When I received an invitation to spend an evening at Downton Abbey (aka Highclere Castle) last week I was beyond excited. I have longed to visit Highclere but every time I have looked on the website, the tickets have been sold out for the foreseeable.
Now I had the chance to not only visit, but to enjoy a black tie evening, with Champagne reception, private tour and dinner in that dining room. How could I possibly refuse?
A Visit Detroit taxi picked us up from Newbury train station to whisk us to the castle, which is on the Berkshire/Hampshire border. This US tourist office were hosting the evening – not just because they are all mad keen Downton Abbey fans – but also because there is a connection in the form of the Model T Ford’s used during the Downton Abbey series and also the new Downton Abbey film, all made in the Ford Motor factory in Detroit.
Highway to heavenly Highclere
As we drove up the driveway to the castle, there was a definite frisson of excitement, amplified when the driver started to play the theme tune to Downton Abbey. He had to play it several times – it is a very, very long drive! There were a few squeals before we even got to the castle itself.
Downton Abbey – ahem, sorry, Highclere Castle – is breathtaking. This hulking house was designed by Sir Charles Barry, of Houses of Parliament fame and it’s easy to see similarities. Nobody seemed to know exactly how many rooms there are – maybe nobody has ever counted! – but it seems to stand at somewhere between 200 and 300 depending on who you speak to. So quite a lot then. All set in a 5000 acre estate, with Capability Brown designed gardens and parkland. We all stood slightly open mouthed for a moment, before grabbing our phones and taking some shots standing outside. We were not allowed to take any photos inside, so this was our opportunity.
Champagne – Downton style
We enjoyed some bubbly in the Gothic style Saloon with its 50 foot vaulted ceiling. A fellow journalist and I pumped one of the drinks waiters for information. We commented that the amount of money made from filming and visitors must have enabled the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, who own this stately pile, to keep Highclere looking beautiful as well as make a tidy profit. He was discretion itself and replied that, yes, it had helped replace the roof but that there were still parts of this vast building that needed restoring (a taxi driver later told us that the whole top floor is derelict). The waiter added that all the costs associated with a house of this calibre are ludicrously expensive. A small amount of stonework that needed restoring recently was quoted at £3.5 million. Ouch! Maybe the film can help with that.
On location at Downton Abbey
Our guide arrived to show us around some other rooms used during filming, including the familiar looking Entrance Hall and elegant Drawing Room. The Library was my favourite. This huge and magnificent room drew a murmur of recognition from most of us (apart from those too cool to admit they watch Downton Abbey). The Crawley family gather here regularly for pre-dinner drinks and Hugh Bonneville’s character, the Earl of Grantham has his desk in here. We were able to see a few bedrooms, too, including those of Cora, Countess of Grantham, and Lady Edith (Lady Mary’s room is a set).
As well as rooms used during filming, there were a few more to see, including the Music Room. It is accessed via a secret door in one of the library bookcases and features a desk formerly owned by Napoleon and sumptuous 16th century Italian embroideries on the walls. The Smoking Room, nearby, was once used only by gentlemen who would retire here for their postprandial brandy and cigars. It has terracotta walls to hide the tobacco stains plus plain, unembellished ceilings (they had to be painted so often it wasn’t worth making them too intricate).
Julian Fellowes is a longtime friend of the Carnarvon family and he had Highclere in mind when he wrote the series. No surprise then that it was the number one choice when it came to filming. The interiors were perfect and no changes were needed to the décor or furniture (apart from moving a few lamps and cushions and taking away the family photos on display). What is lovely about Highclere Castle is that, despite its enormous size, it feels cosy – like a home rather than a showpiece.
Dinner is served
Insights into filming complete, we had a group photo on the great oak staircase (which took nearly a year to carve and install) before being called into the State Dining Room. It felt incredible to sit beneath the portrait of King Charles I and eat dinner in the room I have seen countless times on Downton Abbey. The long table in here has an optional 12.5 leaves and they were all out for our crowd this evening. It felt like such an enormous privilege to be here.
I’m sure the Crawley family would not have turned their noses up at our dinner – home smoked warm wild salmon, the most divine chargrilled fillet of beef and Rhubarb four ways!
More treats were in store. We were ushered into the Library, where we sipped coffee and liqueurs and nibbled on petit fours whilst sitting on the red velvet sofa where Lady Mary has regularly perched, rather more elegantly than me. It wasn’t long before we were being (gracefully, of course) seen off the premises. Our time was up. Shame…I could definitely get used to this life!
Staying at Downton Abbey
We weren’t able to stay at Highclere and had to settle for a local hotel. It was interesting to hear the news this morning, though, that two guests, via Airbnb, will be able to stay at Highclere Castle for one night on 26th November. They’ll get to spend an evening similar to ours except… not only will they be able to stumble up afterward into one of the beautiful bedrooms, but they’ll also get to have dinner with the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It’s a mere snip at £120 for the night but only those already signed up to Airbnb (and with good reviews mind!) who can prove that they are Downton Abbey superfans need apply. Here’s the link! – the option to book opens on October 1st.
Anyone can, however, visit Highclere Castle. Various tours are coming up over the Autumn and Winter – including film set tours, Christmas tours, carol singing and even a Christmas dinner in the State Dining Room. If you really want to splash out, you can also book a private function. It would make for an amazing place to celebrate a wedding or a special birthday or anniversary. For more information visit the website at www.highclerecastle.co.uk