Downton Abbey is the period drama to end all period dramas, and now it’s a movie too – Julian Fellowes & Co. have finally taken their irresistible mix of toffs, tension and Upstairs/Downstairs titillation to the big screen.
Much of the series is shot on location at Highclere Castle in West Berkshire. Yes, the public can visit, but tickets are like gold dust for visitors.
So how can you get them, and what’s there to see inside?
Where is the real-life Downton Abbey?
Highclere Castle (picture above courtesy of Visit Britain) doubles as Downton in the TV series. The hottest TV location of the day, if not the century, is set among 1,000 acres of parkland in West Berkshire, about an hour from London Heathrow.
How can I take a tour?
Public opening days at Highclere Castle (highclerecastle.co.uk) run on set dates – April 11-26, May 3-5 and 24-26 and July 12 to September 8 of 2020, for example.
Prices range from £7 (gardens only) to £17 (castle and gardens) and £20 (castle, exhibition and gardens). There are tea rooms too, darling.
However, it also opens for special events and tours.
Christmas events run on set dates in November and December – a specially themed tour with afternoon tea, for example, will set you back £125pp.
On one of the weekends, Charles Dickens’ great-great-grandson, Gerald Dickens, will be on hand to read excerpts from A Christmas Carol.
Throughout September and October, the castle is also running ‘Real Lives & Film Sets’ guided tours, where you can explore state rooms and set pieces from the series and movie. The tour includes a visit to the Egyptian Exhibition housed at Highclere, and is also priced at £125pp.
Whenever you plan on visiting, act fast – tickets sell out rapidly.
What’s there to see?
Designed in Jacobean style by Sir Charles Barry, Highclere is a Bath stone beauty crowned by a Gothic crenellated tower. It’s been furnished over the centuries with treasures including Napoleon’s desk and a collection of Egyptian artefacts – sourced by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who financed Harold Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The vaulted ceiling over the saloon, a definitive backdrop for Downton Abbey intrigue, is 30 metres tall. As well as Dame Maggie Smith, Richard E Grant and Co., Queen Elizabeth herself has been known to take tea in the library.
“During your Guided Tour, you will recognise where so many of your favourite scenes were shot, so many memorable lines uttered,” the website promises.
“Beginning in the Saloon, the heart of the Castle and a central room where characters from upstairs and downstairs met, the Real Lives & Film Sets Tour will share the real history and works of art from the Stanhope bedroom, decorated in real life in 1895 for HRH the Prince of Wales and also the bedroom in which the handsome Turkish diplomat died of a heart attack,” it continues. “It was also Shirley MacLaine’s bedroom for one episode and Lady Anstruther’s in another.”
“After the Tour through the State Rooms, up the Great Oak Staircase and around the Gallery Bedrooms, guests are then invited to descend to the cellars to explore the Egyptian Exhibition.”
Can I stay at the real Downton Abbey?
Yes and no.
Highclere Castle itself is not open to guests – though the Carnarvon family restored two buildings set either side of the estate’s formal entrance (above), and turned them into lodges.
London Lodge and Grotto Lodge, as they are called, are available to hire for two-night stays on selected dates from February through December.
The main rooms boast large windows with bespoke oak wooden shutters (copies of the originals), and simple layouts are described as including a sitting room arranged around a Chesneys wood burner, a fully-equipped kitchen, and a separate bedroom lodge.
The owners opted for “a modern, Cotswolds-cottage feel as opposed to trying to recreate anything you might see in Julian Fellowes’s series,” according to The Daily Telegraph.
Prices are not quoted on the website, but enquiries can be emailed to email@example.com or you can register and log in on the website to enquire.
As a bonus, guests of the lodge can avail of special castle tours during their stay.
How did Highclere become Downton Abbey?
Julian Fellowes is a longstanding friend of the Carnarvon family (pictured with staff on their Facebook page, above), who have lived at Highclere Castle since 1697.
Reportedly, he had the castle in mind as he wrote the ITV series.
Fact and fiction occasionally overlap, too. Lady Almina, the fifth Countess, turned the house into a convalescent home during the First World War, for example.
NB: This story has been updated since first publication.