Ever wondered what it’s like to spend an evening at Highclere Castle – the real Downton Abbey? I have been lucky enough to do it twice! Get the inside scoop on my visit to a Champagne, Canapés, Carols and House Tour evening and a Valentine’s Day Champagne and Canapés Reception at The Real Downton Abbey.
I’ve visited Highclere Castle before, but my husband and I were very excited to be able to buy tickets to a Champagne and Canapés Reception to benefit the RAF100 Appeal back in 2019. This year, we also attended a Valentine’s Evening Champagne and Canapés Reception.
An Evening at Highclere Castle at Christmas
On our first evening visit, Lady Carnarvon very accurately described the weather as ‘typically British’. It was pouring with rain. Guests could be dropped off at the door, but I was nervous about going in on my own, so chose to walk with my husband. It was a great photo opportunity, so it was worth getting a little damp.
After our coats were taken, we walked through the entryway into The Saloon, instantly recognisable from the Downton Abbey television series. We were offered a glass of champagne as we walked through the grand archway of Highclere Castle. The ladies of the Military Wives Choir were singing carols on the iconic staircase and the hall buzzed with conversation and laughter.
The first thing the caught our eyes was the absolutely magnificent Christmas tree. It was so wide I can’t imagine how it fit through the door. The whole tree was covered in beautiful lights and decorations.
Champagne and Canapés at Highclere Castle
It was such a pleasure to walk around this historic property at our leisure as we sipped champagne. Our glasses were kept filled and we were served delicious canapés all evening long. There were smoked salmon pinwheels, vegetable spring rolls, tiny pieces of slow cooked pork belly, chicken skewers, paté topped blinis, and my favourite, ‘fish and chips’ – a piece of chunky chip (French fry) dipped in tartare sauce and topped with a tiny chunk of fried fish. It was all held together with a cocktail stick. I think this may be my favourite canapé ever!
Sadly, there was a sign saying “No photographs in the castle”. Although there was an official photographer, none of the photos he took were being offered for sale. Later I found out why, when Lady Carnarvon launched her beautiful book Christmas at Highclere.
Like Lady Carnarvon’s other books, Entertaining at Highclere and Seasons at Highclere, Christmas at Highclere is full of beautiful photographs, stories about life at Highclere throughout the years, and some very delicious recipes. Any of these books would make a very welcome gift for anyone who loves social history, food, gorgeous coffee table books, or is a fan of Downton Abbey. Some of the photographs in the Christmas at Highclere book were taken on the night my husband and I were at Highclere. In fact, the lovely Barb of French Ethereal alerted me to the fact that there is a photograph of us with Lord Carnarvon on page 144.
Our Second Evening at Highclere
Our second evening at Highclere, a Champagne and Canapés reception on Valentine’s evening 2023, was equally lovely. This time, there was an official photographer offering photographs for sale.
The castle was decorated with beautiful flowers. A Valentine garland of roses, chrysanthemums and greenery, accented by huge green velvet bows, wound round the impressive oak bannisters. Logs crackled in the fireplace in the main hall, a good thing as castles in England are chilly places on a February evening!
Again, the canapés were absolutely delicious. There were tiny pork balls in hoisin sauce, miniature Yorkshire puddings stuffed with tiny spoonfuls of warming beef stew, smoked salmon pinwheels, chicken skewers and lots of other clever, inventive, savoury treats. Our champagne glasses were topped up as we wandered around the ground floor. If you wished to explore upstairs, you were asked to leave your glass. However, on your descent, a fresh, full glass awaited you!
At one point, it seemed everyone had gone downstairs to view the Egyptian Exhibition. My husband and I found ourselves alone, save for the room’s steward, in Highclere’s amazing library. It is hands down my favourite room in the whole house, and I was thrilled to be able to explore it with hardly anyone else present. The time we spent there was something I will never forget.
History Everywhere You Turn at The Real Downton Abbey
During both our evenings at Highclere, I discovered history at every turn. The British North America Act, which established Canada as a self-governing federation in 1867, was signed at Highclere Castle. As a Canadian, this gives Highclere a special place in my heart!
Highclere became a hospital during World War 1 with Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon herself, acting as a nurse. Sadly Highclere’s location, and the hills on the property, mean that eight Allied Planes came down there during World War Two. You can read more about The Highclere Plane Search Team on Lady Carnarvon’s blog.
There is also the not to be missed Egyptian Exhibition, which brings to life the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter’s discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen.
And of course, there are the State Rooms and bedrooms. My favourite rooms are the dining room, overlooked by one of Van Dyke’s portraits of King Charles I and the stunning library, full of antique books and furniture. It has been the location for so many scenes in Downton Abbey. Some of the bedrooms upstairs were also open to look at, along with information about the locations they provide for the fictional story of Downton Abbey.
An Amazing and Memorable Experience
As both evenings drew to a close, our glasses were topped up with champagne one last time. At the Christmas reception, we were offered tiny cookies, and miniature mince pies. Valentine’s Evening, we were offered dessert trays laden with chocolate dipped strawberries, brownies, and tiny shortbread cookies.
After retrieving our coats, we took our leave feeling full and happy. On both occasions, as we drove away we reflected on not just how much we had enjoyed the evening, but also on just how much we had learned.
Our evenings at Highclere Castle were unforgettable experiences and I look forward to visiting this iconic castle again soon.
More Information About Visiting The Real Downton Abbey
Special events are held throughout the year at Highclere Castle, but they sell out very quickly. You can subscribe to the castle newsletter to find out about them first, or become a Friend or Patron of Highclere Castle for privileged access on select occasions. Visit the Highclere Castle website for more information.
Disclosure: My husband and I attended both functions as paying guests. This is not a sponsored post, nor is it affiliated in any way with Highclere Enterprises.