One of the biggest items on my England bucket list was visiting Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. I’m a massive Downton fan, and seeing it in real life was always a dream.
But whenever I’ve been to England, Highclere was always closed or sold out. They only open the house a few months of the year, so you really need to time your trip with one of these public openings.
Somehow, like Prince Harry said in his engagement interview, “the stars were aligned,” and this year I got to go! If I hadn’t been in Windsor for his wedding I would’ve said it was the absolute highlight of my trip. So we’ll go with second best day ever, because what can beat a royal wedding?
Replikating at Highclere
This wasn’t an occasion to just turn up in jeans and a top. Only a royal outfit would do – after all, Kate herself has visited the studio where Downton was filmed and met the cast. After careful consideration, I chose the Hobbs Wessex dress, as worn by the Duchess of Cambridge on several occasions.
From Script to Screen
From time to time, Highclere Castle hosts special events like lectures and themed tours. When I checked online a few months before my trip I saw the public opening for the May bank holiday weekend was sold out. Luckily, Highclere was holding a “Script to Screen” event earlier in the week so I booked tickets ASAP.
My sister and one of our best friends came along for the ride. The three of us had been to the Downton Abbey costume exhibit in Delaware a few years ago and it was crazy to be able to go to the real thing together. My husband opted to stay back in London since he’d never watched Downton Abbey and it was a lot of money to spend if you aren’t a fan. Plus, it wasn’t exactly a kid-friendly outing. Our son had a lot more fun going to the LEGO store that day with Dad!
When you pull into the entrance for Highclere Castle from the road you have to drive for ages (I swear it must have been a mile) until you finally see the building peeking out from the trees.
My sister yelled “AAAH!!!!” so loudly at the first glimpse that our cab driver yelled “BLOODY HELL!” It was all hilarious and both of us got a little emotional when we finally got to stand right in front of Highclere Castle.
Since we were there early, we went on an EPIC PHOTO SHOOT. I took at least 100 pictures that day but here are a few favorites!
It was cloudy and cool when we arrived, but soon enough the sun came out and it was an absolutely gorgeous day. It ended up getting quite hot later in the afternoon!
Then it was time for the lecture. Lady Carnarvon, the current lady of the house, did the introductions. I follow her blog and have read a couple of her books so it was very cool to see her in person. She’s very down to earth!
The screenwriter of Poldark was there for the “Script to Screen” lecture. The website didn’t mention who the guest speaker was, so I was a bit surprised having expected the lecture to be about filming Downton Abbey. She talked for 30 minutes about how she got started with her career, how scripts get adapted and how the show is filmed and whatnot. At first, I thought Poldark must’ve had some episodes filmed at Highclere Castle. But they hadn’t, which was a little confusing.
Anyway, parts were definitely interesting (mostly because I’m a writer) but I’ve never watched Poldark so my attention wasn’t grabbed as much as I’d hoped.
On the positive side, the lecture took place in the magnificent saloon at Highclere and soaking in the details of the room was a treat. The famous staircase that everyone is familiar with from the show was directly to my right, and I kept looking at it and imagining Lady Mary walking down in her wedding dress! #staircasegoals
Touring Highclere Castle
After the lecture, we were split into small groups and taken on tours around the castle. Sadly, you aren’t allowed to take photographs indoors. But the rooms look exactly like they do on the TV program and it was very, very surreal. It was literally like walking through a scene in Downton Abbey. I half expected Mr. Carson to show up!
They had framed family photographs on tables in every room, and I spotted a few of the royals in them, including The Queen and Princess Diana.
The tour guide took us into the library, dining room, and the various drawing rooms and sitting rooms downstairs. Then we went upstairs to see the bedrooms. You weren’t allowed to walk inside them – they had a rope blocking the door – but you could look in.
The “downstairs” areas like the kitchen were filmed on a soundstage so they didn’t actually have any of those rooms at Highclere.
The tour was great overall and our guide was very knowledgeable about the house, the history of the building, and the family. I’m sad that I can’t share any photos with you because it was wonderful to see these interiors in person! We kept pinching ourselves because it felt so bizarre to actually be there.
Luncheon, gardens and shopping
Once our tour was over we headed to a tented area on the lawn. They had tables inside the tent and on the grass for a luncheon, which was included in our special event ticket.
There was a garden tour after lunch, but we opted to skip that and walk around the grounds on our own. Instead, we headed into the shop to take advantage of everyone else being on the garden tour.
The shop is small, situated in a little shed-type building that’s separate from the main house. I ended up buying a matted print, which I still need to get framed. Alas, UK print sizing is almost always non-standard when you try to buy a frame in the States! I also picked up a Christmas ornament and some other assorted souvenirs (sunglasses case, pen, coaster). And let’s not forget the tiara headband I wrote about in my royal wedding shopping post.
My friend decided it was a great idea to order a bottle of champagne after we went shopping, because YOLO. We left our purchases in the shop to collect them later – other than my headband, which I put on immediately, of course – and took a table out in the sun.
They had a food menu as well, but since we’d already eaten we just did champagne. It was such a beautiful day and we had the best time relaxing and chatting there.
Next, we explored the grounds.
We sat on the lawn for a while, took some more pictures and waited for our taxi. I also may or may not have played the Downton theme song from my phone and re-enacted the opening scene.
Before I knew it, our day at the real Downton Abbey was over. It was amazing to experience it with two of my favorite people. Lucky for us, there is a Downton Abbey film in the works so we can all visit Highclere again soon enough!
If you go
They can be pre-booked in advance online, and since the house is only open a few days a year, they sell out quickly. Sign up for their email list and follow Highclere on social media to keep abreast of when tickets go on sale (usually it’s a few months in advance).
Sometimes there are tickets available at the gate, but I would not recommend just walking up hoping there might be some for the time slot you happened to show up. Unless you’re very local or staying nearby it’s a long journey to take that risk and end up disappointed. Especially if you’ve come from overseas!
Getting there from London
If you take the train from London, it’s a little over an hour from Paddington to Newbury station.
My entrance tickets were at 10 a.m. and we arrived at London Bridge tube a few minutes after 7 a.m. to catch the Underground to Paddington, collect our tickets, grab breakfast, and get on the train. I believe our train left around 7:50 and it arrived in Newbury at 9:15. We ended up getting to Highclere half an hour before our ticketed time, which meant plenty of time to take photos in front of the castle without a bunch of people in them.
You need to take a taxi from Newbury station to Highclere Castle. Most people pre-book cabs, so if you expect to just grab one outside Newbury station you’ll probably be frustrated. Just phone a cab company ahead of time and let them know your arrival time. I used Broadway Cars at 01635 847784. It’s about a 15-minute taxi ride to Highclere Castle from the station.
It’s ESSENTIAL to call and book a cab on the way back, as you’ll be stranded otherwise. (This is a feeling I’m familiar with, btw, which you’ll learn in my upcoming Hever Castle post!). We called about 15 minutes before we wanted to leave and then waited probably another 15-20 for the cab to arrive.
If you go during one of the public openings (when there will be way more people), I would call well ahead of when you want to leave or agree on a return time with your driver on the way there.
Have you ever been to Highclere Castle?
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