It’s definitely a pinch-me moment as I am ushered into Highclere Castle and offered appetizers and champagne in the library where so many scenes for Downton Abbey were shot.
I’m standing near the iconic red velvet couch where the aristocratic Crawley family was served many a cup of tea by their domestic staff. Here is the desk where Isis, the loyal and lovable Labrador, would lie at his master’s feet. And here is the door where the family’s butler, Mr. Carson, would come and go, bridging the upstairs/downstairs costume drama. And those 5,600 books lining the library walls are not just props but a family’s impressive collection, with some of the earliest books dating to the 16th century.
As a Downton Abbey fan, I quickly realize Highclere Castle, for the most part, remains practically unchanged since the series was last seen on television in 2015. The real castle has retained all of its post-Edwardian charm, decorated with many of the same furnishings, sculptures, paintings and lighting used in the six-season series.
Other than framed photos of the castle’s true owners, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, and family oil portraits in the entryway, it appears the castle is just as it was when it played a starring role in Downton Abbey.
Speaking earlier that day in Highclere Castle’s imposing saloon, Fiona Carnarvon, the countess, says there were many stars in Downton Abbey — including the “wonderful” Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess of Grantham — but one of those stars was the house. “It holds the whole thing together,” says Carnarvon.
The countess’s talk is on art and architecture, but with so many Downton Abbey fans among the 100 guests attending the lecture, it’s no surprise the topic veers to the show. The countess recounts how filming was 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. daily, which was “a bit stressful since this is a home,” and how ensuring the Van Dyck painting of King Charles I in the dining room wasn’t damaged was a concern.
I later learn that painting, featured so prominently in the show’s dining room scenes, is valued at $30 million Cdn.
After the lecture, guests are able to tour the familiar state rooms and the upstairs gallery of bedrooms — many of the visitors recalling the infamous scene of Mary Crawley enlisting staff’s help to drag out the body of her Turkish diplomat lover after he died of a heart attack in her bed.
There’s no mistaking these famous hallways.
Thanks to Downton Abbey, interest in this stately country home continues to be as strong as ever, judging by the number of visitors who flock to Highclere for the opportunity to walk up the gravel driveway and see the medieval palace, which dates to 1679, for themselves.
With news that Downton Abbey, the movie, is scheduled to be released in September, interest in this historic home will no doubt continue to grow.
Highclere offers special events such as the lecture series, afternoon tea and garden tours and cocktail parties around a theme or performance. The night I visited the castle, there was a special performance by the London-based musical-comedy duo Kit and Mcconnel in the saloon, followed by dessert and tea in the dining room.
This September, there’s a Costumes, Cocktails and Castle tour where guests can dress up for a “roaring ’20s party at the real Downton Abbey,” and in June, a musical show will be hosted outdoors by Mr. Carson — actor Jim Carter.
(Be sure to get tickets before you go, since the castle is only open for a limited period in summer and on selected dates for special events throughout the year.)
Clearly, Downton Abbey continues to have a huge impact on Highclere Castle’s coffers.
“For us, it’s been fantastic,” says the countess, noting that at one point, “no one thought the house would survive” because of the high inheritance costs.
In 1923, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who along with Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s Tomb, was forced to sell off priceless works of art to keep the home going.
Carnarvon notes that their friend Julian Fellowes had Highclere Castle in mind when he wrote the Downton Abbey series, but adds she was never considered a role model for her equivalent in the series. “I’m not at all like Lady Cora,” she says, without further elaboration.
Highclere Castle isn’t the only destination that still attracts tourists thanks to Downton Abbey.
Not far from Highclere is Cogges Manor Farm, which dates to the 13th century. This was the location for Downton’s Yew Tree Farm, and has also opened its doors to the public.
While most of the farm’s outbuildings have been featured in the show, visitors can also go into the manor house kitchen, which was the humble interior for Lord Crawley’s tenant farmer, Mr. Drewe, and his family.
In season five, in particular, the farm was often featured whenever Lady Edith would go to visit her illegitimate daughter Marigold, who was under the Drewes’ care.
The farmhouse is much more impressive in real life than what is shown in the series. The upper floors of the farm and the east wing are never shown in Downton Abbey, as it would make the house appear too grand for a tenant farmer.
No walk down Downton Abbey memory lane would be complete without a stop in the small town of Bampton, near Witney in Oxfordshire. This charming ancient market town in the Cotswolds doubles as the fictional Yorkshire town of Downton Village.
Here you’ll find St. Mary’s Church, which was renamed St. Michael and All Angels Church in the series. It was used for key events in Downton Abbey, such as weddings, funerals, christenings and even the jilting of Lady Edith.
Just outside its doors is Churchgate House, the old Bampton rectory, which was used for the exterior shots of Isobel Crawley’s house, the fictional Grantham Arms Inn and the hospital, which is actually the Bampton Community Archive.
There, friendly locals will provide you with a map entitled “The Downton Mile” depicting the main filming spots in the village, and you will learn anecdotes about the time their little town became a “paparazzi” hub.
“When the end came, it was slightly sad,” says a sign in the archive. “We had got used to the sights of these stars walking the streets, and some of us felt as if we were part of this extraordinary phenomenon. The generosity with which the cast and crew threw a party for the village on the last night suggests that they felt at least slightly the same way.”
Tapping into pop culture and providing exclusive access to favourite movie moments has become a marketing selling point for Britain.
“People want to see the locations and see where these stars have walked and eaten,” says Cecelia Adjei, the brand partnerships manager of Visit Britain.
“It’s keeping tourism fresh. We pride ourselves on our history and culture, but we are also aware we can broaden our appeal and see Britain in a different way.”
Besides the appeal of television series such as Downton Abbey, The Crown and James Bond movies, to name just a few of the productions that film here, Adjei says Britain has much to offer visitors.
“We can’t rest on our laurels and rely on one industry. You might be into films, but someone else might be interested in sports or lifestyle. That’s what is great about Britain — we have it all.”
If you go
Stay at Donnington Valley Hotel & Spa in Newbury, which is just a 15 minute drive from Highclere Castle, and is situated in the heart of Berkshire, surrounded by stunning parkland. More information at donningtonvalley.co.uk
Kim Pemberton is a Victoria freelance writer. She was a guest of VisitBritain.