The “real” Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle Hampshire
Downton Abbey is real life is known as Highclere Castle and it is a private family home and working estate in Hampshire England. Highclere Castle is the country seat of the Earl and Lady Carnarvon. In 2013 it became the Downton Abbey filming site.
Highclere Castle is more of a “country house” than a castle and is built is a large Jacobethan-style house of Bath stone combined with several towers built in an Italianate-style, it was completed in 1842, with a stunning park designed by Capability Brown. Highclere Castle is just one of the filming locations used for the fabulous Downton Abbey Series and film due in September this year.
Hubs and I only started watching Downton Abbey this year when we heard we were going to be in Oxfordshire housesitting. We decided that Highclere Castle was one of the sites we must-see and then we learned that Downton Abbey was filmed at Highclere and so we began our binge-watching.
We hadn’t watched previously as back in the day Upstairs Downstairs was the period drama our parents had watched and naturally we found it a bit boring. We expected the same of Downton Abbey but found ourselves becoming quite addicted to the series.
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We were aware that there were several filming sites for Downton Abbey and we decided since we were going to be in the “neighbourhood” so to speak that we would find as many as we could and check them out.
Our first stop was obviously going to be Downton Abbey or rather Highclere Castle. We booked our tickets online and then printed them off before we went the cost of an adult ticket to Highclere Castle is £16 which is pre-booked and guarantees entry to the Castle. Apparently, 2019 tickets are already sold out so warning book ahead of time. Morning tickets allow entry to the Castle and Exhibition between 10:30 am and 1 pm. Afternoon tickets allow entry to the Castle and Exhibition between 1 pm and 4 pm. Last entry time is 4 pm.
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The Castle closes at 5 pm and the Estate closes at 6 pm. Once you are in the Castle you are not timed so you may enter anytime between the allocated times
Highclere is the official seat of the Earl of Carnarvon and in fact, many famous folks have passed through this beautiful home. The current Earl, George Herbert is Queen Elizabeth’s godson and his ancestor the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was the financial backer for the Archaeology dig that discovered King Tut’s tombs in Egypt. You will see when you visit that you can also take in a fascinating Egyptian exhibit that describes the search for the tomb.
Highclere Castle became Downton Abbey out of financial need. As you can well imagine this size of house and its priceless treasures must cost a pretty penny to maintain. There are over 200 rooms in the castle and the struggle to pay for the over 80 staff needed for maintenance, gardening, tours, running the shops and cafes plus of course guides, farm staff, painters and so on requires very deep pockets.
You absolutely have to admire Lady Carnarvon who seems to keep the whole place going and has changed the outlook for the property. Lady Carnarvon has written several books including Highclere, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey and At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey along with a book I can’t wait to get my hands on Christmas at Highclere: Recipes and traditions from the real Downton Abbey.
Lady Carnarvon also has a wonderful blog where she shares what daily life at Highclere is about, favourite recipes and showcases some of the incredible special events that take place at the “real Downton Abbey”.
If you want to live like a Lord and Lady there are also two properties for rent on the grounds of Highclere Castle. From the Castle’s website:
Designed by Thomas Allom and built around 175 years ago, Grotto Lodge is a unique and stylish residence designed with a nod to an original Grotto within the grounds of Highclere Castle.
Set on the Wayfarers Way, Grotto Lodge sits in one of the best locations for country walks. The main part of the house is circular and affords the most outstanding views across North Hampshire and West Berkshire. Nearby is the lovely town of Hungerford, famed for its antique market and the handsome cities of Oxford and Winchester are a mere 30 minutes’ drive away. There are a number of delightful local pubs which offer a range of delicious home-grown specialities and craft ales.
Grotto Lodge has a double bedroom and a bathroom on each of the first and second floors. It has been beautifully restored by Lady Carnarvon maintaining many of the original features and allowing the circular walls to lead the eye.
Built in 1793 by the first Earl of Carnarvon, London Lodge formalised the entry to Highclere Park and was constructed to celebrate the Earl’s entry to the peerage.
The imposing stone archway, dressed with Coade stone and filled by the heavy iron gates, framed a grand entrance for family and visitors alike. The individual lodges, to either side, were added later, most probably around 1840. Over the past two years, they have been painstakingly restored by the current Earl and his wife to provide unique and luxurious accommodation for two.
The interior has been sympathetically restored using traditional lime plaster to the curved internal walls of the lodges and the principal rooms have large windows with bespoke oak wooden shutters, copies of the originals. The layout for both lodges has been kept simple; to the north-west, a charming sitting room arranged around a Chesney’s wood burner, and a fully equipped kitchen behind. Then across the lit, paved walkway to the bedroom lodge, a comfortable double bedroom, bathroom and dressing area.
I have absolutely no idea the cost of renting either of these places but a few years ago they were respectively around 1500 and 900 sterling per night, but they do sleep a few people.
The setting of Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle is set in the rolling hills and beautiful area of Hampshire. You arrive at the Castle site via a long road into the estate and when you see that beautiful castle at the end of the journey you do get a little Downton Abbey thrill and begin to remember scenes from the show.
Parking is in a large field below the house where you will see the entry gates and there is a lovely little refreshment van with chairs and seating from which to observe the house at a distance from.
I would strongly advise that you book your tickets online and not expect to get them at the gate. The Estate is only open for a few months during the summertime and tickets do get sold out. Remember this is a family home and the Earl and Lady Carnarvon are often in residence at the estate.
You MUST take a printed ticket with you as there is no phone app or other methods to prove you have those precious tickets. There is a ticket booth on-site where you can try to buy tickets but we saw several people turned away as no tickets were available.
You can purchase either tickets to Highclere Castle and Grounds or you can buy tickets that include the Egyptian Exhibit. There are also numerous special events held throughout the year so if you don’t visit in the summer months you may find yourself able to visit at Christmas time. There are Cocktails and Costumes held in September and Christmas tours and events in December. Check out the website for events that you may be able to attend.
You walk up the drive to the main entrance of the house and you can see in your mind’s eye Tom driving those incredible antique cars around the driveway and the servants standing outside to greet guests. You wish Carson were at the door to welcome you as you take a look at the dragon boot cleaners outside the front door.
Tips for visiting Downton Abbey AKA Highclere Castle
- The Castle is open only around 70 days a year and for 2 months during the summer, but there are special events taking place during the rest of the year so check the website.
- If you plan to come during the summer make sure you book your ticket and print it to take with you otherwise you may not be able to get in as the tickets sell out very fast.
- There is absolutely no photography in the house itself.
- Don’t touch anything some of these treasures go back generations and are terribly fragile.
- Pushchairs/buggies and large backpacks are not allowed in the house
- No motorized wheelchairs are allowed inside the house but there are a few push wheelchairs available for use.
- The house is not wheelchair accessible beyond the first floor, but there is a lot to see and there are detailed photo albums which show the upstairs of Highclere Castle.
Do you need a Downton Abbey costume to wear to the movie Premiere? Then this might be perfect for you.
Visiting Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle
Entering Downton Abbey (sorry Highclere Castle) you will catch a glimpse of the Entrance Hall and main staircase. This is a Gothic-style design that features beautiful soaring columns and a vaulted ceiling. The staircase is a heavy aged oak and was only used by the family.
Moving through the Castle from the left you will enter the smaller North library that is used in the filming of Downton Abbey as Lord Crawley’s office. It opens up into the larger library which is used in the show as a sort of reception room by the family where they host their guests.
The gilded bookcases of both areas hold over 5,500 books many are first editions. The red velvet settees and chairs settled in front of the fireplace bring back those Downton Abbey memories of the cast settling onto the settees for a chat a cup of tea. The library was used for drinks before and after dinner and in Victorian times it was the centre of meetings for Lord Carnarvon and his Conservative party colleagues.
From the library, you enter into the Music room with its superb baroque ceiling painted by Francis Hayman. In the music room, you’ll find a mahogany desk and chair that was once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte. The Third Earl purchased them in 1821 after the Emperor’s death. As far as I know, they are normal height (just like Napoleon at 5’6” ).
The Drawing Room is beautifully decorated in a Rococo-Revival style by Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, with lovely green French silk curtains made and several family portraits of the Carnarvon’s. There is a beautiful grand piano in the room and it is also decorated with family photographs and fresh scented flowers. The Drawing Room is the place where Highclere was converted to a military hospital during WWI. All the furniture was removed and stored and cots were placed in the room for the wounded soldiers.
From the Drawing room, you will move through the Smoking Room. This is where the men would go for an after-dinner cigar and drinks. It is very masculine with its heavy velvet curtains which absorbed the smoke preventing it from moving through the house. The gentlemen would also have changed into their “smoking jackets” which were usually velvet as well.
At this part of the tour, you travel upstairs to view 12 of the bedrooms used in Downton Abbey. For each of these rooms, you will see a storyboard with the actors’ role and name and a short description of the bedroom.
From Cora’s rooms to the Lady Edith’s and even the richly decorated red bedroom which was used for the character Kemal Pamuk who was Mary’s lover in Series 1.
The Arundel bedroom and its dressing room were used as an Operating Theatre and Recovery Room during the First World War and the Mercia bedroom has a gorgeous four-poster bed decorated with 18th-century silks and matching furniture.
From upstairs along the corridors, you will catch glimpses of the Saloon and admire the vaulted ceilings and the columns in this gorgeous area. Travelling down the grand oak staircase you will find more family portraits and at the bottom, you will arrive at the stunning Saloon with its 50-foot high ceilings.
The Staterooms are covered in a painted leather wall covering that is just outstanding. These panels date from 1631 and are incredibly fragile. They were imported from Spain and originally hung in the house in 1862. Due to the height of the vaulted ceiling, the room is acoustically balanced and entertainers, musicians and singers were often positioned on the second-floor gallery to entertain guests on the main floor. Of course, there is also the grand columns to the right and the magnificent marble fireplace taking centre stage.
Behind the green baize door of the Saloon, there is a stone staircase that leads to the old staff dining room and sitting rooms, the kitchens, cellars and the other utility areas used by the servants of Highclere. Back in the day, as seen on Downton Abbey this would have been used by the servants to come and go from the kitchens and servants quarters.
If the discovery of Tutankahamen fascinates you, here is a fabulous book on Lord Carnarvon’s expeditions to find the tombs in Egypt.
From the Salon, you move into the downstairs portion of the Castle and the exit. This area of the house contains the Egyptian Exhibit. Carnarvon was the man who funded Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Upon Carnarvon’s death in 1923 his widow Lady Almina sold that collection to the Met Museum in New York. However, in 1987 a hidden cupboard was found between the double doors leading from the Drawing Room to the Smoking Room and this held Lord Carnarvon’s private collection of artefacts. These are the items that are now on exhibit.
Downton Abbey the grounds of Highclere Castle
In the 1700’s the First Earl of Carnarvon commissioned “Capability” Brown to create the lovely formal gardens and surrounding areas of the estate. This meant moving a small village that was on the property to make space for the park that would cover over a 1000 acres. There are 56 Lebanese Cedar trees on the road that leads up to the house. These seeds were brought to England from Lebanon in the 17th century.
Highclere’s grounds also contain several follies which were used as a quiet place for contemplation of the beauty of the landscape. There is no other purpose for a folly which was simply built as an ornament to the grounds.
From the windows of the Castle, you can see on the East Lawns is a lovely building with ornamental pillars called Jackdaw’s Castle, a folly built by Robert Herbert in 1743 to provide a charming view from the Castle and back to it.
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A second folly, an Etruscan temple, stands to the southwest of Highclere Castle at the edge of some woodland walks.
Located in an area east of the house is the Temple of Diana which was built around 1743 in the north-west near Dunsmore Lake, the lovely structure features Corinthian columns. Another structure located to the south on Sidown Hill is Heaven’s Gate which was built in 1749. These follies can be seen from the Wayfarers’ walk and from London Lodge.
When exploring the Castle grounds you will see a wildflower meadow, Walled Garden and a lovely Secret Garden. One of the highlights of the garden walks is the memorial for the B-17 bomber aircraft that crashed into Siddown Hill behind Highclere Castle on May 5th 1945. There is a wooden carving of the only survivor of that crash and commemorative plaques to those who died here.
Take a rest from your walk on one of the benches that have been carved to look like airplane wings with parts from the plane set within the bench plinths.
Have you been to Downton Abbey?