Fanatically loving "Downton Abbey" (#guilty), and living in London, a visit to Highclere Castle, the Hampshire estate where the show was filmed, has been at the very top of my wish list. My mom’s visit for her birthday seemed the perfect opportunity to try Highclere’s VIP tour (£100 per person). General admission, which sells out every summer, gets crowded (think: hundreds of camera laden fans elbowing past you to see the stunning art, elegant rooms and gorgeous gardens), which is why the VIP events are the best way for LTA readers to appreciate Highclere.
General note: The drive from London is very easy and scenic, taking slightly over an hour; the approach to the castle by car makes your heart leap! We played the theme song in the car (a necessity, download it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/downton-abbey/id468069097)
Highclere is magnificent, just like on TV (minus Lord and Lady Grantham, of course). It is incredible to see the grounds and castle in person, looming large amidst the glorious greenery. Our tour was at 10 a.m., the only one for that morning. There were three guides for about 45 people; we were divided into small groups. The castle is vast, we quickly lost sight of the other groups, and our knowledgeable guide took us upstairs through the bedrooms first (the red room where the Turk died in Season 1, Episode 3), Lady Sybil’s bedroom, Lady Mary’s door (her actual bedroom is a set) and Lady Grantham’s bedroom. The guide was great about revealing both tidbits about the filming of the TV show, and lots of detail about the fascinating history of the Earl of Carnarvon (also called the Herbert family), the actual English nobility, which own and maintain the 5,000-acre Highclere estate since the late 1600s.
Given the intimate size of our group, we had every opportunity to ask questions, and look around though, as you can imagine, some areas are roped off and “do not touch” signs abound. No photography is allowed inside. After seeing the bedrooms, we headed to the State Rooms, The Saloon and the Library (often used on the show), the State Dining Room (many memorable scenes from the show here too, and there’s Van Dyck's great equestrian portrait of Charles I), plus the ladies yellow Drawing Room, which incidentally was paid for by Alfred de Rothschild for his daughter Almina who was married to the Earl of Carnarvon in the 1800s, the Music Room and the men’s Smoking Room, all used widely in the filming of "Downton Abbey."
The guided tour of the interiors lasts about one hour, there is a glimpse of the staff areas (Carson?) by way of a service stairwell, but really the kitchen and staff quarters from Downton Abbey are all sets and the former service areas now house an extensive Egyptian Exhibit about the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who famously discovered the Tomb of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, in 1922 with his archaeological colleague, Howard Carter.
From there, we enjoyed champagne tea service in the Coach House, with mini sandwiches, scones and cakes, after which we were free to roam the lush acres of gardens designed for the 1st Earl of Carnarvon by the famous 18th century landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, further developed by his son the 2nd Earl who was equally passionate about the landscape. There are several stunning sections, with a variety of colorful flowers and foliage, a “secret garden” with lovely benches to sit and take in the views, and the newly planted Wood of Goodwill woodland area with 38 native British trees including beech and oak. There’s a gift shop with items relating to the show and the Carnarvon family; before we knew it was a nearly 3:00 p.m. and time to head back to London. A second group of 45 arrived at 1:00 pm, but we didn’t really see them. We enjoyed the peace and relative privacy of the VIP day, a fantastic way to enjoy Highclere—we even spotted Lady Carnarvon coming back from yoga class!
Planning a VIP visit: next available events are in September, there’s a Vintage Gala Dinner on September 8th, hosted by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, a white-tie evening set in the state rooms of an Edwardian style dinner with a menu based on a soon-to-be-released book by Lady Carnarvon about the history of the food at Highclere; tickets are £500 per person https://highclerecastleshop.co.uk/categories/vintage-gala-dinner or on the weekend of September 10 – 11, there are Vintage Garden Parties during the daytime, where guests are invited to dress in costume from the Edwardian era (Season 1) for a full day including a tour (similar to the one described above), including a picnic lunch, Pimms cocktail, games, and music; tickets are £120 per person. https://highclerecastleshop.co.uk/categories/vintage-garden-party . If concerned about the dressing up, they’ve arranged costume rentals with two UK vendors that will deliver to hotels, info here https://www.highclerecastle.co.uk/news/costume-hire-vintage-garden-party