Highclere Castle, largest mansion in Hampshire, 19th C.
The next time you’re in London, if you’re planning a side trip to DOWNTON ABBEY or rather Highclere Castle where Lord Julian Fellowes’ wildly-popular BBC series is filmed, be sure to check their website (www.highclerecastle.co.uk) as the Castle is not open year-round.
In September 2012, I was fortunate enough to be among the final guests allowed at Highclere before it closed to the public to permit filming on the more than 1,000 acre estate.
It has been in the Earl of Carnarvon’s family since the 17th C. The present earl, his wife and three children, seemingly hard-working, cash-strapped aristocrats, live in a modest cottage on the property.
For the summer of 2013, you can buy tickets now for July 14th through Sept. 12th. But book early and in advance on the website; if you just show up, you probably won’t get in.
You must choose between morning admission (10:30AM to 1PM) or afternoon (1PM to 3:30) for the Castle. The grounds open at 10AM. Admission to the Castle and Gardens is about $17.60 for an adult, $9.60 for children, or a family rate of $48; students, seniors and the disabled, about $15.20.
Skip the Egyptian Collection; it’s all reproductions. Better to head to Cairo or the British Museum. FYI—Why is there an Egyptian Collection at Highclere? Because the 5th Earl, George Herbert Carnarvon, put up the cash to search for and excavate Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
In 1922, he and Howard Carter opened the tomb and shortly afterward, Carnarvon died from a severe mosquito bite infected by a razor cut. This led to the story of the “Mummy’s Curse”, even though Carter lived safely for another 16 years.
Enough backstory. You have a lot of choices for getting to Highclere. Renting a car is expensive and you have to manage driving on the left. Directions are on the website.
Or, for about $120, you can book a “mini-luxury-coach” bus tour from London and watch Downton Abbey re-runs instead of the Southern England countryside. It takes you through the Oxfordshire village that stands in as the village in the series, then on to Highclere Castle.
If you can forego the village, forget the bus tour. You really don’t need a tour guide because included in the admission price, inside Highclere Castle, there are docents in every room to answer questions and share anecdotes.
For about half the cost of the bus tour, my friend Suzie and I found a more enjoyable way of “doing Downton”. We bought afternoon admission tickets to Highclere at www.highclerecastle.co.uk (about $15.20 each); the tickets are emailed and you print them out.
By choosing afternoon admission, this allowed us to travel by train at “off peak” hours; it’s less expensive. We bought two “OFF PEAK DAY RETURN” Brit Rail tickets from London (Paddington Station) to Newbury via Reading for approximately $34.40 each.
Newbury is an easy-breezy 50-minute train ride from London. And Paddington Station is rather a tourist attraction by itself;you can buy just about anything there.
You get off the train in Newbury and outside the station is a taxi stand (There’s no bus to Highclere Park). However, it is much smarter to pre-book a taxi. The fare for the five-mile ride to Highclere is a whopping $32 each way, but we just grabbed two other Downton fans and shared the cab both ways, costing us $16 each for the round trip.
I suggest pre-booking with “65 Special Taxis” at 01635 33200 or calling Mr. R.S. James directly at mobile# 07970 650000. Be sure to book your return ride as well.
We were dropped off about 200 yards from Highclere Castle. It looks better on film than it does when you are standing in front of it, but it’s still a glorious piece of English history and not to be missed.
East side of Highclere. From the Peysner/Lloyd Astoft article: “Eleven bays (windows) arranged in an ingenious rhythm …smaller turrets framing the middle five bays, themselves set in a one-three-one pattern.”
After wandering the Capability Brown landscape and taking pictures of the Elizabethian-style castle, Suzie and I joined the afternoon tour at 1PM. Note to self: You are not allowed to take photographs inside Highclere Castle.
Visitors follow a set route past the marble pillars in the entrance hall and through the ground floor State Rooms. Here are some things to notice:
The Saloon: Gothic arches and leather wall-coverings
The State Dining Room: the impossible-to-miss Van Dyck equestrian portrait of King Charles I.
The Double Library: the glorious vaulted ceiling and the 5,560 books
The Music Room: stunning ceiling artwork and Italian embroideries. Look out the window to see the two follies (buildings constructed primarily for decoration), whimsically named Jackdaw’s Castle and Heaven’s Gate.
The Drawing Room: green French silk wall-coverings
The Smoking Room: the 17th C. Dutch paintings
Visitors take the Red Staircase to the first floor and Gallery. There are eleven bedrooms, a selection of which can be seen on the tour. The remaining 40 or 50 bedrooms on the next floors are in disrepair and not open to the public.
Featured on the tour are the Stanhope bedroom, decorated in red; the Mercia bedroom with its four-poster bed; and the Arundel bedroom and dressing rooms that were used as an operating theater and recovery rooms during WWI. Lady Almina Carnarvon turned the castle into a hospital, just as the Crawleys did in the series.
Then visitors get to retrace the steps of Downton’s favorite bride, Lady Mary, as they parade down the Thomas Allom grand Oak Staircase that fills the Italianate tower designed by Victorian architect Sir Charles Barry, who also did the Houses of Parliament.
If you’re looking for the Downton’s servants’ quarters or kitchen, you won’t find them at Highclere. The “downstairs” is shot on a stage at Ealing Studios in West London. Sorry, no Carson.
Highclere, from behind
Following the tour, Suzie and I had lunch in the Highclere tearooms, where the food was unremarkable but convenient. Near the tearooms is the gift shop in case you’re dying for a Downton dish towel (it makes the best souvenir ).
Highclere Castle, north side, entrance to mansion
We took more photographs outside Highclere’s front door and noticed that the family motto was carved above it and all the ground floor windows: Ung Je Serviray, “One will I serve”.
Maybe next trip I’ll look for the Carnarvon family crest. It is of a wyvern (a legendary winged creature with a dragon’s head, reptilian body, two legs and a barbed tail. FYI—they breathe fire or have a venomous bite) with its wings elevated holding a severed right hand in its mouth. And maybe I’ll find out what that means.
Highclere Castle, front door knocker
The taxi driver was waiting for us in the car park at the pre-arranged time. Leaving the fairytale film location behind, Suzie and I made it to the train station to catch our off-peak four o’clock train back to London.
Highclere Castle, another rear view
Call me a romantic, but my fantasy would be to have access to the entire three-storey castle, meet the ghosts. Or call me a pragmatist, I’d like to see first-hand the staggering $19, 200,000 worth of repairs that need to be done, and that estimate was made four years ago. Seeping water has caused stonework to crumble, ceilings have collapsed, and the stone turrets are decaying.
Saving the historic stately home could be a great volunteer project. If the Earl had the proper liability insurance, it sure would be swell if he could offer Downton fans a chance to “camp” in those forty or fifty dilapidated bedrooms in exchange for scraping some mold off walls. Give students credit for restoration; in France, people pay for the privilege of restoring castles.
Highclere Castle does do bar mitzvahs, corporate events and weddings. For a site fee of a mere $24,000 you can rent the castle, hold your wedding reception in the library and ceremony in the Saloon. Better book now.
**All the prices quoted in the above article are calculated on the basis of one English pound being equivalent to 1.60 US dollars. Check current currency exchange rates.
RG20 9RN United Kingdom