many iconic scenes took place.
Instead of a grand table set for twenty lords and ladies, the room had a small collection of images of the famous dining scenes and the production. We learned about the difficulty of filming these intense scenes in such a tight space. Traveling then to the library through the outer hall, the smell of old books and hidden stories filled my senses and wonder. I gazed up at the worn leather spins of the rows and rows of books. We toured rooms that were kept off the show: The Gentlemen’s Smoking room and the Lady’s private sitting room. The ultimate man cave, the Smoking Room had a warm masculine vibe. The guide told us that Dam Maggie Smith would rehearse her famously quippy lines in the bright, inviting sitting room.
Next, we climbed up the servants stairway to explore the upper floor. Composed of the main bedrooms, the upper gallery also gave fantastic views of the Great Hall below. Most of the bedrooms were kept in pristine conditions, for filming and for historical preservation. The rooms were a lot cozier than I expected. I kept having flashbacks of the Ladies of Downton Abbey getting ready for a ball, decked out in jewels and matching silk dresses. After touring each bedroom, it was time to descend the grand staircase.
Being a certified drama queen, I made the moment extra AF. I waited until a majority of the group had already gone down, bidding my time by memorizing the view of the top gallery. Looking down onto the Great Hall, I could see all the delicate details that made the interior architecture so stunning. I slowly turned and took my moment. Like Lady Mary, I waltzed down the grand staircase, Full English Beauty status. In my leather skirt and combat boots, I elegantly stomped down like the debutante of my grandmother’s dreams.
My daydream was shattered at the bottom of the staircase, where I rejoined the tour group. Back to a normal tourist lost in a crowd, no more distinguished Lady Caroline.
There were a few surprises during my visit to Highclere Castle. Along with the tour, I was given access to the exhibition that is permanently installed in the basement, in was used to be the kitchen and servants hall.
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon had discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Since Highclere Castle had been his family’s home for generations, many of the artifacts are kept on the estate. The exhibit holds an extensive collections of ancient Egyptian treasures. It was a little weird to be viewing the set of my favorite English period drama and some of the iconic treasures of the most famous Pharaoh in the same building. But I love it when traveling brings me to those unique and weird experiences. Thats why I travel!
The exhibit included items from the tomb as well a detailed depictions of the discovery of the tomb. All of the objects were kept in protective, climate controlled glass cases, but the exhibit still felt extremely intimate. My favorite items were the golden carriages.
I stumbled out of the dark exhibit into the courtyard and what would have been the stables. Being the horse girls I am, of course I had to head over and explore further. Now converted into a gift shoppe and tea room, the rooms were bright, clean, and welcoming. I found way too many souvenirs. Because of the memorabilia, I’ll have a hard time forgetting my day at Highclere and so will my wallet.
Afternoon tea was including with the tour and was the perfect way to end the tour. Loading up my pate with petite sandwiches and sweet treats, I sat out beneath the shadow of Highclere. The sun was sliding lower and lower into the west as the wind started to nip at my cheeks. A golden light was cast upon the intricate architecture and across the grounds. I took in the last few moments on the estate, sipping on a hot cup of tea. When else will I ever have the chance to feel like a Princess gazing upon her castle.