Visiting Highclere Castle: The Real Downton Abbey

Well it’s confirmed, we’re getting a second Downton Abbey film! Downton Abbey: A New Era is due to be released in theatres in March 2022, which feels like a lifetime away. To get yourself well and truly excited, head over to the Highclere Castle website where you can book tickets to the castle and grounds where the Downton Abbey TV series and movies are filmed. It’s a spectacular day out whether or not you’re a fan, with tea rooms, beautiful gardens and a basement full of ancient Egyptian artefacts.

Getting to Highclere Castle

Driving really is the only way to get to Highclere Castle – west of London, south of Oxford, north of Winchester. Use the postcode RG20 9LE on google maps and then follow the brown tourist signs to the main entrance of the castle grounds from the A34. It is highly recommended that you play Did I Make The Most Of Loving You? by composer John Lunn (otherwise known as the Downton Abbey theme) on approaching the castle.

Highclere Castle Downton Abbey

The first written records of the estate date back to 749 when an Anglo-Saxon King granted the estate to the Bishops of Winchester. Bishop William of Wykeham built a beautiful medieval palace and gardens in the park. Later on, in 1679, the palace was rebuilt as Highclere Place House when it was purchased by Sir Robert Sawyer, the direct ancestor of the current Earl of Carnarvon.

As Lady Edith correctly tells visitors from the village in series 6, the neo-Gothic exterior of the castle was designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1842, who also designed the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. He transformed Highclere House into the present day Highclere Castle.

The Servants’ Quarters

The best way to make the most of all the castle has to offer is by doing it backwards. Most people want to join the queue to go inside the front doors straight away, but what you’re going to do is go round the back where the tea rooms and gift shop are. This is where you will enter the servants’ quarters and find the Egyptian Exhibition.

The Egyptian Exhibition

In November 1922, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter stood outside a sealed door in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt. Nervously, Carter made a small hole in the door, and reached up to hold a candle. The candle flickered as the air escaped. The excavators widened the gaps in the plaster and Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Lady Evelyn climbed in. Everywhere there was the glint of gold…

The Discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun was the first global media event and has given a legacy of understanding, knowledge and insight into a remarkable civilisation.

The exhibition explores the path to the discovery of this most famous of tombs. The six rooms of the exhibition catalogues the Earl’s fascination with Egypt, his early excavations from 1906 onwards, his relationship with his friend Howard Carter and the discovery and contents of the tomb, including a magnificent reproduction of the sarcophagus. It begins with part of the Earl’s own collection of antiquities.

Visiting this exhibition first will mean you have a nice quite walk round, and you get to skip the queue later when it gets really busy.

The Tea Rooms

The Tea Rooms are open from 9:30am for morning coffees, teas and croissants made in the castle kitchens. You can get sandwiches, salads, wraps, cakes and scones from the Tea Rooms throughout the day, as well as the Cafes and food trucks dotted about the grounds. There’s an ice cream van parked on the Castle lawns and a Cocktail bar where you can order Highclere Castle Gin cocktails, Pimm’s, Champagne and wine. 

The Castle Gift Shop is also open from 9.30am, where you can get lost among the huge variety of knick-knacks including stationery, kitchen towels, book ends, Christmas decorations, soaps, bath salts, wine, spirits, chocolates, tea and biscuits, china mugs, books and souvenirs. 

Inside Highclere Castle

Now’s the time to swing back round to the grand entrance and join the queue to get inside. Castle staff will be on hand to explain the tour route through the rooms, and tell you very explicitly not to take photos.

Fun fact: The crew of Downton replaced the modern spherical door lights with borrowed iron wrought lights which were just for decoration and didn’t actually work.

There are almost 300 rooms in the main body of the castle, known as the Castle Saloon, and during your tour you will explore the main state rooms where most of the filming is done, as well as other day rooms, drawing rooms, smoking rooms and all sorts.

The Library and Drawing Rooms

“Julian chose Highclere for the film precisely because it’s so Victorian. The library is old Highclere—no changes at all. Popular thinking in Victorian England was that changing an interior required an act of God.”

Jessica Fellowes, author of A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey

Highclere’s library was part of Barry’s original design, but it was Sir Thomas Allom who completed it after Barry’s death. The pediment bookcases, Caucasian rugs, coffered ceiling, and rich leather-bound books give the room texture and warmth. The library’s collection has been built up by all of the earls and countesses who have lived there to its present 5,650 titles covering subjects ranging from history and politics to travel and religion.

One of the favoured objects in the library is not a book at all but a small desk, believed to have been used by Napoléon Bonaparte. The desk retains a slit in its top for mail to be slipped through for franking (castles posted their own mail). [Source]

During the First World War, Highclere Castle was converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers run by the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. This inspired the similar storyline in the TV show, set instead during the Second World War. In reality, Highclere Castle was home to children evacuated from London in the Second World War.

The Rococo Revival–style drawing room, which is covered in 19th-century French silk inspired by the Chambre du Dauphin in Versailles, is the setting of many before- and after-dinner gatherings for the Crawley family. Among the paintings in this room is one by Sir William Beechey of the children of the first Earl of Carnarvon, which hangs over the mantel. [Source]

The Corridors and Red Stairs

Highclere Castle’s three floors hold eleven functioning bedrooms and more than twenty bathrooms. Apparently even Lady Carnarvon, the current mistress of the castle, is not sure of the exact number of rooms, because many, many rooms have been turned into offices or storage spaces or are in the process of being restored. When the public visit, they get to see all of the rooms that are used by the family with the exception of the offices and the private bedrooms on the third floor.

Don’t miss the 18th century tapestry on the Red Stairs as you climb.

The Bedrooms

Heading up the back stairs will lead you to look through some bedrooms, conveniently labeled to show which characters sleep where. The one at the top of the stairs is Lady Cora’s; the portico bedroom belongs to Lady Sybil; and the Arundel room houses Lady Edith.

Highclere Castle Downton Abbey

This bedroom acted as Lord and Lady Grantham’s bedroom through much of the filming. Apparently Cora’s lady’s maid, O’ Brien (played by Siobhan Finneran), used to pop out of a cupboard pretending it led to a passageway.

All the bedrooms have such wonderful views out over the grounds and hills beyond, and as you weave through each one you get a slightly different advantage.

Highclere Castle Downton Abbey

Possibly the most striking room is the one that served as the filming location for the dramatic death of Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk in series 1.

The Gallery

As you come out of each bedroom, you’re treated to a spectacular vantage of the gallery, triple height with a 50-foot ceiling. The Carnarvon family call this room the Saloon (from the French “Le Salon” rather than a country and western bar). Downton Abbey renamed it the Great Hall but otherwise filmed in it much as it is. The glass pains in the ceiling let the light come streaming down onto the furniture, tapestries and fireplaces below. It really is the most striking sight.

The Principle Stair Hall

The route around the gallery then leads to the grand central oak staircase, which houses many unique works of art, including Mrs. Musters as “Hebe” (1785) by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Downton viewers will remember the staircase from Lady Mary’s wedding to cousin Matthew, when she gets her grand entrance in her 1920s bridal gown complete with spectacular veil.

After sweeping down the stairs yourself and admiring the saloon, turn left to the way out through the Dining Room.

The Dining Room

The formal dining room is a veritable art gallery, with various 17th- and 18th-century oil paintings hung salon-style. The grandest is Anthony van Dyck’s monumental equestrian portrait of Charles I (circa 1635).

This is also where visitors queue to enter the Egyptian Exhibition from inside the castle. But clever you, you’ve already been round, so you can skip the queue to exit through the servants’ quarters.

Highclere Castle Grounds

Now’s your time to explore the amazing grounds of the castle. Highclere Castle is set amidst 1,000 acres of spectacular parkland, designed for the 1st Earl of Carnarvon by the famous 18th century landscape gardener Capability Brown. The parkland and gardens are framed by a collection of magnificent cedar trees, first imported in the 18th century.

Highclere Castle Downton Abbey

There are six 18th century follies framing views from which to admire the landscape. For example, Jackdaw’s Castle on the East lawns provides a charming view to the Castle, the Etruscan Temple is a place in which to sit and admire the trees on Siddown Hill, whilst the Temple of Diana looks over the lake. 

Highclere Castle Downton Abbey

The Gardens and Grounds are open to the visiting public during public opening times. Whilst there are some gravel paths around the Castle lawns and through some of the Gardens, the Woodland Walks are rougher grass paths, as are the paths through the Flower Meadow in the summer.

We decided to start at the green houses and make our way through the Secret Garden, past the Bust of Charlemagne, down to the Rose Arbour and up to the Etruscan Temple.

The Highclere Greenhouses

Records show the gardens were first developed here during the 13th century. Today visitors can explore the original Monks’ Garden, the White Border, the Wood of Goodwill, the Rose Arbour, the Wild Flower Meadow and, nearer the house, the Healing Herb Garden.

Highclere Castle Greenhouses

The green houses and gardens are really beautiful, and reminded me of the walled garden, orchards and vegetable patches at Hughenden Manor in the Chilterns.

The Highclere Flower Meadows

There are many walks around the castle grounds, and you don’t even need a ticket for lots of them (find out more).

I for one really enjoyed the expanse of wild flowers at the bottom of the lawn. Wild grasses and flowers like this do so much for local wildlife and biodiversity, and saves money and time that would be spent mowing. Win-win!

Jackdaw’s Castle

Jackdaws Castle stands at the end of the East Lawn, looking back towards the Castle. It has a fascinating history, and helps to frame the Lawns to create the gardens.

Jackdaws Castle is a Grade I listed building from 1743 with Corinthian columns salvaged from Berkeley House in London, which had burned down in 1733. It was built by Robert Herbert, who had inherited the estate from his mother Margaret, 8th Countess of Pembroke. His nephew Henry became 1st Earl of Carnarvon in 1793.

Fans of Downton will definitely recognise this folly, which the characters walk to and sit on and mope around on many occasions.

And there you have it! The end of your visit. There’s still time to pop back to the gift shop to stock up on presents for fellow Downton fans, but if I were you I’d head to the nearest pub for a good British roast dinner.

The Carnarvon Arms

We visited Highclere on a Sunday morning, so heading to the local pub for a slap up lunch was a winning formula. The Carnarvon Arms is a former coaching inn which served travellers to-and-from Highclere Castle in the quaint hamlet of Whitway.  A glorious newly renovated country pub that envelops you in a traditional English setting, with roaring fires, wooden floors and traditional beams. Serving delicious seasonal dishes all day using only the best locally sourced ingredients, and a cracking Sunday roast with a proper amount of gravy. You couldn’t ask for a better place to end your visit.

Verdict

Visiting Highclere Castle was such a great day out. We were very lucky that the sun came out so we could properly explore the grounds and get a good view back at the castle. We had the best time reliving scenes from Downton Abbey in all the different state rooms and bedrooms, but my personal favourite has to be the beautiful gallery. If you’re looking for a gift for a fellow Downton fan, book your tickets now!

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Highclere Castle Downton Abbey
Sophie Lain
Sophie Lain

I’m Sophie, a writer and blogger living in St Albans, traveling, eating, and telling you all about it.

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Disclaimer: I visited Highclere Castle and researched all shooting locations myself. All opinions in this post are my own, nothing is sponsored, endorsed and/or affiliated with Carnival Films, ITV, or anyone else associated with Downton Abbey®.

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