The Real Downton Abbey October 04, 2014


Now that Downton Abbey has returned for a new season here in the UK, it seems like as good a time as any to recall our visit to Highclere Castle last spring. It’s one of the hottest tickets in the country, because of the popularity of Downton Abbey, but also because it’s only open on a very limited schedule: filming takes up several weeks, and the Earl and Lady of Carnarvon live in the Castle with their family much of the year. Jenny knew how quickly it sells out, so she checked the website almost every day until they released the Spring Break batch, then booked right away. And so, just a few days after we said goodbye to Leisa, Sam, and Vera, we found ourselves driving down the motorway again. It was a short, focused trip: we drove down one day, visited Highclere the next morning, then headed straight back home that afternoon.

From the outside, the appearance of Highclere Castle is every bit as distinctive and dramatic as it appears in the opening credits of Downton Abbey. We were lucky to visit on a beautiful, blue-sky morning, and chose to take the house tour before going to see the grounds. Although the rooms are all impressive, they aren’t quite as large as they seem to be on TV. The library and the dining room were the most familiar to me; it was clear that lots of our fellow tourists were also interested in the places where filming took place. There were lots of current family photographs on display, which is different than other grand houses that we’ve visited. This is because the family lives in the part of the home that is open for tours; much of Highclere is still in disrepair and awaiting renovation, so the family doesn’t yet have private and public sections of the house; when Highclere is otherwise occupied, they live in a nearby cottage. Downton-inspired tourism appears to be playing a significant role in saving the house, which I’m sure Lord Grantham and Lady Mary would appreciate.

After leaving the house, we took turns attending to the children’s needs and perusing the gift shop. At some point, Jenny overheard a conversation and realized that one of the participants was the lady of the house. She told Elena, who excitedly relayed this information to me just a few minutes later when it was my turn with the kids in the courtyard. Although Lady Carnarvon seemed very personable and welcoming to the tourists, we did not attempt to introduce ourselves.

We spent another little while walking the grounds, looking for the good angles to take photos of the house. Some nice women from Kansas took a picture of our whole family; she seemed very familiar with the moodiness Roman was displaying at the time. Although most of the flowers weren’t out yet in the formal garden, the wildflowers had already begun to bloom. When we turned back towards the house, Jenny and Roman took one path while Elena and I took the other. Elena was determined to be the first one to the point where the paths met up again, and made good on her promise.

As we drove off through the grounds, past Diana’s tower, I reflected on two topics. First, although Downton Abbey is set in North Yorkshire, close to where we live, to my mind the grounds of Highclere Castle bear very little resemblance to a Yorkshire landscape; I suppose that’s the kind of thing that only the small subset of people who have spent a lot of time in Yorksire would notice or care about. Second, I don’t think there’s any tourist activity more British than touring great and famous houses, including those that are still lived in.

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