Sissy loves exploring new destinations and sharing those experiences with others.
You are an avid Downton Abbey fan, having watched the series numerous times. Maybe you have even purchased mugs, pillows and other sappy collectibles from the award-winning television series and movie. Or maybe you just love that period in history.
So who could blame you for wanting to visit England's Highclere Castle, the real home of Downton Abbey? My husband and I did just that. (He has the show's theme song as his ringtone and feels no shame.)
Here are our tips on how to make the most of a day trip to Highclere Castle and create lasting memories along the way.
A Brief History of Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle is currently the home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and has been in their family since the late 17th century. Its colorful history dates all the way back to 749, with the first known written records recording the boundaries of the estate.
Many of the more current events in the TV series chronicle life as it was at Highclere Castle. Noteworthy examples include many of the incidents related to the First World War. Young servant men signed up to serve King and country and returned home broken or not at all. During the war, Lady Almina Herbert—the 5th Countess of Carnarvon—turned her home into a hospital for wounded officers, allowing them to recuperate with loving care, just like in the show.
A chronically ill man, George Herbert—the 5th Earl of Carnarvon—was advised to seek warmer climates. Consequently, he spent much time in Egypt and developed a keen interest in Egyptian antiquities. Together with Howard Carter, a British archaeologist and Egyptologist, he is credited with the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb.
A full account of this can be found in Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, written by the current Countess of Carnarvon. It is a captivating story and one not to be missed.
Using the castle's archives, the current Countess has written extensively about its rich history. She has a blog that can be accessed through the Highclere Castle website where she continues to delight fans with her gifted writing.
How to Plan a Trip to the Real-Life Downton Abbey
If you have never been to England, you may feel a bit nervous planning a trip to places that you are unfamiliar with, such as Highclere Castle. Is there an airport nearby? Do you rent a car and white-knuckle it, driving on the opposite side of the road if you are not a British native? What is public transportation like? These questions will likely fill your mind as soon as you begin planning your trip.
Organized tours are in abundance, but many display a concerning variance in reviews. But will you be biting off more than you can chew if you try to make your own plan? Luckily, no. Prepare yourself with a warm cup of tea to get in the English mindset, fire up your computer and let’s dig in.
1. Decide on Your Mode of Travel
You can start by finding the location on Google Maps. Highclere Castle sits in the English countryside west of London, roughly 60–90 minutes from Heathrow Airport by car (depending on the time of day). The estate has a large car park with directional signs guiding you in if you choose to drive to the castle.
Note: If you are not a UK resident, Heathrow should be your airport of choice, as any outlying destinations would take you through this airport first anyway. It is also most convenient for all things London. Although very large with multiple terminals, the airport is efficiently laid out, with signs and instructions to help busy travelers find their way. We had no trouble navigating the walkways and various modes of transportation even within the airport itself.
Our Recommendation? Take the Train!
If my husband’s nod of the head was enthusiastic about visiting the castle, his vigorous shake back and forth about not driving there was equally emphatic. So we decided to make it a day trip, using our hotel in London as a home base.
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Starting at Paddington Station, which in and of itself is efficient and impressive, we took a Great Western Railway (GWR) train to Newbury Station. The trip was easy, with clean, comfortable seats and wide, picturesque windows. The train ride took all of 50 minutes. It seems that rail cards are encouraged, but we found that booking a round-trip journey on the GWR website and picking up the tickets from the kiosks at the station was quite hassle-free.
Once we arrived in Newbury, we noticed a small line of taxis parked and waiting for the very purpose of taking passengers to the castle. No reservation necessary! Our driver grew up in the area, so there was no shortage of explanations and descriptions of the passing countryside as we enjoyed the short ride of 10–15 minutes.
2. Choose Your Accommodations
I found Highclere’s website to be extremely informative and user friendly. You will want to bookmark the page or save it as a favorite, as I recommend visiting it often. If you haven’t already, I suggest visiting the site and clicking the “Explore” link on the website. In the dropdown menu, you will find “where to stay” as a choice.
Numerous hotels and Bed & Breakfasts are listed, most of which are just a few miles from the estate. The Countess has even recently completed the renovation of original lodges on the estate and is offering rooms for rent. All of these can be easily accessed and explored online until you find the place that suits you and your travel plans.
3. Make Reservations
Now that you have explored places to stay and how to get to your dream castle, you are feeling the excitement build; the tea with a little bit of cream stirred in has done its magic. Let’s do this, you think!
Accessing the colorful castle website again, find the link that allows you to explore your options for tickets. Again, the website is incredibly easy to navigate, and you will find many tantalizing choices for special events and seasonal activities.
As with many other tourist destinations, registering an account is necessary in order to purchase tickets. We chose the standard admission for summer, as that was the season of our choice and we primarily just wanted to visit the castle on our own terms.
Reservations are not needed to see the grounds, and there is no time limit (within the opening hours, of course) to explore outside. Your tour reservation grants you entrance to the grounds.
The castle offers two self-guided interior tour options—morning or afternoon, with specified windows of entrance. The tickets are emailed to you. You may keep them electronically, but choosing to print your tickets as well is always a good idea, just in case.
As with all historical venues and destinations, you will find a list of precautions, complete with prohibited activities. Take note of these to avoid any last-minute surprise disappointments.
Reading assiduously through the estate papers, I was always thrilled to unearth the details of daily life.
— Lady Carnarvon, January 2020
4. Get an Early Start
The grounds open at 9:30am. The morning tour grants entry to the castle itself anytime between 10:30am and 1pm.
Getting an early start is highly recommended, no matter when your tour is. Plan on arriving when the grounds open in order to maximize your day and enjoy the grounds, gardens and all that they have to offer at a leisurely pace.
The day we chose to go was a beautiful day in August, and we were in awe of the beauty of the property. Our opinion is that the Downton Abbey show does not capture the breathtaking aesthetic magnificence. And the reward for arriving early? Generally, people started trickling in closer to the 10:30 tour time, so our early morning pictures had no other visitors in them! This alone was worth rising early.
5. Take Your Time Enjoying the Grounds
Begin with pictures of the castle before more visitors arrive and photobomb your digital treasures. Then take your time and leisurely walk the footpaths. The vast scenery of rolling hills, fields and meadows—whether wooded or farmed—will delight your senses and bring to your mind some of the favorite scenes from the show.
We explored every path and outbuilding that was open to us until it was time to line up for our tour. Visitors are allowed to continue enjoying the grounds even after the interior tour, right up until closing. This makes for a very stress-free outing with few time constraints.
Be sure to visit Jackdaws Castle, the Wildflower Meadow, the Monks’ Garden, the Secret Garden, the Rose Arbour, the Airmen Memorial and the Etruscan Temple. We left nothing unphotographed!
6. Make the Most of the Interior Tour
Ah, the castle! What a beauty. It has a long and rich history, the reciting of which is beyond the scope of this article, but of noteworthy interest is the architect. For the most recent remodel (completed in 1850), credit goes to Charles Barry, the same architect who redesigned the Palace of Westminster, the current meeting place of the two houses of Parliament in the UK. If you look closely, you will observe similarities in these vast structures.
Don't Rush Through the Rooms
We entered the majestic doors, encountered very slight and friendly security and wandered through the rooms to our hearts' content. It is important to note that while the flow of foot traffic through the tour is precise, it is easy to tarry in each room, reading the literature and observing the elegant furniture, architecture and wall hangings.
Interior photography is not allowed but brochures and picture books are plentiful. Docents are strategically positioned in each room for questions. Upon completing the downstairs rooms, we were directed up a servant’s staircase to the second floor which held the bedrooms and the balcony overlooking the “saloon,” as it is called.
The flow has each visitor descend the grand staircase (yes, we pretended we were Lord and Lady Grantham!) and continue into the iconic dining room which faced the front. Then, as we descended into the basement where the former kitchens and servants’ areas were, we noticed a docent taking tickets for the Egyptian Exhibition.
Consider Touring the Egyptian Exhibition
We had not clued in to this when making our reservations, and at that point had not yet learned about the 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s famous discovery. Since we were not ready to leave yet, we decided to pay an additional small fee and wander through. This is a wonderful little side tour and well worth the time.
7. Treat Yourself to High Tea
The final treats that we allowed ourselves were lunch, tea and a leisurely wander through the gift shop. These are a must! The food was simple but delicious, and having tea at the castle was an exquisite experience.
8. Browse the Gift Shop
The gift shop was a delight. You can find lovely souvenirs such as tea towels, candles, gardening items and many other wonderful things. Noteworthy here are the books on life at Highclere Castle, and if purchased in the shop, they are personally signed by Lady Carnarvon.
Weather permitting, the afternoon is a lovely time for more photographs or just sitting on the expansive lawn enjoying the refreshments.
9. Reflect on the Beauty of the Day
All too soon, our day at the abbey came to an end. Sadly, we gathered our things—backpacks, cameras and new treasures purchased at the shop were carefully accounted for—and walked across the expansive lawn toward the exit. Reverently, we turned and took one last look at the stately structure.
Then our pre-ordered taxi arrived to whisk us back to the train station. We maintained the blissful glow of the day and were glad that it remained for a while yet. We excitedly recapped the day, relishing the feeling of connection with something that is bigger than us.
A sense of timelessness descended as we realized that we had walked the same well-worn ground that had been shaped and rearranged by so many prior generations. Highclere Castle welcomed us, and we, in turn, embraced it.
© 2020 Sissy Wells