The House (Visit their main website!)
When I say “Highclere Castle”, most people have no idea where or what it is – but if I say “Downton Abbey” then the name should be more familiar to you. Highclere Castle – which is not a castle, but a stately home with the shape of a castle’s turrets – is the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnavon, but in Downtown Abbey it is the fictional seat of the Earl of Grantham and his family. The BBC series used all of the original furniture, paintings, books and layout of the house as the set – so although you are going to see a TV set, it is also a genuine historical home.
Highclere Castle, located near the village of Highclere in Berkshire was designed, built and decorated in the period between 1838 and 1878 by Sir Charles Barry. It was a political seat, a cultural seat and a place of high society, as well as being used as a hospital during the First World War (a storyline which is used in Downton Abbey as well) and a Children’s home in the Second World War. This is a house that has seen some things over the last 150 years – but really, the draw is all about the TV show.
We pre-purchased tickets online (a specific amount of tickets are allotted per day, and these sell out quickly) and you have an option for a morning or afternoon session. Although you can stay on the grounds all day, you only get access to the house and the optional Egyptian exhibit for the time period you purchased.
Ticket Prices (Adults, concessions available):
Gardens Only: £7
Exhibition & Gardens: £15
Castle & Gardens: £15
Castle, Exhibition & Gardens: £22
Since our ticket was for 10:30am to 1pm, we arrived at 10:30am after a 2 hour drive which in retrospect was perhaps a mistake. The car park was already fairly full, and there was a hefty queue out the front door of the castle. The guide outside apologized for the wait, and told us that the first two hours of the day were the busiest. The inside tour of the house takes 30-60 minutes at most. Had I realized that in advance, I probably would have arrived a little later – but not to worry, the sun was shining and in true British fashion the queue was orderly and efficient.
It took us about 40 minutes of queuing to make our way into the house. There is strictly no photography in the house at all, which I think is a shame – but I also understand. The areas of the house on display are fairly limited and the amount of people who want to see them extensive. Everything is roped off and you walk through on a one way system. It was very slow going as it was, as you had to wait for the person before you to finish reading this or that plaque or looking at something to move on. If everyone was stopping to take photos we’d probably have all ended up frustrated and bored, albeit with some very nice pics. Credit to everyone, I didn’t see a single person try to break this rule – although there is a staff member in every room so you wouldn’t get away with it for long if you tried.
The majority of the house is focused on the rooms used in the TV set of Downtown Abbey, down to the same furnishings and including photographs of the scenes. It very much is a Downton Abbey tour, so I would highly recommend it to people who are fans of the show. If you’re not a fan of the show or simply haven’t seen it, there are many many stately homes from that time period in the UK that have more historical significance, lower prices and aren’t filled with hordes of folks. It was obvious that everyone there was a fan of the show – and the amount of international visitors amazed me. I felt quite the minority with my British accent – surrounded mostly by Americans and Canadians, but there were quite a few Germans and a wide variety of other Europeans and a couple of families from Asia on holiday too. Certainly a very popular international attraction.
One of the staff members briefly made a joke about how the house at become very popular recently, “for one reason or another” *wink wink*, but the house itself has been open to the public in a limited capacity since 1988. I imagine the owners and staff never expected allowing the house to be used to film what was originally a pretty small TV series would have such a result. In an era when many historical houses are in disarray with massive upkeep, I’m glad that this one is being well funded and has a future, as well as bringing more tourism into the country.
The Egyptian Exhibition
In 1922 the 5th Earl of Carnavon, along with Howard Carter discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamen. This was the first global media event at the time and of course, Explorer’s back in the day could keep or sell their findings. Although it seems that the majority of the valuable relics were sold to various museums after his death, some genuine artifacts were discovered in storage in the house. Imagine that, going through a box of granddad’s stuff in the attic and finding Egyptian relics from 300BC. Crazy – makes you wonder if anyone really knows what’s in storage in these grand old estates. The things that were found mostly include broken pottery and statue fragments, coins, relics of fabric and writing etc. Nothing major which is why no one bought it at the time I imagine, but certainly interesting and thematically, an exhibition at the house of the man who discovered them is quite appropriate.
In addition to these, replica’s of the original relics from Tutankhamen’s Tomb have been made. Whilst these are fake, they are accurate replicas and give an impression of what it must have been like to walk through the tomb as well as some interesting historical information. The ticket for the exhibition is entirely optional and it was much quieter in there so I imagine those who just want to see Downton Abbey memorabilia might skip it – but we found it interesting and a welcome addition to the day. The exhibition should take about 30 minutes if you’re reading everything.
Again, no photography is allowed in this exhibition.
You can spend all day in the grounds if you fancy some fresh air and beautiful scenery. There are rolling fields with the castle in the background, several gardens full of flowers, a wildflower meadow and a few small pieces of historical interest dotted about. There are plenty of benches as well as lots of shade and it’s the ideal place to sit down and have a picnic or just walk about with the family. Very relaxing, although I forgot to wear or pack sunscreen and since I’m pale as a ghost, I ended up shuffling from shade to shade and acting a bit like a vampire that goes up in smoke when touched by the sun. Still, better than rain!
The old coach house / stables blocks have been converted into food, gift shop and toilets. Food is simple, but certainly good enough for us! Hot food (hot baguettes, panini’s and pasties) was £4.95 with cold food (sandwiches and salads) ranging from £3.95 to £7, and fresh baked cakes (including scones with clotted cream and jam of course!) started around the £2.50 mark. Plenty of choices for tea, coffee and cold drinks and they had a pretty efficient system running so the queue was only a few minutes despite it being lunch time.
We had a sausage and onion baguette each and a cold drink – very tasty and refreshing. With tons of outside seating or seating in a marquee, even with the place being packed it didn’t feel that crowded to eat.
The gift shop was pretty standard and massively overpriced by my estimate so we didn’t purchase anything – but I personally don’t feel the need for a T-shirt that says Downton Abbey on it, or a Christmas Bauble for £50 (yes, really). I suspect the gift shop is more attractive to overseas visitors or absolutely massive fans of the show picking up an “I was here” momento.
The toilets were clean and perfectly adequate; although there was always a small queue for the ladies which will come as a shock to no one.
As we were leaving we noticed that an entire envoy of classic Austin Healey cars had pulled up – apparently the Owners Club were having an outing. It was pretty neat to walk up and down dozens of these classic cars – and very fitting against the backdrop of Downton Abbey, where the first advent of cars into high society is featured in the show quite heavily.
Since this trip was for our 9th wedding anniversary we left our son at home. However I did keep my eyes peeled. There aren’t any activities for children and strollers are not allowed in the house at all – so children must be able to walk or be carried. The baby changing was a pull down in the disabled loo and looked adequate. On the whole, there were families with older children but I’m glad we left the baby at home as I don’t think he would get anything from the visit. Older children – especially if they have watched the show – might get a kick out of it.
I enjoyed my time here. It was a half day well spent. There’s no doubt it was expensive and that it is heavily targetted towards fans of a fictional show rather than genuine history – but it does portray a real family seat and a way of living long gone. It has some historical merit; but perhaps not enough for a visit on it’s own should you have no interest in Downton Abbey.