The history of the real Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle near Newbury – is every bit as exciting as the much-loved television series and the movie. Not only that, but the real life characters who lived here at Highclere Castle were every bit as interesting.
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I was lucky enough to visit Highclere Castle back in 2014, and also to attend an evening reception there a couple of years ago. Highclere Castle is located in the Berkshire countryside, about half an hour from where I live.
I booked my tickets several months in advance as Highclere is understandably a very popular place to visit. At the time of updating this post in July 2020, the castle has just reopened now after lockdown, and measures are in place to facilitate social distancing. You can find more information about visiting on the Highclere website. It’s essential to book in advance.
The Real Downton Abbey
From the moment you arrive it’s apparent this is a very special place. There has been an estate here at Highclere since 749 AD. From medieval hall to Elizabethan mansion to Georgian house and finally Victorian castle, Highclere has evolved with the times. It has even served as a hospital for wounded soldiers in World War 1 and an American airbase and home for evacuees in World War 2.
Today Highclere is still a family home – the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and their family live here part of the time, as well as in a house next door to the castle. Highclere can also be hired for private and corporate parties, team building events and weddings.
As for the people who lived here, of course the first one who springs to mind is the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who with Howard Carter was responsible for the discovery of Tutankamun’s tomb. He was also instrumental in establishing the British North America Act, which was signed here at the castle. However the ladies of Highclere were amazing characters as well.
The Countess of Carnarvon has crafted beautifully written biographies of two of her predecessors – the bestselling ‘Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey – The Lost Legacy of Highclere‘ and ‘Lady Catherine, The Earl and the Real Downton Abbey‘, both published by Hodder and Stoughton. If you want the real inside story on Highclere’s history, these books are for you!
Both Lady Almina and Lady Catherine were strong, interesting women who had fascinating lives. Using letters, diaries, visitor’s books and household accounts from the archives at Highclere, The Countess of Carnarvon transports the reader back to the thrilling and alluring world of the real Downton Abbey and its inhabitants.
Lady Carnarvon has also written a behind the scenes behind the scenes cooking and lifestyle book, At Home At Highclere . I highlighted the beautifully written and photographed book in my Top 5 Cookbooks of 2017. Last year, Lady Carnarvon published Christmas at Highclere, sharing traditions and recipes from the real Downton Abbey’s long history.
A page from Christmas at Highclere, with a photograph of Lord Carnarvon with my husband and I in the lower left corner.
Exploring The Real Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle is beautiful inside and out, and unlike some stately homes I have visited, it is light, bright and cheerful as well. The library looks like an incredibly inviting place to curl up with a book – and you would have quite a selection to choose from!
My favourite room had to be the Drawing Room, originally decorated by Lady Almina, its walls lined with silk in a beautiful shade of green.
I also loved the Morning Room, a sitting room for the ladies of the house. It is bright, beautiful and very peaceful.
The tour also includes many of the bedrooms, some of which are used regularly in the filming of Downton Abbey. Discreet signs point out where this is the case. While many people visit because of Downton Abbey, during the tour it is Highclere Castle that is definitely the star of the show.
Do take the time to visit the Egyptian Exhibition in the basement if you can, as well as the wonderful grounds and gardens.
There are also tea rooms with both indoor and outdoor seating.
A lovingly and beautifully maintained piece of British history, Highclere Castle is well worth a visit. It’s a great day out and an excellent way to really immerse yourself in the history of this part of the world, as well as a bit of the magic that is Downton Abbey.
Photographs which are copyright Highclere Castle are used with permission. My thanks to Highclere Castle for their kind permission.
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