As my long-suffering Twitter followers are very well aware, I’ve been full of feelings about ITV’s soapy costume drama masterpiece Downton Abbey for, uh, a few years now. I think my social media #brand has basically been narrowed to obnoxious Downton content, so this fall, to do some field work with the series finale imminent, I made it my mission to visit Highclere Castle—real-life Downton Abbey—on one of their few winter opening days.
After some failed attempts when I actually lived in England, I managed to snap up a ticket for the December 6 opening, which was how I found myself booking my second transatlantic voyage of 2015. That drew not-so-thinly-veiled judgment from coworkers, friends, and a UKBA agent, but you know what? Worth it.
Highclere is just over an hour from London. The train ride is painless, but the cab from the train station to the castle was a brutal £25 each way on the Sunday I went. Thankfully, the high price came with pleasant conversation and good service—if you get a good driver for the ride to the castle (or really even an adequate one), be sure to get their phone number so you can call them to retrieve you at the end of the day. Huge time saver.
The castle tour won’t disappoint Downton fans—you can walk through most of the main upstairs filming locations, as well as areas like the smoking room that aren’t shown on camera. Visiting at Christmastime made it even more spectacular, with an immaculate tree and occasional carolers bringing some holiday cheer to the great hall.
It’s also incredibly interesting to be able to see the castle as a real family’s actual home, not just a set for a period drama. You’ll see the same antiques and old portraits that are visible on TV, but there are also masses of family snapshots to prove that, strange as it seems, people actually still live in that house in the year 2016.
The vast grounds of the estate gave me a bit more of a chance to feel like I was actually at Downton—though guides at the castle try to pace visitors’ entry to control crowds, it did get quite packed and could be frustrating to navigate. But outside, especially on a dreary December day, it was much easier to get some space to myself. Imagining a bit of time travel isn’t hard when you’re the only soul wandering through the Monks’ Garden.
If you, like me, visit mostly to see real-life Downton, the Egyptian Exhibition downstairs might be an afterthought—but be sure to build in some time for it in addition to touring the upstairs and wandering the grounds. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922, and the cellars are full of interesting facts about King Tut’s tomb and replicas of artifacts to help bring it to life—as well as many genuine artifacts from some of the 5th Earl’s earlier discoveries.
Given the pricy cab fare (plus the £20 entry fee), it’s hard to say whether the Highclere Castle experience is worth it if you’re not a Downton Abbey addict. But if you are, and you have the chance to snap up tickets to one of Highclere’s rare opening days, you should go ahead and do it. With the 12-year saga of the Crawley family and their servants entering its final stretch on PBS tomorrow night at 9 p.m. (and already wrapped up on ITV), visiting the real-life estate is a way to bring the story back to life.
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