First, I must apologize for being MIA recently. Stephen and I have been doing a ton of traveling, so although I’m very behind on my posts, I have several more adventures to tell you guys about!
Way back in March, I booked two tickets for the summer opening of Highclere Castle, made famous by Downton Abbey as the hereditary seat of the fictional Earl of Grantham. At that time, we had no idea if we would even still be living in London come September, but I bought the tickets anyway, reasoning that I could probably sell them if we ended up moving before then. Well, September finally rolled around, life was still going smoothly in London, and we were on a train headed to Highclere Castle!
If you are coming from London, the easiest station to reach is Newbury, from where you’ll have to get a cab for a short 15 minute drive to the estate. We had pre-booked a cab, but there was a taxi rank outside the station, so I don’t imagine it would be very hard to just get one there. Since a taxi is absolutely necessary to reach the castle if you are traveling by rail, I am sure the drivers make a fortune during the house’s opening dates. For the return trip, I would strongly advise that you either have a taxi already booked, or you call one half an hour before you want to leave. There is no taxi rank at the house itself, and while a member of staff would be happy to call one for you, you might have a long wait.
One of the biggest surprises while approaching the house were the sheep. Both sides of the drive had hundreds of them grazing away, oblivious to the spectacular house in front of them, the dozens of tourists snapping photos, or anything other than the springy green grass in front of them. It is so easy to forget that these great country homes, which you so easily associate with polished silver plates, glittering chandeliers, and priceless libraries, have always been supported by their muddy, rural, sheep and crop-filled land. Highclere is still much more than its grand house and gorgeous grounds: it encompasses 2,000 acres of arable farm land, 2,000 acres of woodland, and 1,000 acres of grazing land for sheep.
The house itself looks just like it does on the show, although perhaps a bit smaller than you would expect. Small, of course, being a relative term, since any house that has hundreds of rooms is still enormous by today’s standards. Having now been up close, it resembles the Houses of Parliament even more than I had initially thought, so it came as little surprise when the brochure informed us that they were both designed by the same architect, Charles Berry.
The house sits on the Hampshire-Berkshire border, far away from Yorkshire, where the house is supposedly located in the show. The grounds were designed by the great Capability Brown, and it shows. Their is no getting around it: the views are spectacular. I can hardly imagine a better setting for a home. The grounds blend seamlessly into the surrounding countryside, so it is nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. This sort of harmony is one of the reasons I love Capability Brown-designed landscapes so much. His estates always look like nature at its most beautiful. You would never guess that the hills, lakes, or views were painstakingly planned out and executed by man rather than bestowed by God. One thing you never see in the show is the glorious views out the windows. While we often see Lady Mary and Lord Grantham chatting away in the library with light streaming in through the windows, you never know or really even wonder about the view out of those windows. In reality, it is stunning, with rolling hills, lush lawns, and the occasional man-made folly.
Before we went, I had heard several people comment that the furnishings were shabbier than they anticipated. I didn’t necessarily get this impression, especially since I came in expecting to see pieces that were hundreds of years old. They have Napoleon’s desk, for crying out loud (which the family removes for safekeeping during filming.) And really, if your chairs are upholstered in silk damask, you really can’t go around changing it every time the colors fade a bit from the sun or someone spills their soda. It put me in mind of one of Mary’s lines on the show, when she asked Sir Richard what they would do about furniture if they bought a house. He replies that they would do what everyone does: buy some. She says, “Your lot buys it, and my lot inherits it.” That is all too true for Highclere Castle.
Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the house. The tour allows you to see the ground floor, which houses several of the family rooms you see on screen, and the first floor, with its bedrooms arranged along a gallery. Among the downstairs rooms, the saloon and the library were my favorite, since most of the TV action happens in those rooms. The dining room was the most interesting room, as it houses a huge portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck, which you often see behind Lord Grantham in the dinner party scenes. Stephen walked up to a guide and asked about the painting, specifically if the family had been Parliamentarians or Royalists during the English Civil War. She evaded that question, but told us that the painting had been taken down after Charles I was executed and Cromwell took over. The painting, worth millions of pounds today, was later found propping up a barn door!
After we finished touring the house, we walked to the folly, famous as the spot where everyone in the show goes to mope, complain, and worry about Downton’s most recent scandal.
After exploring the folly, we set off to explore more of the grounds before our taxi came to pick us up. The house has several gardens, one of which is a “secret” garden, hidden behind some walls. The flowers were starting to droop and die, but there were still some lovely blooms holding out against the autumn chill. The stroll was a lovely way to end our day!
Two weeks after our trip, Downton Abbey premiered in the UK for its final season. I had so much fun watching the first episode, and pointing out “I went there, and I saw that, and I stood there, and I looked at that painting,” etc. to anyone who would listen, which turned out to be my cat. Stephen developed a sudden urge to shower about 5 minutes in and came back downstairs only when he heard the credits rolling. Does the future of Downton mean nothing to him?!
I am thrilled we had the opportunity to visit the house during our time in the UK, and I can’t wait to see how this beloved series ends!