NEWBURY, England -- On the day my sister-in-law and I made our pilgrimage from London to Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, my husband took the kids to the Harry Potter studios. So we were all in our own fantasy worlds: the children pretending to ride Quidditch brooms, and Efrat and I hoping to feel the presence of Lord Grantham and Lady Mary, fictional though they may be.
Just as you’d expect, Highclere is set amid rolling hills, grazing sheep, and beautiful trees — enough English countryside to last a Downton fan a lifetime. With its golden stone, impressive tower, and Gothic turrets, Highclere looks exactly as it does on television — but being there allows you to feel its grandeur. It has hundreds of rooms (the current resident doesn’t even know the exact count, that’s how big it is). The walls are so lovely — some are covered in leather, others in beautiful green French silk — and the ceilings so ornate, the staircases so grand, the furniture so pretty, that you practically have to remind yourself to enjoy the pastoral views outside the enormous windows.
But there was one surprise. You go expecting a sophisticated Masterpiece theater-y crowd, and instead you find groupies. We had to wait to enter the mansion because a 68-year-old woman, arms thrust in the air, was posing for a photo outside the enormous front door. She was imagining herself as Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and wishing she had a large staff behind her.
“Today’s my birthday,” she said. “This is a present from my daughter.”
A moment later I encountered another woman in her 60s (the castle was crawling with them, husbands in tow) who wished the tour included costumes. “Wouldn’t it be fun to wear one of Lady Mary’s gowns?”
Inside Highclere it was the same story. In the saloon (one of the many rooms where Maggie Smith holds court as the Dowager Countess) a docent told me she can easily distinguish the history buffs, who’ve been visiting the castle for years, from the Downton fans, who started showing up only after the drama’s first season ran, in fall 2010 in the United Kingdom and in January 2011 in the United States.
The scholarly group is curious about Sir Charles Barry, who designed both Highclere and the Houses of Parliament; and the various Earls of Carnarvon, who have lived in the castle for over 300 years. They’re interested in all of the art, not just Van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I. That painting, as the Downton crowd knows, hangs in the state dining room, the setting for many delicious zingers and painful staff slip-ups.
Those visiting Highclere because it’s a historic house — and not the set of a nighttime soap — are interested to learn that an early Anglo-Saxon charter suggests people have lived on the spot for some 1,300 years. They take the time to see the onsite Egyptian exhibit (there because the fifth Earl of Carnarvon was a discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb). They’re not disappointed that the gift shop doesn’t sell replicas of Lady Mary’s necklaces, or Thomas bobbleheads. When they look at the family photos on display, they’re eager to see the actual residents (the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon), and not Ladies Mary, Edith, and Sybil as little girls.
As for the Downton fans? According to the docent, their questions run along the lines of: Where’s Mr. Bates? Or: Can you point me to Lady Mary’s bedroom so I can see where — spoiler alert! — poor Mr. Pamuk met his end? They want to meet the butler, Carson.
Alas, Carson is not there — and it turns out the “downstairs” portion of the action is shot at Ealing Studios in West London. But the self-guided tour through the endless spectacular rooms makes you forget any disappointments. In fact, walking through the marble-pillared entrance hall, admiring the music room’s stunning ceiling artwork, visiting the library, with its 5,650 books, the earliest dating from the 16th century, one thinks one could get used to this life.
Happily, the approach to the castle is just like it is on the show. Efrat and I shared a cab from the Newbury train station to Highclere with a fellow Downton fan (they’re easy to spot) and her husband, and when the castle’s commanding tower came into view she grabbed him.“There it is!” she gasped, as if seeing the eighth wonder of the world.
The mansion sits on 1,000 acres, and on the August afternoon we were there, the tourists were so spread out, and so mellow, that it almost felt like we were back in 1912, when Downton opens. The lunch food for sale in Highclere’s “tea rooms” also fell into the “time forgot” category. But there was a plus to the bland chicken and unexciting salad. It felt in keeping with Highclere’s mainly noncommercial vibe. At a time when seemingly every tourist attraction has photographers snapping your photo to sell you later, Highclere doesn’t even allow pictures to be taken inside the home.
But make no mistake, the eighth earl and his wife are not above financial interests. Lady Carnarvon has written a book about one of her predecessors, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. Lady Almina, the fifth countess, converted Highclere into a hospital in 1914 (just like Cousin Isobel Crawley did on the show).
And although you can practically hear the Dowager Countess’s reaction, Highclere is available for rent. You could host a bat mitzvah there, or corporate event. As the promotional material reads: “We have … perfect locations for a selection of teambuilding activities such as: Crossbow archery, falconry, treasure hunts, laser shooting, driving or go-karting.” (No mention of Downton-style fox hunts.)
As you might suspect, Downton Abbey has spawned its own tourist industry. “Become Lord or Lady Grantham for the day,” reads the promotional material from Brit Movie Tours. For 75 pounds (about $120), a “luxury mini coach” will take you from London to the Oxfordshire village that serves as the village in the show, and then whisk you off to Highclere, with Downton episodes playing between destinations (no need to look out the window at the actual countryside).
We probably would have liked that tour, cheesy as it sounds, but instead we got ourselves to London’s famous Paddington Station, and from there took the roughly 45-minute, very pleasant, train ride to Newbury Station and grabbed a cab to the estate, which is about five miles away. We sort of forgot, or just didn’t arrange, for a cab to take us back to the train station. We lucked out and got one anyway, but I recommend making arrangements with your cab driver or at least getting his phone number.
Our driver mentioned that Andrew Lloyd Webber, a neighbor, had angered the Carnarvons by making an unsolicited offer to buy their house. I wasn’t sure this was true, but it turns out it was all over the papers in 2010. “The Nouveau versus the Aristo,” read the Daily Mail headline in October, “Andrew Lloyd Webber and Lord Carnarvon in row over Downton Abbey TV location.”)
Giddy from our day, and with time to kill before the train, Efrat and I walked into the little town of Newbury and had pizza and white wine at the lovely Strada (which turned out to be part of a huge chain, but charmed us nonetheless). And then it was back to London, where we met up with our Harry Potter fans, them with their Maggie-Smith-as-Professor-Minerva-McGonnagall memories, us thinking of her as the Dowager Countess.