What It's Like to Tour Highclere Castle, the Real-life "Downton Abbey" Estate
Perhaps as equally iconic as the name Downtown Abbey itself is the beautiful estate house where the show and upcoming movie were predominantly filmed, Highclere Castle. The show is interminably linked to the grand Jacobethan house after using the house's outline as the show's main image, but Highclere Castle itself is actually a real home west of London, not just a film set or preserved antique. With tours offered daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and an evolving events calendar, including a 1920s-themed party and holiday celebrations, Highclere Castle offers visitors a chance not just to indulge their Downtown Abbey fandom but also to learn about life at an English estate home both throughout history and in modern day.
Hindsight may be 20/20, and Downton Abbey may seem like an obvious hit drama to you—but believe it or not, the producers and those involved in season one didn't know the historical series about the 20th-century aristocratic Crawley family would take off and become the sensation it is today. With six seasons under their belt, the show's team is releasing the movie "Downton Abbey" this fall, with the United States release slated for Sept. 20, 2019 after a debut abroad on Sept. 13.
So, here's everything you've ever wondered about the real-life Downton Abbey, including what to know about Highclere Castle tours, events, and more popular sightseeing locations — like the real-life Downton village, Bampton, and Cogges Farm, where pivotal scenes in the show were filmed.
*If you're not caught up on all six seasons, there are spoilers ahead.*
Where is Highclere Castle?
Highclere Castle is approximately a 90-minute drive west of London in a town called Newbury. The home was chosen before a location for Downton Village was selected, so the distances between the most recognizable sites in the show are probably different from what you'd expect. While several notable Yorkshire Countryside locations central to the show's storyline appear short drives or mere bike rides away from the family's estate, that's not really the case.
Bampton, which is the village's actual name where Isobel Crawley resides, is about an hour away by car from Highclere Castle.
In the village, which now runs its own "Downton Abbey" tours, you'll also recognize the town's church, post office, and the outside of The Grantham Inn (which is actually a three-bedroom cottage inside, not a pub). The Bampton Community Archive is filled with props from the show, including Matthew's grave stone, and film set memorabilia, like the fake stones used to cover signs of modernity inconsistent with the TV series' time period. The archive's exterior was also used in the show as the outside of the village's hospital in scenes with characters like Isobel Crawley and Dr. Richard Clarkson.
Another nearby location represents a significant romantic turning point in Downton Abbey. When Lady Sybil and Tom Branson were planning to elope, they ran away to The Swan Inn for a night.
The Swan Inn is actually a real-life Cotswolds inn and restaurant, serving traditional English dishes in a quaint, low-ceilinged pub. From Bampton Village, you can reach The Swan Inn in about 20 minutes by car.
If you're curious about the local farm where Lady Edith's daughter was sent, the real-life property is very close to Bampton Village, but not to the fictitious family's home. Despite Edith, who's played by English actress Laura Carmichael, being shown riding a bike from her family's home to the farm in one episode's opening, the true distance from Highclere Castle to Cogges Manor Farm, where filming took place, would take over an hour to drive.
Another trick of film magic is that the home at Cogges Farm is actually much larger than the humble farmhouse portrayed in the series. To create the right vision for the period piece, careful camera angles were chosen to truncate the building and make one portion look like the entire house.
What is Highclere Castle used for now?
Highclere Castle is a real family's home. The estate belongs to Lord Carnarvon and his wife, Lady Carnarvon, who oversees most of the restoration and historical tours of the property. The castle was not always as attentively maintained as it is now, though. Over high tea, Lady C—as she's called by the staff— told Travel + Leisure about her husband's parents, who inherited the estate in their later years and chose to live elsewhere rather than refurbish and modernize the antique dwelling to be livable in modern times.
Lady C had other plans for the stately home when it transferred ownership to her and her husband, wanting to turn it into a true house where her five younger sisters could come visit and guests could enjoy parties and meals in the dining room and main hall. She took on the restoration bit by bit, managing smaller-scale projects, like a few ceilings at a time, and went from there. The reconstruction undertaking attracted Downton Abbey producers to the estate because they wanted a home for the Crawleys that truly felt lived in, not just a place preserved as a museum.
Today, the family of the house breeds race horses and has found other ways to turn the property into a source of income. Some of the ornamental follies, which you can catch dotting the land in Downton Abbey, have been renovated and repurposed into rooms for visitors to stay in, and the family is very focused on farming the 4,000 to 5,000 acres of woodland surrounding the house. They even just got their own pigs, Thelma and Louise, who gave them 16 piglets and are natural soil turners, preparing the land for planting.
Highclere Castle Tours
In the show Downton Abbey, the rooms have become just as recognizable as the main characters who occupy them. The careful prop styling and set design uses a mix of what was already in the house and items brought in just for filming. The desk in Lord Crawley's library, for example, is one iconic piece that actually belongs to the Carnarvon family and remains in the room with or without cast and crew present. The mint green sitting room the Crawley women retreat to after dinner also looks almost identical to the show's portrayal, except Maggie Smith (who plays Violet Crawley AKA Granny) requested different chairs be brought in for her. She found the pastel pink couch too soft, one of the estate's tour guide shared, so she would sink lower on the cushions than she wanted during filming.
On Highclere Castle tours, you can see the rooms from Downton Abbey and get treated to both behind-the scenes anecdotes and the real-life history of the home along with insight into what life would have been like for an aristocratic family in this house during Downton's era.
The tours began in 1988 and have since expanded to include versatile exhibits and themes. Lady C is determined to make the stately home "dynamic," explaining to T+L, "I'm not flat…we always experiment."
In addition to showcasing the stately home and educating visitors on the history of both Highclere Castle itself and the time period in which Downton is set, Lady C created The Egyptian Exhibit to honor an ancestor, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered the Tomb of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, in 1922 during an archaeological dig.
For the most up-to-date tour schedule, check Highclere Castle's website. On the estate's site, you'll also find information about upcoming events, like talks, afternoon tea get-togethers, and cocktail nights hosted by Lord and Lady Carnarvon. Ahead of the "Downton Abbey" movie’s release, Highclere Castle is offering special TV and film-related tours and celebrations, too.
Beyond these tours and events, you can host private events at the expansive castle for weddings, private dinner parties, and work events. And, of course, there's a Highclere Castle gift shop with Downton-themed home goods, stationary, kitchenware, and accessories alongside Highclere Castle-branded items in those same categories. In the ever-growing footprint Highclere Castle is forging beyond Downton fame, the real-life family has even just released their own gin, another memento you can pick up at the gift shop to remember your historical journey through British aristocracy, grand architectural pursuits, and Downton Abbey insights.
The home and the show will likely be forever linked, especially as both use the country mansion's striking silhouette as a logo, but at least now you'll be able to decipher the real home—evolving, lived in, and very much present—from the Downton Abbey frozen-in-time depiction.