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.