Visiting Highclere Castle: The REAL Downton Abbey
Most of you have probably heard of the show Downton Abbey. If you're like me you probably thought yeah, it's that show on PBS that's super dry and full of dull British actors. Well, when my mom and I went on our second Viking River Cruise we had nothing to watch in our stateroom besides every season and episode of the show, so we decided to give it a try. Spoiler Alert: we got hooked! It was one of those shows I thought was going to be so boring, but I actually found myself wrapped up in the entire drama of British Aristocracy circa early 20th century.
So when I found myself on a weeklong trip to the University of Cambridge in the UK, I knew I had to make a day-trip to nearby Highclere Castle, which is the name of the grand estate where they filmed the show. It took a bit of planning so I want to share everything you need to know about visiting Highclere Castle, the REAL Downton Abbey.
The closest major city to Highclere Castle is Newbury which has a direct train from London. From the Newbury train station there is a very limited local bus service to the village of Highclere, where you'll then have to walk. However, most people realistically take a taxi from the Newbury train station (which costs about £15-20 each way). For my visit I ended up renting a car but was terrified of having to drive on the other side of the road. Luckily, I was with a good friend who had been living in Scotland and was used to left-side driving, so he did most of the work (big thanks Mathieu!). If you really wanted to do the drive and aren't used to it, just keep telling yourself "left, left, left", stay on the left. It can be a bit hard, especially because most of the major roads and highways use roundabouts so if the thought of driving on the left side of the road really scares you (or if you think you'll pose a driving risk to others), there's always the option to take a train to Newbury then a cab to Highclere or take a guided tour that leaves from one of the major cities like London. Here's a company I've used for other tours that leaves from London and includes transportation and a guide.
In order to enter the castle, you need to reserve a time and buy tickets either in advance or when you get to the estate--- it's easy to do online here and when you purchase your ticket you'll have to select either an AM or PM entrance time. The castle generally opens at 10:30AM and the afternoon admission begins at 1PM. But keep in mind, Highclere castle is only open between 60-70 days a year (generally during Easter, May and July-September) so make sure to plan your trip accordingly. There are also a few special events the castle hosts throughout the year as well.
Exploring the Castle:
But before we get into the details, let's talk a bit about the background of the estate. Highclere Castle was built in 1679 and was then renovated in the 1840s. It's located in Hampshire, England (about 5 miles south of Newbury, Berkshire) and about an hour from London, Oxford and Cambridge. It's the country estate for the family of the Earl of Carnarvon and was internationally recognized as the main location for the historical drama Downton Abbey (filmed from 2010-2015).
When you finally get to Highclere, you'll park or get dropped off in front of the house. But let me tell you, walking up the main path towards the entrance is really the show stopper, this was one of those moments that really made me pause and grin like a fool because I had spent so much time watching the introduction to this show, which starts up this very same path. If you're a fan then you know that the house itself is almost like one of the main characters, so much of the storyline centers around it, and so seeing Highclere in person was amazing.
Tickets inside allow you to walk through the main rooms like the library, sitting room, dining room and some of the cast bedrooms. You can also go upstairs and look down into the gallery's main living room and even downstairs into the servants quarters (although they actually filmed the downstairs scenes on another set). One thing to note is that pictures inside the castle aren't allowed, probably because the current Carnarvon family still lives there and so unfortunately I don't have many interior shots but did add some from their website.
The famous living room and library where the fictional Crawley family spent most of their time!
Other things to do at Highclere:
Touring the different rooms where so many of my favorite scenes were shot was amazing, but there's also a lot more you can do on your visit. While I was there, the castle also had a fairly large Egyptian exhibit on display as well. I didn't know this but the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was actually part of the team lead by Howard Carter, who discovered King Tut's tomb in Egypt in 1922 and so, as you can imagine, this is a huge part of the family's history. Beyond that you can also spend time walking outside through Highclere's gardens and other green areas. Finally, make sure you spend enough time in the giftshop where you can buy Lady Carnarvon's tea blend and Highclere's very own brand of gin! There's also a great little cafe on site as well if you want to take a rest and have some tea and a sweet treat.
Where to Stay:
When planning your visit you might want to spend some more time in the area to explore other shooting locations like the church or village nearby. In that case there are some local places to stay like the Carnarvon Arms Hotel or even on the grounds of Highclere itself! Here are some links for places to stay near Highclere or on the estate.
If you're a fan of the show Downton Abbey like I am, then a pilgrimage to the real life shooting location is a must. It's also one of those places that's a little off the beaten path as well, which I love. I hope you enjoy exploring the grounds just as much as I did and imagine yourself walking up to the front entrance with someone like Carson the Butler <3
Here are some other direct links to the official website for Highclere Castle to help you in planning your trip: