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Day Trips / England / Travel

Let’s visit Highclere Castle home of Downton Abbey

visit Highclere Castle

It’s no secret I’ve always wanted to see the real home of Downton Abbey and now that I’ve been I can tell you it’s definitely worth the trip. Why not come along with me as I visit Highclere castle in lovely Hampshire England! 

Are you a Downton Abbey fan too?  I have to confess it’s been one of my all time favorite period dramas.  I’ve watched it multiple times because let’s face it, it’s the perfect antidote to the stresses of our 21th century! It’s one of those dramas that even men find engaging and I think that’s the secret to its appeal because everyone can relate to the Crawley family can’t they?

The real Highclere castle had already been the setting for movies and TV shows such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Secret Garden, but Downton Abbey turned out to be its savior.

visit highclere castle

The History of Highclere Castle

The original house was a beautiful medieval palace built in the late 14th century by the Bishop of Winchester.

In 1679 it was rebuilt by Sir Robert Sawyer who was Attorney General to King Charles II. He bequeathed the house to his daughter who was wife to the 8th Earl of Pembroke.

During 1842-49, Sir Charles Barry the architect of the Houses of Parliament, created a design for the 3rd Earl that changed the square classical mansion into the Jacobean style with Italian Renaissance influence castle you see today.

  • The 4th Earl of Pembroke drafted the British North American Act of 1867 at the castle which effectively created the country of Canada as a separate nation.
  • During World I,  a hospital to care for wounded soldiers was opened at the castle, meaning Downton Abby wasn’t entirely fictional! 

But by 2009 Lord and Lady Carnarvon needed to undertake major repairs because by then at least 50 of the 300 rooms weren’t habitable due to water damage. Due to ancestors not making much needed repairs, the castle suffered from serious long term maintenance problems. This meant the current Lord and Lady had to move into a cottage on the grounds whilst repairs were being made. Estimates of up to £12 million to repair the entire estate, with almost £2 million just to repair the castle were given. 

Isn’t it fortuitous that Downton Abby began filming in 2010?

Talk about good timing.

The success of the series led to a new tradition of hosting paying visitors such as you and I. The funds from filming plus opening the house to the public allowed the family to continue making much needed repairs to the castle.

Once again fact inspires fiction! I’m sure you remember the episodes where the Granthams reluctantly allowed paying guests to view how the other half lived. Do you think it was an uncomfortable truth for the family to realize they couldn’t keep the house any other way?

Visit Highclere Castle for the Day

Judging by the crowds the day I went, the allure of Downton hasn’t faded. With the new movie coming out this spring I expect its appeal will continue for a long time to come.

I was surprised to see how many people were wandering around the grounds on this spring day!

The only thing that marred the view of the house were the dozens of cars parked right in front of the house making it tricky to get a clear shot of the front facade. You know, the one where carriages and motors swept up the drive to a welcoming phalanx of family and servants.

Disappointingly you’re not allowed to take photos inside the house, so I can’t show you how beautiful it was.  But I can tell you every room is perfectly decorated to the period yet still feels warm and cozy. Much like a well loved family home but with oodles of history, portraits and charm. In fact, you could spend hours looking just at the photos, portraits, landscapes and memorabilia covering the walls and table tops.

visit highclere castle

The rooms actually feel smaller than you’d expect, but I know that’s the effect of the camera’s wide angle lens. One of the guides mentioned it was quite a tight fit to get all the camera crew, actors etc tucked into Lady Sybil’s bedroom!

You’ll also be able to see the bedroom where Kemal Pamuk met his untimely end, which naturally is quite dark and dramatic. Lord and Lady Grantham’s bedroom is lovely and bright. Some of these old houses can be quite dark, but Highclere is sunny and bright with massive windows streaming in sunshine and light. There was a large en suite bathroom tucked into one of the towers and I so wished to jump the ropes to get a peek!

The upper hallways are very pretty with curved arches and doorways. Most open to the gallery below where Matthew and Mary stole their illicit kiss in front of the Christmas tree.

Let’s not forget the stunning gilded reception room with its signature red couches that Lady Grantham would fold herself into during every family crisis.

You won’t see any of Mrs. Pattmores kitchens below stairs. Those scenes were entirely filmed at Pinewood Studios near London.

What IS below stairs is the Egyptian exhibition which celebrates the 5th Earl of Carnarvon’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun with Howard Carter in 1922. The day I went there was quite a queue (line) to get in and as it was in a cramped space you may want to give it a miss unless you’re an avid Egyptologist!

visit highclere castle

Visiting Highclere Castle – What to Know:

Highclere is only open at special times during the year. Check Highclerecastle.co.uk for admission details.

  • The castle is open generally between Spring to early Fall:
  • In spring from April 8 – May 29, 2022 (open to the public for timed admission)
  • In summer July 10 – Sept. 5, 2022 (open to the public for timed admission)
  • During special events

I’d recommend you pre-book your tickets online to ensure a slot. Tickets are available for a 2 hour morning, mid day or afternoon timed slot.

Tickets can be booked for admission to the House & Garden or House & Garden & Egyptian Exhibition or any of the special events and tours.

It’s also possible to book an afternoon tea or have a drink and snack at the cafe or tea room. The well stocked gift shop is similar to a lot of National Trust shops but with an interesting array of nice quality dressing gowns, nightdresses, Egyptian relic artifacts, pottery and the usual Highclere castle souvenir stationery, soaps and jewelry.

Neither dogs or picnics are permitted with an exception for guide dogs.

As it is a private family home, no photography is permitted inside the house.

How to get there:

By Car

Highclere Park, Newbury RG20 9LE – follow the brown Highclere signs to entrance. Parking is about a 5 minute level walk from the castle.

By Train

  • Train: The closest stations are Newbury or Andover. 
  • From London Paddington a direct train to Newbury takes 40 minutes.
  • From London Waterloo a direct train to Andover take about an hour.
  • You’ll need to book a taxi from the station to take you to Highclere.  Be sure to book your return pickup taxi also. The drive should take about 15 minutes from Newbury station or 20 minutes from Andover.

I know you’ll enjoy visiting Highclere Castle as much as I did. When you’re ready to plan a trip to England, I’ve got you covered. Wondering when’s the best time to visit London or England? I’ve got that covered too!

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