Breezing up to the counter of my four-star South Kensington hotel, I joked to Jubril, the young, smartly turned out concierge, “I don’t want to visit Highclere Castle, but I’m American, and it’s the law.”
I got a look as blank as the brass buttons on his blazer. “Visit where, m’lady?”
“Well, ever hear of ‘Downton Abbey’?”
Fellow Americans will be shocked to learn the English hospitality industry isn’t addicted to “Downton Abbey,” even in London’s summertime high season. My astonishment dissolved to dismay as I recalled how my trusty travel agent Kathleen had attempted to book me into any tour of Highclere — group or individual — during my July-August trip. But everything was “sold out until 2015.”
We’d e-mailed the British operations manager of London’s Benjamin Franklin House, where I had scheduled a visit, for help. She shot back, “If you find out how to crack the code, please let me know.”
Why is Highclere Castle, main filming location of the television series “Downton Abbey,” so hard to breach? There are several reasons. Because it is a “working estate,” with the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon — George (“Geordie”) and Fiona Aitken Herbert — actually living there, it is open to the public only 60 to 70 days a year: a few around Easter and late May, but mainly from mid-July to mid-September. It is closed when the show is being filmed; it also closes on Fridays and Saturdays during the summer in addition to being rented out year-round for weddings and other special events.
Back in late February, Kathleen had found on the castle’s Web site (highclerecastle.co.uk ) only one date during my stay when the grounds were open — but not the castle. It was for “Heroes at Highclere,” a charity event tied to the 100th anniversary of World War I, when the estate was turned into a hospital for wounded military officers. “Maybe you’ll luck into some way to get in when you’re over there,” Kathleen offered, adding with a wink: “And if you do, come back with at least an earl.”
And now, in South Kensington, I was making no headway. Jubril was getting nowhere on the computer. Sinking dejectedly into the sofa, I overheard three Southern women reliving their Highclere adventures. “I’m from the States, too,” I blurted. “How’d you get in?”
“It’s easy, darlin’,” one said, in a voice dripping with molasses. “But go in the mornin’, at 10:30, not 1:00.”
These fearless steel magnolias had shown up at the castle ticketless and discovered that the gift shop issues a whopping 300 tickets for walk-ups at the main gate on open days. I scribbled down their itinerary and advice:
Tube to Paddington Station. Buy a Great Northern train ticket to Newbury, in Berkshire; trains are hourly with no seat reservations, so no need to book ahead (50-minute ride, $42 round trip off-peak). Take a taxi outside Newbury Station (one-way ride is 15 minutes, $28). Plan to spend a whole day. Last entry to castle 4 o’clock. Gardens close 6 o’clock. Discounts for over-60, students, disabled. Don’t tip taxi; drivers don’t expect it.
I rocketed back to Jubril. “Hang on, they may be open after all, but I don’t want to risk being a walk-up.”
“Come behind the counter, m’lady,” he said, “so we can look at my screen together.”
At the last minute, it seemed, the castle had added admissions both before and after its one-day Heroes event. I ponied up $40 and received a printed receipt.
The next morning I set out for Highclere, clutching my documentation. At Newbury, a cheery cabbie named Paul whisked me to the castle, suggesting that I hold on to his card and have the gift shop call him for my return.
The last-minute opening for today was obviously the reason I was Paul’s only fare. On other days as many as 1,500 pass through the main gate. At Visitors Reception, Colin Edwards, the Carnarvon family’s real butler and part-time VR manager, graciously cranked out my barcoded ticket.
Highclere, a honey-colored, Bath stone colossus, looms over the television series, a central character in the story. Indeed, creator Julian Fellowes, a longtime friend of the owners, basically transferred the Carnarvons’ history to the fictional Crawleys. The real Highclere Castle was rescued by the 1895 marriage of American heiress Almina Wombwell, rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of financier Alfred de Rothschild, to the 5th Earl, just as Cora’s marriage to Lord Grantham saved the fictional Downton Abbey.
But in 2009 the current earl made it known that his ancestral pile needed $18 million in repairs. Seeping water had caused the roof to collapse so the stonework crumbled. Only the ground floor was usable; an article in the Daily Mail recounted “the squalor of stinking damp walls and swarms of flies.”
Just then, scouts for the “Downton” series were scouring estates in the English countryside for suitable houses. Fellowes had first wanted Highclere as the set for his 2001 film “Gosford Park,” but director Robert Altman vetoed it as too far from London. This time, Fellowes held out for Highclere’s 300 rooms, 5,000 acres and history dating back to 1086. “To me,” he told an interviewer, “Highclere is a unique architectural statement and tells us much about the confidence of the late Victorians and the confidence of high Empire.”
After taking the required selfie in front of the studded wooden doors with “date of build” MDCCCXLII (1842) carved in the lintel, I was welcomed into the gothic entrance hall by two charming older ladies and a life-size poster-board photo of Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville in full costume). Were I to come home with an earl, it would have to be a picture of this one; but, alas, the two “wardens” (docents) warned, no photographs allowed.
Fellowes thought Highclere’s ancestral portraits, books and furniture were spot-on for the feel of the period. As a result, fans feel “at home” in familiar surroundings. I almost expected starchy Mr. Carson to appear, chastising the warden for showing me how the 12 mechanical leaves expand the dining room table to seat 32.
There’s no need for a tour guide, as a staff of 40 well-informed, pleasant wardens rotate duties on the ground floor, one for each room. The upper gallery bedrooms are not patrolled. These more human-scale rooms are roped off, but the ropes are far back, so a visitor can peer into the whole room. I popped into “Sybil’s bedroom” to take an illegal picture of myself in the gilded mirror. My reflection looked like dear Sybil’s ghost but was just what I needed to prove to friends I’d gotten inside the castle.
The castle cellars have been turned into a museum housing an Egyptian Exhibition devoted to the 5th Earl’s part in the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. (Shirley MacLaine, who joined the cast in Season 3, told Lady Carnarvon she enjoyed the exhibit because she’d been an Egyptian in one of her former lives.) The castle also features three tea rooms, one of them serving hot lunches.
Last stop was the gift shop, which sells the usual tchotchkes but also chic, packable, English-garden scarves (from China) for $13 apiece. The saleswomen lent me a smartphone to call Paul and also to e-mail the castle ticket office to inquire about 2015 openings. The whole experience was, well, homey; one Australian reporter summed up his visit to the immense Highclere as “an oddly intimate affair.”
I strolled to the car park, congratulating myself for having avoided expensive escorted tours, many with afternoon teas and champagne add-ons, some of them three-day packages for as much as $2,850. However, I also realized my getting in was a fluke: Booking tickets online at highclerecastleshop.co.uk is the only way to guarantee admission. If you arrive ticketless and all 300 walk-ups are gone, they won’t let you in.
It was growing dark and had turned chilly. Not for nothing was the house dubbed “Highclere”; it stands on a windy hilltop. Ten minutes. Twenty. Would Paul forget me? Would Lord and Lady Carnarvon, self-exiled with their three children during the summer months to a modest four-bedroom cottage 20 yards from the castle, emerge to walk their spaniels and golden Labs?
The sturdy red-and-blue flag of the Herbert family, a last link to feudalism, waved imperiously from the great tower. I mused: The “Downton effect” has probably given Highclere a future more secure than at any other time in its 335 years of Herbert history. And Lady Carnarvon rightfully credits “lots of lovely Americans” with the visitor surge, enabling the $1.5 million in repairs it costs annually to maintain the castle.
The sound of gravel crunching broke my reverie. In the dusk, I saw Paul get out of his cab. “Don’t worry, love,” he hallooed, “I’ll be there in a minute.”
The next morning in the lobby, Jubril harrumphed, “Well, I didn’t see your lot the whole day yesterday!” (Gone was the colonial “m’lady.” )
“I was at Highclere all day, remember?”
“Did you meet any heroes?”
“No, but you’re my hero, Jubril, because you helped get me in.”
MacIntosh is a former professor of English.
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Highclere Park, Newbury
Tickets must be prebooked on the castle’s Web site. Visitors select an a.m. or p.m. visiting time when buying tickets; doors open at 10:30 for morning ticket-holders, 1 p.m. for afternoon ticket-holders. Admission to the castle, exhibition and gardens is, for adults, approximately $31; students and seniors $28; children $19; families (two adults and up to three children) $85.
Three on-site tea rooms are open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. serving beverages, snacks and sandwiches; hot lunches are available from noon-2 p.m. There is also dining al fresco on the lawns adjacent to the tea rooms, amid the white hydrangeas.