I remember resisting for quite a while when the rest of the world was hit with Downton Abbey fever. Just in case you may not have heard, Downton Abbey is a critically acclaimed British historical period television drama (and now a popular movie spin-off) first set in the 20th century created by Julian Fellowes. Eventually, curiosity got the best of me and thanks an exceptional cast, a truly beautiful setting and an undeniable charm, three episodes in I was hooked. Lady Sybil, the kind-hearted aristocratic rebel who was interested in progressive politics and the betterment of others was my favourite character and each week I tuned into the wonderful eccentricities and dramas of the Crawley family and their team of servants. I wasn’t alone either, the final episode drew in an impressive 7.7million – quite a feat in an era where television watching is beginning to wane.
Well, now you can visit Downton Abbey aka Highclere Castle for yourself. Highclere is a large country house built in the Jacobean style by the architect Charles Barry in the 19th century and is nestled in the deepest depths of Hampshire, England. The castle, which is the seat of the Earl of Carnarvon, was used for Downton Abbey’s striking exterior, and many of the inside rooms were used as well. We were invited to take a look for ourselves so we made the journey from SouthWest London to the elegant English county. Hampshire ablaze with an autumnal palette of rust, red, orange and gold and couldn’t have looked more beautiful.
The state itself was huge and consisted of over 5,000-acres listed as Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens and the journey driving to the castle from the front entrance was seemingly endless. After passing a stern but friendly security officer, the first thing I noticed was just how large the castle was and the second was just how popular it was as a tourist destination – the queue for the tour stretched all the way along the front side of the building. The castle is the stately home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and the exterior was truly impressive, both imposing and majestic in equal measures.
Inside the castle, it was a little darker than I expected but many of the rooms were instantly recognisable, from the dining room where the Earl of Grantham once dramatically collapsed with a burst ulcer to the bedroom where my favourite character Sybil tragically passed away. Although sadly Mrs. Patmore’s famous kitchen and the servant’s quarters rooms weren’t based at Highclere and were instead filmed in a West London studio.
The rooms at Highclere were opulent but homely, dripping in Dutch masters, French silk and baroque furnishings. The delicately embroidered costumes used in the Downton Abbey series stood as a feature at the side of each room and also (a touch that I loved) photographs of the actors and actresses filming Downton Abbey scenes and of the resident Carnarvon clan throughout the decades from multiple marriages to Eton graduations.
Starting in the gasp-inducing front entrance hall complete with the famous sweeping staircase (sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos inside), we were shown around the house by a very knowledgeable local who had worked as a guide for a number of years. It was from her we learned about the colourful history of the family throughout the generations, the castle and the decor itself, and some behind the scenes Downton Abbey gossip (although I don’t want to ruin the tour for anyone so you’ll just have to visit for yourself!) We also found out that the creator Julian Fellowes was a friend of the family and actually had Highclere in mind when he first thought of the series. Some of the events which took place in the post-Edwardian TV drama were even based on true life dramas.
The tour ended with a trip to the gift shop mostly filled with licensed Downton Abbey gifts, a complimentary Downton Abbey inspired hardback recipe book and afternoon tea consisting of delicately cut cucumber sandwiches and tiny pristine-looking cakes served up in the former Coach House. We took another look around the beautiful grounds before leaving and spotted where the dashing Matthew (Dan Stevens) once proposed to Lady Mary – I loved how tour really brought the award-winning series to life.
If you want to visit other fabulous UK based filming locations check out this great TravelZoo post on the Top 10 filming and tourism locations in the UK.