There are two things you need to know about my visit to Highclere Castle:
- I was the only person on the trip under the age of 65
- I was 100% okay with that.
Highclere Castle, home to the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, is most commonly recognized as the location of Downton Abbey in today’s popular British period television series. Highclere Castle is west (and a little bit south) of London, not far from Newbury, England. Highclere is only open to the public 60-70 days of the year, which severely limits options when booking a visit.
I knew well in advance that I would be going to London with my Strategic Communication course, so I began dreaming of including a day trip to Highclere Castle from the get go. Tickets to Highclere’s public openings were already sold out by December, so I decided to book a pre-planned Downton Abbey tour on Viator. This meant I had to return to London after my trip to Edinburgh for a few extra nights!
My day began early, with my tour bus scheduled to leave London at 7:30 am. I walked to our meeting spot at the Great Portland tube station and was cheerfully greeted by two friendly southern couples, one couple from South Carolina and the other from Texas.
After exchanging names and “stories” for a while, the four of them decided to take me under their wing for the day–they were very concerned, yet impressed, that I was traveling alone. At each stop of they day they checked up on me to make sure I was having a good time. I don’t think I’ve ever been called “sugar” or “honey-child” that many times in one day, but their kindness was comforting and it felt a little bit like I was with family. They were the epitome of southern hospitality.
Our first stop was at Cogges Manor Farm–the location of Yew Tree Farm, home to the Drewe family (where Edith’s daughter Marigold is raised) in Downton Abbey. Yew Tree Farm is also the location of the Crawley’s pig farming venture, of which Tim Drewe is put in charge during the early 1920s. We learned about how the producers chose the location and we watched a short film about how Cogges Manor Farm is transformed into Yew Tree Farm for filming.
Our next stop was in the Village of Bampton in Oxfordshire. Bampton is the location of the fictional Village of Downton (which is actually supposed to be set in Yorkshire). Only the exterior of the buildings are filmed in Bampton; buildings’ interiors are shot in studios. However, both the interior and exterior of St. Mary’s Church, known as St. Michael and All Angels Church in Downton Abbey, are used. St. Mary’s Church is the site of many exciting scenes in Downton Abbey including Mary and Matthew’s wedding and Edith’s jilting at the altar. The Churchgate House, next to St. Mary’s Church, is used for the exterior shots of Isobel Crawley’s house. The Bampton Library serves as the Downton Cottage Hospital in multiple seasons. A couple of the houses in Bampton are also featured in Downton as two fictional pubs–The Grantham Arms and The Dog & Duck. Our guide even pointed out a trash can that is transformed into a post box during many episodes.
Our last and final stop was what I had been waiting for all semester…Highclere Castle. Our tour bus played the Downton theme song as we pulled up the long winding road to the Castle. The grounds were spectacular. Acres and acres of bright green grass were sprinkled with sheep and their newborn lambs. There were many footpaths and gardens to explore and the beautiful landscapes were endless. I felt like a guest of Downton as I enjoyed my lunch in a tent on the terrace next to the Castle. Once inside Highclere, photography was prohibited, but I managed to snap a few pictures of the gallery and Lady Crawley’s bedroom. I walked through the entrance hall, library, music room, drawing room, smoking room, morning room, up the red staircase to the gallery rooms, and back down the oak staircase to the saloon. All of the rooms are beautifully covered with artwork, tapestries, and present day portraits of the Carnarvon family. Most of the furniture and artwork belonging to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon is actually used in the filming of Downton Abbey. Much like Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle was actually used as a hospital between 1914-1916 during the First World War.
Although the Castle was large, the rooms were much smaller than I expected, which just goes to show what cameras and staging can do to make a room look huge on television. Beneath the Castle, there is even an Egyptian exhibition telling the story of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun–discovered by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. My only disappointment was that the “downstairs” of Downton Abbey isn’t actually filmed at Highclere Castle, but all in studios. I would have loved to see where Ms. Patmore and Daisy prepare meals for the Crawley family and their guests.
I would visit Highclere Castle again in a second. It was fantastic spending the day with friendly southerners who love Downton Abbey just as much as I do–even if they were three times my age!