For several years, I’ve been yearning to check Highclere Castle of my bucket list. When I had the recent opportunity to finally see the castle for myself, I couldn’t have been more excited! I dreamed of walking in the footsteps of the fictional aristocratic family featured on the small screen—and now on film. As a fan of the show, I couldn’t wait to see the familiar rooms the Crawley family occupied and the immaculate picture-perfect grounds, but what I was most surprised to discover was Highclere’s lesser-known and remarkable wonders.
After spending some time in London, I was eager to see the English countryside and thankful for having a private driver, as it made my day seamless with no worries about navigating backroads or dealing with the complexity of taking public transportation. Traveling from London to Highclere can be confusing, as it requires taking multiple trains as well as a taxi from the station to the castle itself. Based on the size of your group, we can make the necessary arrangements for transport. My driver, Duncan, promptly picked me up in a sleek and spacious Mercedes sedan at the Kensington Hotel in London where I had enjoyed my stay and thus began my long-awaited journey to the outskirts of Newbury for a semi-private tour of Highclere. The drive from London is approximately an hour and a half by car, but Duncan’s smooth driving and easy conversation made the time fly by.
Autumn’s colors were only beginning to push through as the car meandered through the English countryside with its peaceful, sheep-dotted, grassy slopes.
The mid-morning fog and mist still lingered, gracefully hovering among the treetops, heightening my anticipation of the final brief incline before Highclere’s grandeur came into view.
I planned to arrive earlier than the designated entry time to do as the British do and walk the grounds to take in the beauty around the estate. England’s manor homes are typically synonymous with commanding landscapes and sumptuous gardens, and Highclere—via the famous 18th-century gardener and landscape designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown—certainly delivered.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown statue on the grounds at Highclere Castle.
From the castle, which sits proudly atop a gentle slope, I viewed the stunning panorama of its 5,000 acres of parkland.
The striking Lebanon cedar trees, towering like sentinels over the grounds, are one of the many familiar icons I immediately noticed from the TV show. Many fans will recall seeing garden follies on the show, such as the one where Lady Edith contemplated her melancholy life. You can easily view two of the four follies from the castle, or take one of several strolls to see these beautifully-crafted structures up close. I recommend printing the online map of the grounds before you arrive, so you can have it on hand as you stroll the grounds.
As I continued my walk, I discovered a little sign pointing the way to a Secret Garden.
On my way to the entrance, I strolled past one of the immense, 400-plus-year-old cedars and on towards a long brick wall with multiple arches.
Once inside the walls, I began to explore the carefully arranged composition of the artisanal gardener’s designs with swaths of both straight and circular flower beds and sculpted hedges, which created several green arbors.
But this area didn’t seem like a secret garden, so I continued to explore further until I saw a small iron gate towards the rear.
Passing through the portal, a straight-lined, lengthy flower bed brimming with a variety of white flowers greeted me. As stunning as this abundance of white was, it appeared too formal to be a “secret” garden. Following the pebbled path, I continued to walk to the end, and turned the corner to discover The Secret Garden at last!
In fact, this location was used for the film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved 1911 children’s novel, The Secret Garden, in 1987. It lived up to all its glory, seamlessly unfolding and leading me to explore one flowery patch to the next. Amazingly, the roses continued their bloom and bud cycle and the hydrangea poms were still full and hardy amid the unusually warm autumn temperatures.
The manmade expanse of lawn curved beautifully for maximum impact allowing both curiosity and the serpentine pathways to guide the way. As you stroll through, each section of flowers presents itself as if on a stage, with occasional wooden obelisks or armillary spheres adding ornamentation and focal points. I can imagine the full profusion of colors during the peak blooming season in June and July.
If you have the time, you can walk further to the other outdoor gems within close proximity, such as the Wood of Goodwill near the large Rose Arbour, the Wild Garden, or their wildflower meadow.
The way back to the castle offered many opportunities for superb photos. Who could resist a picture sitting on the show’s familiar wooden bench with the ideal composition of Downton Abbey in the background?
You can easily walk directly up to the house and take a little peek in the windows, but nothing tops having an actual entry ticket.
As I approached the giant walnut front doors, complete with the twin iron wolf heads, flashbacks of countless scenes from the show filled my mind. And now, here I was, physically entering this stately home I’ve seen so many times yet never actually stepped into—until now!
Before me was a red carpet leading straight to the room that has always been my favorite from the show—the Saloon. The Saloon (of the French type—not an American Western) is overwhelmingly beautiful, soaring upwards of three stories high, brimming with graceful and intricate, stone-carved masonry, and perfectly punctuated with coats of arms, revealing a few hints of its history. At the same time, when looking around the room at eye level and lower, numerous comforts of home were apparent, with a crackling fire and family photos on tables next to cushy-comfortable furniture; it created a warm and cozy atmosphere within the castle.
A few of the guides woke me out of my trance to ask if they could take my jacket. As the room soon filled with other guests, one of the guides shared details with us of what to expect and took a few questions about the Castle before the tour began. With all eyes drawn towards the center of the room, listening carefully, we were surprised by another voice coming from the opposite direction. Behind the pillar, the Countess of Carnarvon herself emerged and shared some background of the origins of the estate, along with some noteworthy anecdotes of its long line of family caretakers. She also spent time answering questions while standing upon the steps of the well-known oak staircase (the very same one that Lady Mary descended in her flowing wedding gown before saying her “I do’s”). Approachable and congenial, Lady Carnarvon welcomed all of us enthusiastically and invited us to enjoy tea afterward in the café, where she offered to speak with us further.
The guides divided us into smaller groups of fifteen to twenty and then commenced a rotation through the house. These small groups provide a more personalized experience with time for questions at every interval. Walking through the Castle, you can view the familiar hallways, gallery, elegant bedrooms, library, and drawing rooms. This particular semi-private visit, Real Lives and Film Sets, displayed various placards with behind-the-scenes photos from Downton Abbey matching that particular room. My ticket also gave me access to more of the unfamiliar interior features of Highclere, such as the stunning music room containing a desk once belonging to Napoleon, a secret door in a room that is very familiar to fans, and the incredible Egyptian Exhibition.
Nearly 100 years ago, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was keenly interested in Egypt, and, along with archaeologist Howard Carter, famously discovered King Tut’s tomb. A selection of the trove of artifacts, including replicas related to their monumental discovery, is on display at Highclere. The Egyptian Exhibition starts in the former staff dining room (the rooms depicting the ‘downstairs’ staff onscreen are shot at Ealing Studios in London) that has since been transformed into the antiquities room for the purpose of telling the story of this landmark discovery. After examining some glass-enclosed displays of Egyptology, I began the sojourn through the corridors to discover more of this compelling story of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Ironically, their decision to try again during another season to find any elusive Egyptian tombs was made at Highclere.
Without giving anything away, I especially loved the clever manner used to recreate the moment when candlelight exposed the Egyptian king’s cache to Howard Carter for the first time. The simple presentation shares the anticipation and excitement Carter and Lord Carnarvon must have felt on that fateful day. Reportedly, Lord Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” to which Carter famously replied: “Yes, wonderful things!” It was a fantastic way to convey these emotions and to conclude the tour.
As previously promised, Lady Carnarvon topped off the day by meeting us at the café, chatting and ensuring we each departed with fond memories and full bellies, as well as with a complimentary copy of her latest book, Christmas at Highclere. Highclere offers a variety of themed admissions and special events, which occasionally include Lady Carnarvon, throughout the year, keeping their tours fresh and captivating.
Kristen and Lady Carnarvon outside Highclere Castle.
Although you are not permitted to take photographs of the Castle’s interior, you can still enjoy reminiscing through various forms, such as souvenir books and gifts from Highclere’s gift shop, Downton Abbey DVDs, or better yet, via a return to this extraordinary, majestic home. From the quintessentially English landscapes and majestic gardens, to a touch of Napoleon, a first-hand meeting with Countess Carnarvon herself, and an exclusive King Tut exhibit, I walked into Highclere with only Downton on my mind but left with so much more.