Fanatics of Downton Abbey waste away in the off-season, pining for the American installments of this global blockbuster. We want Lord and Lady Grantham, their headstrong daughters, their long-suffering servants and, most important, the wicked witticisms of Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess.
The series finally returns Sunday. But for those who want more, for whom an hour of television each week isn’t enough, there is a visit to Highclere Castle, followed by a tour of locations around Britain.
Highclere in Berkshire County is the heart of Downton Abbey veneration, the family seat of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. The current 8th Earl and his family live in a smaller house on some of the estate’s 6,000 acres.
On a self-guided castle tour, devotees see the desk where Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) handles his correspondence in the Double Library. Each tabletop gleams with Carnarvon family portraits, which are whisked away before filming. An informal shot of Queen Elizabeth II, godmother to the current Earl of Carnarvon, shows her wearing a head scarf on her stroll through Highclere gardens.
In the Drawing Room, guide Margaret Bessent points out the spot where Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) often perches on a pink damask sofa to deliver her barbed bon mots. Bessent loves to tell visitors about the 5th Countess, Almina, who brought $30 million pounds of her father Alfred de Rothschild’s money to pump up Highclere. She is the model for Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), an American heiress who married Robert Crawley in 1889. “The present Earl’s mother and grandmother,” Bessent reveals, “are American.”
Everyone peers past the red ropes to the Gothic Saloon, where Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) fatefully danced while Spanish flu ravaged Downton. And of course, the grand Oak Staircase that Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) both glided down as Roaring ’20s brides-to-be, to very different destinies.
But the real juicy stuff is upstairs: The Stanhope Bedroom of the visiting Turkish gentleman, Kemal Pamuk (Theo James), appropriately racy with red silk wall coverings and red carpet. The room was remodeled like this for the 1895 visit of the Prince of Wales, who had his own reputation with the ladies.
What might the future have been if Mr. Pamuk had stayed in his bedroom? But no, his midnight roving is a pivotal plot turn of season one, and fans love looking down the balustrade gallery where Mary, Cora and housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) lugged Mr. Pamuk back to his bachelor digs.
Most people spend hours running the TV scenes through their minds, and tickets are timed so you either have morning or afternoon to explore the house. Outside, there’s a tearoom for a restorative cup and, of course, goodies from the gift shop.
There’s no better way to linger in the Downton Abbey afterglow than to book at The Carnarvon Arms, the castle’s former coach house just down the road. This is where the cast stays, and if you’re very lucky you might spot one of your favorite Downton stars.
“When they’re working they leave first thing in the morning,” says general manager Sam Morris, “and get in after dinner. Sometimes, they might have a wine in the bar, going over a script.”
Over dinner at The Carnarvon Arms, I discover waitress Emma Rudland loves Downton and thrills each time she sees one of the cast. “They’re all very nice,” she says in her best kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) whisper.
Highclere Castle anchors the show, of course, but there are plenty of other locations that welcome Downton acolytes. Since I took the train from London Paddington to Newbury for Highclere — just an hour plus a 20-minute cab ride — I’ll link the other spots by train, too.
Bampton, Oxfordshire, is now famous as Downton Village, and you can snap away at the Crawley House exterior. In season two, during the Great War, the Brampton Library became the exterior of the Downton Cottage Hospital. You can get there by taking the train to Oxford Station plus a one-hour bus ride.
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, makes her home in the venerable Byfleet Manor, Mill Lane, Byfleet, Surrey. Although the current stone house is 400 years old, earlier structures on the site dated back to the 11th century. The house was one of the favorite homes of Edward II in the early 1300s. Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, was granted Byfleet Manor in 1616 and rebuilt the house.
Recently, owner Julie Hutton discovered a hidden room under the floor, with no doors and a bricked-up window. Surrey Archaeological Society is investigating. A train to the West Byfleet Railway Station plus a 30-minute walk or 10-minute bus ride will deliver you to the doorstep.
Who doesn’t love a good, soppy trainside farewell? Mary and Matthew have their share at the Downton railway station, played in real life by the Horsted Keynes station and Bluebell Railway in West Sussex. The London Brighton and South Coast Railway built the station in 1882, and the Bluebell Railway has restored it to the mid-1920s. Get there by taking the train to the Haywards Heath Railway Station, plus a 13-minute bus ride.
Save your last Downton Abbey night for a special splurge, the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel at St. Pancras train station, London. Not only does the gloriously restored 1873 hotel perfectly evoke the heyday of the Dowager Countess and Robert and Cora’s backstory, but its elaborate façade will shine as a backdrop for a season four scene.
The magic of TV is that the Downton passengers will alight in front of St. Pancras’ High Victorian Gothic facade and then walk through a tunnel to their train.
Instead of boarding the ultramodern Eurostar to Paris, which now leaves from St. Pancras, the scene will shift to an old-fashioned steam train wheezing along the tracks. With a bit of computer-generated imagery, Downton Abbey uses all of Britain as its stage
OTHER ‘DOWNTON ABBEY’ LOCALES
• Scandal! In season two, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) eloped with the family chauffeur, Branson (Allen Leech). The escape was filmed in the pretty village of Swinbrook in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, with the couple overnighting at the Swan Inn, a boutique inn today. Train: Oxford Station, plus a one-hour bus ride.
• In season three, valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle) was convicted of killing his wife and locked up in York prison. It’s really Lincoln Castle, two hours south of York. William the Conqueror began building Lincoln Castle in 1068.
• Lincoln Castle is the only place in the world where you can see the Lincoln Magna Carta, from 1215, along with the Charter of the Forest, a 1217 document that kept the aristocracy from seizing England’s forests. Train: Lincoln Railway Station, plus a 16-minute walk or short bus ride.
• For the season three Christmas finale, the Crawley clan headed to the Highlands to visit their Scottish cousins at Duneagle Castle. It’s really Inveraray Castle on Loch Fyne, the seat of the Duke of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell. Train: Dalmally Railway Station, plus a 15-mile taxi ride.