I went to Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle, actually)…
… and wasn't allowed to take photos inside.
I am a sucker for period dramas so when Downton Abbey came out in 2010, I was all up in its business. I watched every episode, soldiered through that one Christmas (you know what I'm talking about), bore the boring seasons (looking at you, seasons 4 and 5), and cheered when Matthew Goode joined the cast even if I was actually pro-Anthony Gillingham.
This whole Downton Abbey trip started in Singapore. I was there to cover the launch of Changi Airport's new wing and decided to stay longer to catch Yayoi Kusama's exhibit at the National Gallery. I was in a cab stuck in rainy day rush hour traffic lulling me to sleep, when I woke up just as we were stalled at a residential street. I wasn't wearing my contacts then so when I saw a hazy Downton Abbey-looking poster at the bus stop, I jumped in my seat and checked.
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition—could it be true? (???!!!!???). As soon as I got home, I immediately went over to Google and it turns out that I only had a few days to catch the official (official!!!!) Downton Abbey exhibit at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre. OH MY WORD.
I had one day left in Singapore and you best believe I made my way there.
It was lovely.
Every character had an installation, a hefty writeup and some props on display. (I love Lady Rose!)
There were costumes. So many costumes!
There were rooms. You could step into the "downstairs" at Mrs. Padmore's kitchen.
You could investigate the contents of Carson's desk.
You could view Lady Mary's bedroom (easily one of the most popular rooms from the series, and the one room actually filmed on a set instead of at Highclere Castle).
You could sneak a peek at the dining room and the painstaking detail that went into setting everything up (millimeters probably mattered).
You could even take a quiz to let you know who you would be if you were lucky enough to be a member of the Downton Abbey household. I was Anna (meh).
My favorite rooms were the ones with the 180° views + projected videos of actual locations from the series. I cried (literally), I was so happy.
I had already booked my trip to Europe and was aiming for a 10-day stay in London so I knew that a visit to Highclere Castle (the "real" Downton Abbey, just like the "real" Milli Vanilli) was in order. It was going to happen.
So, even before I had secured my UK visa, I was on the hunt for passes to the castle. Ingrid Nilsen, one of my YouTube favorites documented her trip to Highclere via Instagram Stories just a few months before, so I knew that official tours were on offer. She talked about how you weren't allowed to take photos in the house but the tour was #worthit anyway. Alas, the only available dates that coincided with my projected London stay were all sold out.
I gave up and forgot about it because I had to focus on my visa applications, and well, there was Harry Potter to tide me over and make me forget.
I had already left Manila, had booked everything I needed to, leaving my days in London pretty open when I received a message from Trish, my staggeringly gracious Airbnb host from London. She asked me if I had already made plans for London, and if there was anything I was particularly interested in seeing because she could probably give me some tips. It was almost midnight, and I was snug in bed at my hotel in Florence, when I went down a particularly lengthy Internet rabbit hole, booking a ticket to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and eventually checking if Highclere Castle had a spot open—just in case.
And as luck would have it, new dates had opened up exactly at the time I would be in the UK. I didn't even think about it, I was ready to drop £100 on my ticket. I got an afternoon schedule (there are morning and afternoon tours) that would start at 2 PM and would officially end at 5:30 PM.
I still had a ways to go and a couple more cities to visit before getting to London so I set my plans aside until it was time for me to figure out my transportation.
It takes a little over an hour to get from London to Newbury, Highclere's train stop. I booked my £24.50 ticket through Great Western Railway. The ride begins at Paddington Station (my ticket was booked for 11:27 AM), stops at Reading where you need to transfer to another train that heads to Newbury (arrival at 12:44 PM).
You get glimpses of the English countryside on the train, which is a treat for me since it's not the kind of thing I see back home. Even train rides—as long as they're on time—can be a treat to the overeager traveler :P
When you get to Newbury, you're supposed to take a taxi (there's usually one just standing by at the station) to the Highclere grounds. Since I had some time, I decided to walk around Cheap Street to look for lunch. Unfortunately, the day was very gray and it was starting to shower and I couldn't find a place to grab some food from.
Before it started pouring buckets, I walked back to the station where right on time, I spotted a taxi at the stop. The very kind driver from Go Green Taxis gave me the rundown on Highclere—some insider news from locals about how Downton Abbey was fortuitous for the family who owns the castle (Lord and Lady Carnarvon) since they needed the extra funds to keep the property up and running. He also said that Andrew Lloyd Weber was up and ready to buy the castle until Julian Fellowes came along and brought a windfall to Highclere.
On the drive up, you see the top of the castle peeking through the greens—very exciting! You bet the Downton Abbey theme was running through my head at that very moment. It was getting really wet, cold and rainy by the time we had driven up to the parking lot and one of the folks from the same group as me, in between showing our pass to the guard and walking into the grounds had to say, "It's a shame about the weather!" It really was.
The grounds of Highclere are impressively large. They just go on and on (and on). There are rolling hills and huge, huge trees and classic installations, secret gardens, and landscapes that extend to the horizon. (Fun fact: The grounds were landscaped by one Capability Brown. Gotta love that name!)
Trish, my Airbnb guide who's also a big Downton Abbey fan and who hadn't been to Highclere yet, told me to find myself a big tree and plant myself under it. I did exactly that—pulled my journal out and wrote, over and over again, about how I couldn't believe I was actually there.
Apart from being overwhelmed by the greenery, your senses will also be inevitably struck by the castle itself. Designed by Charles Barry, the same architect responsible for the Houses of Parliament, the structure is particularly popular for its intricate facade which mixes Renaissance touches with Anglo influences.
Like most buildings we see on TV, Highclere is actually smaller than it appears onscreen. Nevertheless I took a couple of turns around the building, trying to peek into the windows to see inside (didn't risk taking photos since you're not supposed to and I did not want to be kicked out).
They give you a bit of time to walk around before the designated meet-up time right at the front door entrance.
This is the part where I don't have any photos and have to rely completely on memory. Highclere isn't just a filming location or a museum—it's actually in use by the family, not as a residence, but as a place to regularly entertain. Highclere's "downstairs" part is an Egyptology showcase—Lord Carnarvon was one of the most influential Egyptologists in the early 1900s (he was part of the expedition that led to the discovery of King Tut's tomb). There was an attendant who took my coat and tote to hang and very kindly complimented me on my top (from H&M, LOL).
We walked right into the main hall where a lot of the show was filmed. We had time to just walk around on our own—I loved the tapestries that covered the walls (protected by sheets of glass), the famous staircase, and the oddball mixture of really old photographs and ones from the 80s, 90s and present day. Eventually, a couple of guides walked in and divided the group into three, each touring different parts of the castle simultaneously just to keep the flow going.
We saw quite a lot. I loved seeing Kemal Pamuk's room (with King George + abdication trivia that goes along with it), the famous hall where Kemal's body got dragged by Lady Mary and Anna in season 1. We peeked into rooms and I remember seeing that the bathrooms actually had toiletries in them—a sign that guests really would come over and stay there! (So cool). We saw the drawing room, the library (YES the one I saw in the Singapore exhibit), the music room, the dining room (same table they used in the show; when we were there the family had actually had a dinner there the night before), and more. One of my favorite items was Napoleon's desk, an actual family heirloom.
The tour ends in the Egyptian Exhibition, which then leads you out into the gift shop. I was not expecting this, but an attendant actually handed out gift bags to everyone who joined the tour. You end the day by having afternoon tea (one of my favorite things in the world) at one of the buildings at the back—you get a buffet of finger sandwiches, little cakes, soup, and more; plus you have the option of purchasing a drink (tea, coffee, etc).
After tea, you have time to explore the grounds again—we were lucky that the rain had stopped at this point.
I was ready to call for a taxi as I stepped out to the gate when I met a lovely Swedish couple from Spain on the same tour that asked me if I wanted to share a ride with them back to Newbury station. They were super friendly and were heading back to Paddington too, so we spent the train ride just talking travel (they were staying at a hotel right by Fortnum & Mason) and London and history. <3
The tour at Highclere Castle can be interesting to anyone who's into history and architecture, but fans of Downton Abbey get that extra kick out of it since Highclere very well knows it can capitalize on the show's success. There are some cheesy bits at the gift shop (I can't with the "The Real Downton Abbey" books) but that's all part of the kit and caboodle / schtick. My experience was all the richer because I'd already been to the exhibition, which goes really deep and dirty into the show's production. Seeing the actual place which the series was based on is definitely a wonderful add-on.
I still can't believe the castle opened up while I was in London, since I had wanted to see it so, so badly after having been to the Singapore exhibition. I count my day at Highclere as one of the luckiest, most auspicious ones of my whole trip.