(One month ago I was leaving for London, so it seems appropriate that the first post of my last day publishes today!)
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When traveling, I always try to save the best for last.
I love a period drama on film and tv, especially one that features an old, English house and tells about the social heirarchy of bygone days. So I was completely captivated, like most Americans, by the “Downton Abbey” series. While in London, I knew I had to take a day trip to see the real thing, Highclere Castle. I actually booked my tickets to the castle back in March, and already few days were left in June. It’s that in demand.
I had also pre-booked train tickets to Newbury for Thursday morning. The direct train from Paddington Station didn’t leave until 10 a.m., so I was able to sleep in a bit. Then I basically repeated my steps from the morning before, tubing to the station and ordering a coffee and croissant until they called my platform.
The weather was already not cooperating, and though it was only overcast and slightly misting, the forecast called for heavy rains and wind. Great.
The ride to Newbury in Berkshire, the closest station to Highclere Castle, took about an hour. On the train, I kept my ears tuned for any fellow American visitors who might also be trekking out to see Downton Abbey in case we could cab-share — I heard a few familiar accents, but couldn’t be sure that’s where they were traveling. Once we arrived at Newbury, I walked down the short ramp to the front of the station, where at least 20 taxis were waiting and was immediately on my way.
My driver Richard whisked me through the town and into the countryside, taking only about 20 minutes to get to Highclere. He, like most cab drivers, wanted to tell me all about his home and the surrounding area. Some highlights:
- Newbury is home to the Newbury Racecourse, and the area is generally horse country
- The owners of Highclere Castle are the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon — the present Earl’s father was very good friends with QEII, and she still visits and keeps her horses at Highclere Stud
- The Carnarvons also own a home in Oxfordshire, so they don’t live full-time at Highclere
- Vodafone, the U.K. mobile (cell) company is headquartered in Newbury (which explains my good signal!)
- The Middletons live nearby in Upper Bucklebury
- Andrew Lloyd Webber lives across from the castle (and has aggressively tried to buy it in recent years to house his art collection)
- The Carnarvons sold a nearby pub, The Carnarvon Arms, to famed chef Marco Pierre White. He launched a new, fancy restaurant that attracts foodies from around the world.
- Highclere is a popular wedding venue — pop star Katie Price, or “Jordan,” married singer Peter Andre there in 2005, complete with a hot pink carriage. Sounds garish, no?
We pulled in to the mile-long drive to the castle, which is situated in the middle of the most beautiful lush, green landscape. A park, as they say. The land stretched forever on all sides. The castle is smaller than it looks, of course, but is still as captivating as on screen. I just think it’s so unique, grand and mysterious looking.
The weather was cold and blustery, with a threat of rain, but none yet. So I walked the grounds to try to get photos in case the weather situation devolved later. As it really started to drizzle, I made my way to the front door — just as a huge tour bus full of quite elderly people pulled up. Impolitely, I ran in front of them.
You’re not allowed to take pictures in the house, and there’s really no tour — you just follow the roped maze that leads you through the rooms. After a few steps, I turned back to buy the guidebook, otherwise I wasn’t going to learn anything. As you can imagine, they’ve played up the Downton Abbey connection … sometimes cheesily so. Case in point — a picture and bio of “the Earl of Grantham” on a huge poster, like he’s a real person.
As I walked through — first in the red library, then through the white and green sitting room — it felt familiar but yet different than it appears on film. Definitely smaller. The family has displayed tons of pictures on tables, mantles and pianos showcasing weddings and celebratory gatherings back to the early 1900s, many of Countess Almina, about whom the present Countess just wrote a book, and the Queen at the races with the previous earl.
Upstairs, we found plenty of bedrooms. I saw the famous red bedroom that was Mary Crawley’s in the series, where “the incident” takes place. (Don’t want to give it away for those of you who haven’t seen it.) All of the Downton spots are marked with the same cheesy posters, like “This was Lady Sybil’s bedroom.” Most of the bedrooms have attached, smaller “dressing rooms” and bathrooms, and many of them are fairly untouched — there’s an occasional sink in a bedroom to remind you how people used to live.
The line backed up because only one or two people at a time could look in the roped-off rooms, but that gave me time to admire the magnificent stone-carved stairwell and the walls lined with architectural renderings from the castle’s construction. It’s neat if you like that kind of thing. I lingered on a framed copy of the newspaper the day King Edward VIII abdicated, with headlines like “Princess Elizabeth informed at school lessons” and “No response from Wallis Simpson,” who was vacationing with friends on the Riviera. Since King Edward VIII had been king for less than a year, he hadn’t yet had a coronation, so they just kept the same date for his brother’s. Fascinating stuff for a royal buff like me.
From the second floor, we were rerouted down the intricately carved wooden master staircase and into the basement, where there’s a separate exhibit on Egyptian artifacts. George Herbert, the 5th Earl, was a dedicated archaelogist, and he discovered King Tut’s tomb with Howard Carter in 1922. None of those items are there, but there are plenty of smaller, less important pieces — like jewelry, carvings, another mummy and casket — that they were allowed to take from Egypt. The Earl fell victim to the supposed “mummy’s curse” just after closing the tomb in 1923 — a mosquito bite on his face got infected, and he died of blood poisoning a couple of months later in Egypt. They say the bite was in the same place on his face as the only crack in King Tut’s burial mask. And the Earl’s dog, back at Highclere, dropped dead at the exact moment he is expected to have died in Egypt. Creepy!!
By the time I walked through that exhibit and out of the house, it was raining steadily. A cold, soggy, windy mess. I ducked into an enclosed tent that housed overflow from the tearoom and was able to order a hot lunch, with tea and shortbread. Pretty soon, I realized the rain wasn’t going to die down, but I also knew I couldn’t miss the occasion
while I was there. So drenched or not, I went back out in it and walked around the gardens.
I passed a greenhouse with some of the biggest, most beautiful roses I’ve ever seen. I walked through an elaborate gate into a quaint “secret garden” and out into a field surrounding by sheep.
Pretty soon it was pouring rain, so I gave up. I walked back toward the entrance and, after trying unsuccessfully to hail one of the departing cabs, I called Richard. It would take him 20 minutes or so to come from town, so I stood and chatted with the parking attendant, who’d retired but has worked at Highclere for the last 10 years so his “brain wouldn’t turn to mush.” He said they park close to 2,000 cars there per day — incredible!
Richard rescued me from the weather, and by the time I got back to the train station, the direct to London was only 10 minutes out. We seemed to have less stops than the first train, with only one exchange at Reading, and arrived back in London about 4:00 p.m. The day was still young.