Downton Abbey gets prophetic tonight, when the Crawleys open their doors to the public.
They’re not going full National Trust just yet. Mary and Branson decide to sell tickets to the Abbey for one day, and one day only, to raise money for the Downton Cottage Hospital. But it’s a big step forward for the Abbey; it shrinks the gap between the Crawley’s aristocratic age and the relationship we have with grand old houses today.
It also foretells the future of the building Cora and co call home, because you really can buy yourself a ticket and wander around the Abbey, pretty much exactly the way Mary describes it in tonight’s episode. It’s just that the Abbey is actually Highclere Castle and it’s home to the Carnarvons rather than the Crawleys.
Oh, and don’t go catching the fast train to York or Ripon. The country pile the Crawleys call home is actually located in Berkshire. There’s plenty of parking or it’s a 15-minute taxi journey from Newbury (which is around an hour from London Paddington) if, like Mary, you’re not a fan of the automobile.
It’s worth bearing in mind that you can’t just wander through the castle’s gates like a casual Liverpudlian blackmailer. Highclere is a working estate and the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his family still live in the imposing country pile. In fact, he was casually watering some plants during our visit.
The castle is closed for much of the year. It opens for two weeks over Easter, the May bank holidays and for two months (Sunday to Thursday) over the summer. They are also open for a few festive days in December and for odd special events throughout the year.
When it is open to the public, they sell a limited number of walk-in tickets each day, but it’s a much safer bet to pre-book online. Adult entry to the house and gardens is £20. Doors open at 10am and last entry to the castle is at 4pm.
It’s a shame it isn’t open more as it’s a real treat for Downton fans. After six seasons, the butter-coloured building is hugely familiar, but it’s exciting to walk up the gravel drive, like Anna and Bates on their way to work.
With towers, turrets and 300 rooms, the castle is an imposing architectural feat in a bucolic setting (or as Benjamin Disraeli put it when he first set eyes on Highclere: “How scenical! How scenical!”). TV pedigree aside, it’s a beautiful building with an interesting history. There has been a dwelling on the same spot for 1,300 years, which was transformed in the 1800s into the elegant castle we see today thanks to Sir Charles Barry, who’s best known for the Houses of Parliament.
Then there is the Egyptian connection. Robert Crawley’s dogs weren’t called Pharaoh and Isis for no reason. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was the chief financial backer of egyptologist Howard Carter, who excavated Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings (in a story set to become an ITV drama). The Earl died soon after they stepped inside, sparking fears that the tomb and those who opened it were cursed.
Evidence of his trip still remains at Highclere. There’s an Egyptian exhibition teeming with original (hopefully curse-free) artefacts in the basement for when you’ve had your fill of the Crawleys.
Inside, Highclere Castle is just as it looks in the hit ITV period drama. Unfortunately, you’re not greeted by Carson. When I visited, I was met by two friendly guides who informed me that photos aren’t allowed inside, shattering my dreams of selfies on the sofa and posed pictures on the staircase.
The Carnarvon’s butler, Colin, poses in the saloon at Highclere Castle
You can wander around the downstairs at your leisure. First up, there’s the parlour where the Crawleys take tea and stamp out scandal. It’s eerily similar to the set of the TV show, with one difference: there are photographs of the Carnavons gracing almost every surface, rather than Sybbie’s baby photos and snaps of Mary’s wedding.
There are knowledgeable guides in every room who can answer a range of questions about the history of the furniture and artwork. But I was content recalling infamous one-liners and pretending to flounce upstairs to take off my hat, which is also perfectly ok, if not openly encouraged.
There are 11 bedrooms on the first floor, some of which can be seen by visitors (there are around 50 on the other floors that are no longer used). They have been refurbished by the 8th Countess of Carnarvon over the last few years, using prints and drawings from archives that record the building’s visitors and history. A few – like Edith and Sybil’s rooms – are very familiar.
Then it’s back downstairs for a tour of the dining room. If the Carnarvons, like the Crawleys, are after money-spinning strategies, this is the perfect photo op. Making memories is all very well and good but I reckon fans (me included) would fork out for an official snap of themselves looking as moody as Mary on those famous steps.
Once you’ve given the house a once over, the grounds are well worth your time. The lawns run from the castle into a valley, which was teeming with flowers when I visited in summer. There are also manicured sections, secret gardens, tiny pathways and pretty greenhouses. The castle itself is rarely out of sight – the property is set in 1,000 acres of parkland, but only a small section of this is open to the public – and you’ll often find clusters of tourists who’ve found a spot with a familiar view for a photo…
In the height of summer, the grass is the perfect place to stop and have your own picnic, or there are three cafés to choose from, serving hot meals as well as sandwiches and cakes. I opted for a pot of tea with scones, cream and jam because, well, what would the Dowager Countess do?
Highclere Castle isn’t the only Downton Abbey filming location you can visit. The Oxfordshire village of Bampton is also home to the buildings that double as Isobel’s house, Downton village and the over-discussed Cottage Hospital. It’s definitely feasible to do both on the same day, but you’ll have to be organised as it’s about an hour away by car and all but impossible by bus or train.
Once in the centre of Bampton, which handily has plenty of free parking, it’s a short walk to St Mary’s Church. This is renamed St Michael and All Angels in the TV series, and has been the setting for funerals, weddings, christenings and all sorts of dramas. It saw the wedding of Mary and Matthew and, more recently, Carson and Mrs Hughes, as well as the scandalous jilting of poor Lady Edith.
(Note: you’ve got to walk around to the back of the church if you want to recreate Carson’s wedding photos. I’d also recommend bringing a willing stand-in groom with you so you don’t look as lonesome as I do… )
The village hospital and Isobel Crawley’s house are both metres away from the church. In real life, the hospital is actually Bampton library so you can have a nosey inside if you wish.
The rest of Church View has appeared regularly, too. The road is home to Downton’s two pubs – The Grantham Arms and The Dog & Duck – which are unfortunately fictional. And was also the site of Denker’s recent altercation with Dr Clarkson.
If you still haven’t had your fill of Downton, a 25-minute drive away is Cogges, a 13th-century manor house and historic farm that doubles as Yewtree farm, the former home of tenant farmer Mr Drewe. Admission is £6.00 and the property is open Tuesday to Sunday.
Note: Information and prices for summer 2015. Visitors now can stay in luxuriously restored London Lodge, which adjoins Highclere’s formal entrance, an imposing stone archway to the north of the estate. Prices from £350 per night.