Highclere Castle – aka the real Downton Abbey

As a long-standing fan of Jeeves and Wooster, Highclere Castle was Totleigh Towers for me long before it achieved wider recognition as Lord Grantham’s country seat in Downton Abbey. Having spent years driving past the Highclere Castle turn-off on the A34, I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time, and back in February I managed to secure tickets for this year’s summer opening. Yesterday the day finally arrived for us to make our pilgrimage down to one of the country’s most beautiful country houses.

Parking is right in front of the house itself, on the grass the other side of a sort of ha-ha-type ditch. I have to admit, we did play the Downton Abbey music on my iPhone as we drove along the winding driveway up to the Castle (which isn’t really a castle). The Castle in its present form dates to 1842, and it’s every bit as imposing in real life as it is on screen.

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Yours truly. The Castle, near Newbury, is the seat of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, and the ‘Downton effect’ has seen a tremendous rise in the number of visitors. Revenue from visitors is apparently being put to good use in restoring the Castle.

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Lee took this superb photo with the big camera. As you can see, there were quite a few people milling round, but it wasn’t overbearingly crowded in the slightest. We got straight into the house without queuing, so perhaps Monday was a good day to have chosen.

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But before we went into the house we went round the back to the tearooms (in the old servant quarters) for some lunch.

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On the way to the tearooms, we saw this ruined chapel, which is right behind the house.

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Lee had a beef pasty for lunch and I opted for sandwiches. As you can see, they were pretty pricey for sandwiches, but that’s to be expected I guess. At least they had a photo of the Castle on them!

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After lunch we walked round the house and went on a self-guided tour of the interior. Very unfortunately, photography wasn’t permitted in the house, so I’m not able to show you any photos of the library in which Lord Grantham is often seen, or the beautiful galleried saloon around which Bertie Wooster was chased by the villainous Spode.

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There were lots of rooms open to the public, and as so many of them had modern books lying around in small stacks, we wondered whether these state rooms and bedrooms are still used. I suspect that they are. There were lots of rooms we didn’t recognise, as well as those used in Downton.

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All the rooms have very tall windows that let in lots of natural light, and also allow residents to admire the views that surround the house, including this one.

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The self-guided tour takes around an hour and a half, and your ticket permits either morning or afternoon entrance (ours was afternoon, between 1pm to 4pm). The rest of the time, you’re free to wander the grounds and marvel at the beauty of the Castle from various different angles. After touring the interior we stopped for a moment on this bench, under the most magnificent tree.

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Various people asked us to take photographs of them with the Castle, so we asked them to return the favour!

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Exploring further down the grounds, you come to a walled garden area that’s attractively bordered with several varieties of lavender. The lavender was a hive of activity, with bumblebees buzzing busily from flower to flower.

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I loved this old greenhouse, which had roses and peaches growing inside. The peeling paint gave it that tantalising air of decay that, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of.

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This is at the back of the greenhouse. I’m not sure what that store at the bottom was used for, but it doesn’t look as though it’s used much anymore.

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Back towards the Castle, and another cracking view between the trees.

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This folly was built more as something to be admired from the house itself than as a viewing point…

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…but it afforded a nice view all the same. You may remember the folly featuring in an early series of Downton, when it was the setting for a conversation between Lady Edith and that soldier who, if I recall correctly, pretended to be a relative of hers.

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Sadly it had started to rain by that point!

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We set up the camera on a bench to take a couple of photos of us. Me looking a bit like Mary Poppins.

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Our visit over, it was time to leave, via a long and picturesque track across the estate that took us past what I assume is another folly.

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Highclere Castle is a surprisingly affordable day out, with tickets to the house and gardens costing just £13 (£20 if you want entry to the Egyptian Exhibition, which is about Lord Carnarvon discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb with Howard Carter. We didn’t go, having only recently been to a similar exhibition at the Ashmolean). However, tickets are in limited supply as it’s only open for a few weeks each year. As I mentioned, I had to book in February for tickets in July, so your best bet is to keep an eye on the website and book well before you plan to go. But it’s well worth some forward planning, whether you’re a Downton fan or not!

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