How to See the Real Downton Abbey
This post was originally published on March 20, 2018.
The story of this trip really began while Mom and I were on a Viking River Cruise last summer. On many nights of the cruise, the ship would start sailing for the next port right after dinner, so we didn't have much to do. Luckily, the TVs in each room had the first two seasons of Downton Abbey ready for viewing. Since it was the only thing to watch, that is what we did right before going to sleep each night. I was instantly hooked. We finished the series as soon as we got home.
Fast forward a couple months. Mom and I had been talking about planning a fun trip to celebrate our 20th and 50th birthdays. One day, she comes racing down the hall and says, "I know what our 20 / 50 birthday trip should be."
Highclere Castle (where most scenes from Downton Abbey were filmed) was hosting a Mother's Day Tea. We would have a tour of the castle plus afternoon tea in the dining room. The dates worked out with my Spring Break. It was all too perfect. We booked our trip that night.
The visit was absolutely lovely. We enjoyed a guided tour through the public rooms of the castle. It was so cool to see where all my favorite scenes from the show actually took place!!
After the tour, we sat down to afternoon tea and refreshments in the dining room. Lady Carnarvon came around and spoke to everyone. She was the sweetest lady! She told us about the work she does at Highclere and the many projects she has going on. We got to know the people at our table while snacking on scones and finger sandwiches and sipping tea. It thoroughly exceeded any expectations I may have had beforehand.
After we were sufficiently stuffed, we headed down to the Egyptian Exhibit that they had going on at the time. (The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was part of the archeological team that excavated King Tutankhamun's tomb.)
The rest of the visit was spent outside, exploring the grounds, and taking way more pictures and video than I would like to admit.
Anyone who loves Downton Abbey (or just English castles in general) should definitely make a trip to Highclere! There's many ways of doing so - I'll let you in on how we did it:
When to Visit Highclere Castle
It is important to remember that Highclere is a fully-functioning estate. The Earl and Countess of Carnarvon live in the castle and open their home to the public only a couple days each year. The different days and events have varying entrance fees. The Mothering Sunday Tea that we attended was a special event compared to just a regular tour, so it cost more. You can find all the open days and events here on Highclere's website.
How to Get There
Highclere Castle is not in the most central of locations. Depending on whether or not you go with a package tour or on your own will change how you get there and how much it will cost.
We decided to go completely on our own. We flew into Gatwick Airport the day before our visit and took a train from there to Newbury. The train system in England is super easy to use (although not always the cheapest.) You can expect a train from the airport to Newbury to cost anywhere from $25 to $35 one way.
The day of the tour, we took a taxi out to the castle. Unless you've rented a car, this is the only way to get out there. It was about £50 round trip, which we split between the two of us. If it had been up to us, we would have gotten an Uber and spent way less, but there were none to be found in little Newbury.
Of course, there are plenty of package tours that allow you to see Highclere Castle and even more Downton Abbey filming locations. Most of them leave out of London on mini-buses of about 15 to 20 people. You can find all of these by simply Googling "Downton Abbey Tours." They aren't cheap tours, but if you really want to geek out over the show locations and save the money that would have been spent on trains and taxis, go for it!
What to Know Before You Go
One of the biggest things to realize before you go to Highclere Castle is that they do not allow ANY photography inside the castle. This ticked me off just a bit because they filmed an entire TV show in the house - will a few tourist pictures really hurt? I will admit, I took plenty of sneaky pictures with my phone just so I could show friends at home. (To not completely disrespect the owners' wishes, I won't be posting them here.)
Tickets sell out very quickly. Keep your eye on all the events and opening days and figure out as soon as possible which day you will be able to go. (We actually booked our Highclere tickets before booking our flight!)
Everything is smaller in person. Not kidding in the slightest on this one. It's just as beautiful as on the screen, but as we were walking up the path to the front door, we both mentioned at the same time that we thought the castle would be bigger. Walking into the Great Hall was the same way. Our guide noticed our puzzled looks and explained that the wide-angle lenses used to film the show made everything seem bigger than it actually is.
Have any questions about planning a trip to England? I would love to give you advice and tips from the time that I've spent there! Leave a comment, or get in touch with me on social media.