Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Fifth Day in London, Highclere Castle - the real Downton Abbey

In mid-February I learned Highclere Castle would be open for touring May 3, 4, and 5th, but the tickets sold out almost as soon as they became available.  I was so disappointed and e-mailed about a waiting list.  I received a response that extra tickets would be available at the gate for additional visitors on a first come, first serve basis, but no promises, and entry on the 3rd and 4th was highly unlikely.  Our only hope was Tuesday, the 5th.  I decided we'd go for it! We took the tube to Paddington Station, then a mainline train to Newbury, and a taxi to Highclere Castle.  We arrived before noon.

Below is the ticket gate at the entrance of Highclere Castle, and we were delighted to learn there were tickets available for us to tour the castle and grounds.

It was overcast with light rain when we arrived, but the high winds blew the clouds over.

Our taxi driver was quite a story teller - as we approached Highclere Castle he told us Heaven's Gate that sits at the top of Siddown Hill [in photo below], was where the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was buried, far removed from everyone since he was cursed after finding the Egyptian tomb of Tutankhamun [King Tut]. Turns out Heaven's Gate is just a 'folly' - a ruin that frames the view to and from the castle, and is not a burial site.  The 5th Earl of Carnarvon is buried at a place called Beacon Hill in Hampshire.

The walk up to Highclere Castle was exciting.  My mind flashed back to many scenes in Downton Abbey that took place on the gravel approach.

~ Side views ~

Construction of the castle began in 1838 and was completed in 1878, designed by Sir Charles Barry [who also designed and built the Houses of Parliament].  It's outer facade is bathstone from quarries near Bath, constructed in an Italianate style.  Its foundations are 16 feet deep, with a circumference of 16 miles.  There are nine different entrances to the castle.

The current castle [and an earlier structure on the site] have been home to the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. The 8th Earl and his wife, Fiona, and their 16 year old son currently reside part-time in the castle, and part-time in another house on the grounds. Since succeeding his father to the title of 8th Earl of Carnarvon in 2001, he and his wife, Lady Carnarvon, have worked diligently to repair both the exterior and the interior of the 177 year old castle.  Prior to 2009, only the ground floor and first floor rooms were usable, and 50 rooms were uninhabitable from deterioration. In a published interview with Lady Carnarvon she said the house costs $1.5 million a year to run.  Astounding!

The castle sits on 1,000 acres.

~ Front door of the Castle ~


Photography isn't allowed inside, but I did manage to get one photo before going into the Gothic Entrance Hall.  Notice its fan-vaulted ceiling.

A left turn takes you into the double library that contains over 5,650 volumes.  The library is indeed a large room, but it appeared smaller in person than when viewed on television.

Behind the Library is a Music Room [not used in Downton Abbey], and the beautiful Drawing Room with walls covered in green French silk.  We've seen the Crawley's gathered in that room many times.

In the Smoking Room [also not used on Downton Abbey] was a beautiful 18th century tea cabinet that I wish I could have taken a picture of. 

We walked through the Morning Room before heading up the Red Staircase that leads to the main bedroom floor, with a gallery that overlooks the Saloon [Great Hall].  The Saloon has a 50 foot high vaulted ceiling, and is the 'heart of the house.'  We got to look into several of the bedrooms that were named to commemorate significant people.  Then we came down the Oak Staircase that's seen many times in Downton Abbey, and went into the Dining Room.

From there we went down to the cellars to see the Egyptian Exhibition that shows artifacts from the 5th Earl's excavations in Egypt, with his partner, Howard Carter, that led to the discovery of King Tut's tomb in Nov. 1922, and treasures that have been unsurpassed in the history of archaeology.

The 5th Earl was bitten on the face by a mosquito, and he nicked the sore while shaving. Infection set in, along with Septicaemia and a fever.  He died on April 5, 1923 at a hotel in Cairo at the age of 57. At the precise moment of his death, the lights went out in Cairo, and back home at Highclere Castle his favorite dog suddenly died, causing rumors to circulate that a curse of the Pharaohs [a mummy's curse] had killed the Earl of Carnarvon. His fateful razor is on display in the Egyptian Exhibition.   Spooky, huh?  ;-)

Downton Abbey scenes of below the stairs servant's quarters and kitchen are filmed in Ealing Studios in London, since none exist at Highclere Castle anymore.

Below is a later addition to the castle, and it's where the current tea room and dining rooms are located.

~ Photography was allowed in this area ~

I got their traditional beef pasty with veggies and a pot of tea.

Castle addition from the back.  On nice days [when it's not raining and the wind isn't strong] guests can dine outside.  Our food would have blown away the day we were there.

There was a lovely gift shop in the stable area.  The Carnarvon's are big into horse racing. The 7th Earl of Carnarvon was Queen Elizabeth II's racing manager, and she was a frequent visitor at Highclere Castle until his death in 2001.

The 8th Earl of Carnarvon is the Godson of Queen Elizabeth II, and he was her Page of Honor from 1969 - 1973.

I read an article about a recent trip Lady Carnarvon made to Houston, Texas in March of this year. She is currently writing a book about tea at Highclere that will share recipes used at the castle for over 200 years. The book will include stories, anecdotes, and narratives about entertaining at Highclere. The unofficial title [which at present is only a working title] is Seasons and Secrets.  I'll definitely be watching for it, and perhaps the tea cabinet I couldn't photograph will be in the book!

She said they watch Downton Abbey, but it gives an odd feeling seeing a part of the castle on television that they're sitting in.

Downton Abbey has made Highclere Castle one of the world's most recognizable buildings, and has brought it worldwide fame.  

Lady Carnarvon has a blog that I've been following.  I picked the card up in the gift shop.  I was told she came into the gift shop while we were there, but I didn't see her.

My daughter snapped a picture of the sign below in the castle gift shop.  It made us laugh.

~ My purchases were a commemorative teacup ~

~ A tin of black tea ~

~  A linen tea towel ~

~ And a Commemorative Book ~

As I was making my purchases, the sales lady said they were expecting the cast of Downton Abbey to arrive that afternoon.  Filming for Season VI was to begin the next day.

A last look back at Highclere from the entrance gate as we waited for our taxi to take us back to the train station.  What a fun and memorable day!


  1. Oh, I am so glad you were able to get tickets to tour this lovely castle!

  2. What, what, what???? There is a TEA ROOM in the Castle at Downton Abbey!!! Wow, wow, wow!! This will be on my mind all day! This is the coolest thing ever!!!

  3. Such an extra special adventure! Loved all that you shared.

  4. How fortunate that you were able to get tickets on stand-by. Thanks for sharing with us your tour of everyone's favourite TV castle!

  5. Wonderful that you were able to get tickets...understand it is difficult. So fun!

  6. How exciting that you DID get to tour Highclere! So much fun stuff here ... I could practically hear the music in my head as I saw your opening photo of the castle. And I'm counting on you to let us know the moment the book about tea at Highclere is available. That will be a MUST!


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