Explore the Real World of Downton Abbey in England
With the airing of Downton Abbey’s final episode, avid viewers may be feeling bereft. But take heart. You can still follow in the footsteps of your favorite footmen, comely maids and high-spirited heiresses when you head to England to tour this hit series’ most atmospheric film locations.
Top of the list is Highclere Castle, 70 miles west of London, which doubles as the Grantham’s sprawling estate.
Sure, a few architectural aficionados might come to admire the honey-colored mansion’s striking symmetry, devised by Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament. The Berkshire property also features Egyptian artifacts and a recreation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was discovered by Howard Carter and the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, whose family has owned Highclere for centuries.
But judging from the chatter around me on my visit, most are here to see where the Granthams argue over dinner, sip their sherry beside the fire, and whisper behind bedroom doors.
Stepping into the library, the room is instantly recognizable, with its red velvet sofas, fluted columns and shelves filled with leather-bound tomes. Beyond lies the drawing room, its walls swathed in that familiar green silk and a chandelier—could it be the one tickled with a feather duster in the opening credits?—glinting in the sunshine.
It’s impossible to descend the oak staircase without feeling that you might find a corseted lady and her secret lover at the bottom of it, locked in an illicit embrace. And the central saloon is even more impressive than it appears on television, with a soaring ceiling like a cathedral.
REAL WORLD VERSUS “REEL” WORLD
What visitors might not expect, however, is evidence of this castle’s ongoing role as a 21st century home—and its royal connections. Family photos show smiling children on the ski slopes, recent portraits of an attractive young couple that prove to be the current Earl and Countess, and older black and white images, including a grinning man hoisting a little blond boy into the air.
“That’s the seventh Earl with the young Prince Charles,” explains a guide. And that woman in the head-kerchief standing among a field of cows is none other than Queen Elizabeth, who just happens to be the eighth Earl’s godmother.
On the second floor, most bedrooms–where many “upstairs” scenes were shot–are open for inspection. Though ropes across the doorways prevent me from wandering in to bounce on the beds, I get a good gander at the trappings.
Every room has a dressing table laden with creams and lotions, a flashlight on the bedside table, and stacks of novels by the likes of Patricia Cornwell and Dick Francis, as well as lesser-known tomes like the amusingly-titled “The Other Half Lives”–all further clues that this is an actual home, where the Earl and Countess still spend much of their time and continue to entertain.
BEHIND THE SCENES
When the series was still in its early days, the Countess, Lady Fiona, recounted the familiar affection with which cast and grew greeted the start of each new season of filming at Highclere Castle.
“It’s like the first day of school when everyone collects again, with the same apprehension, the same new people arriving and old friends,” said Lady Fiona, whom I met at London’s Grosvenor House hotel, where she was promoting her book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.”
Lady Almina was the wife of the 5th Earl and resided at Highclere at approximately the same time as her fictional counterpart, Lady Cora.
Many tales related in the book correspond to Downton story lines, as well—a wealthy woman married for her money, a great home transformed into a hospital during the war, and changing fortunes. This may not be entirely coincidental, as Julian Fellowes, who wrote the series, is a friend of the Carnarvons.
“I never think he nicks my story lines, but I’m delighted if there’s anything he uses,” the Countess insisted. Still, balancing a friendship and the overwhelming success of the series did present challenges. “If it gets very tricky, I just open a bottle of champagne,” she explained with a laugh.
MORE LOCATIONS WITH BRIT MOVIE TOURS
While the castle is a highlight for Downton Abbey devotees, there’s more to see beyond Highclere’s hallowed halls. Brit Movie Tours offers a variety of “Downton Abbey” tours, including a two day option that includes sites in London and the English countryside.
In Buckinghamshire, for example, this tour provides an exclusive guided visit to Halton House, which isn’t typically open to the public. The grand manor appeared in season two as Haxby Park, the estate of Lady Mary’s wealthy suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle.
In reality, it was built as a gentleman’s getaway by Sir Alfred de Rothschild, father of Lady Almina—giving it a dual connection to Highclere and Downton Abbey–although it has served as a home for Royal Air Force officers since 1919.
“In that sense, it’s still living up to its bachelor pad days,” explains Min Larkin, an historian and archivist for Halton House.
But with its sweeping staircase and ornate balconies, it’s still grand enough to have also featured in films like The Queen, the 007-cape The World is Not Enough, and An Ideal Husband.
My favorite part of the Brit Movie tour, however, is a walk around Oxfordshire’s Bampton, which stars as the village of Downton. There’s the library, easy to spot as the entrance to the hospital; the church at its center, which featured rather prominently in the third season; the little lane which, in the “reel” world, leads to Downton Abbey; and the village green, a surprisingly tiny triangle of grass in front of the “Crawley mansion,” which is sequestered behind a stone wall.
“There’s something about being in the actual place where scenes were filmed,” says my guide, who has seen clients kiss doorknobs because a particular actor might have touched them. “They feel a connection—and it gives people a tingle.”
Wandering among its centuries-old cottages, it’s easy enough to imagine I’m prowling the lanes of Downton, where intrigue lurks behind every door. I’m tingling, I admit it—but I do draw the line at kissing a doorknob.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The Carnarvon Arms in Berkshire. This small inn and restaurant, located near Highclere Castle, is where most of the cast stayed while filming. Who knows? You might even run into “Lord Grantham” or “Lady Mary,” returning for a nostalgic drink in the bar.
The Vineyard Hotel in Berkshire. The Dowager Countess settles for nothing less than the best. Dame Maggie Smith checked into this five-star hotel during filming.
To order personally signed copies of the Countess of Carnarvon’s books about Lady Almina and her successor, Lady Catherine, visit: https://highclerecastleshop.co.uk/products/2-book-offer-signed-copies-of-both-lady-almina-and-lady-catherine