TU DU TU DU DU TUM TUM TUM TUM. Or something like that. Welcome to Downton Abbey, everyone! The Anglophile that I am is a huge fan of this period series (this surprises no one, right?) and I was very sad when it ended.
Although the drama and its plot twists were certainly entertaining, what I will miss the most is Lady Violet’s witty comebacks. I briefly considered writing a post entirely consisting of her best one-liners but I figure this wouldn’t be of much help to those of you who also want to visit Downton Abbey.
In the spirit of being helpful, I wrote down everything I learned during my Downton-themed day trip in Oxfordshire and Hampshire. Let’s dive in!
This is NOT a sponsored post – I really did go ahead and paid $250 of my own money to have this incredibly geeky Downton day. I REGRET NOTHING.
Bampton, Oxfordshire is the lovely and oh-so-typically English hamlet the production used to film the Downton village scenes, including the post office, the hospital, the church, as well as Isobel Crawley’s home.
Many scenes, including some of Downton Abbey’s key events (weddings, funerals, shocking conversations) have been filmed in Bampton.
Hugh Bonneville once summed up the series’ worldwide appeal by joking
that “it’s Breaking Bad with tea instead of meth.”
Sure, visiting the Downton village was fun but what I was really in Hampshire for was, of course, the abbey.
Seeing it with my own two eyes just made the series come full circle for me, all of which was complemented by the juicy bits of behind-the-scenes trivia I learned throughout the visit:
- Lesley Nicol (the always clever Mrs Patmore) absolutely, positively cannot cook.
- Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) actually broke one of Richard E. Grant’s (art historian Mr Becker) ribs while fighting over Cora in the fifth series.
- The servants’ quarters and kitchen scenes were not filmed at Highclere Castle but instead in a studio right outside London. That is due to the fact that Highclere’s kitchen has been modernised throughout the centuries; additionally, the ceiling was too low for the crew to install the lights necessary for filming.
- Talk about worlds colliding: Jim Carter, who plays the cantankerous yet lovable Carson, is married to actress Imelda Staunton, who is best known for playing insufferable Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter.
- Her character Lady Edith might have the worst of luck in life, but Laura Carmichael was working as a medical secretary in a doctor’s office when got the call confirming she had been offered the part.
- Big numbers: 255 cast members have been featured throughout the show’s six seasons, aided by a team of 900 crew members.
- You remember how Downton Abbey was turned into a convalescent home in the second series? That wasn’t just a convenient twist; it was also a nod to Highclere Castle’s history. Indeed, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon really did transform her home into a recovery hospital for soldiers during World War I.
Visiting Downton Abbey: what to expect
I have to admit that despite the abundant fun facts, the visit fell a little short for me. I was quickly made aware this was actually the Earl and Countess Carnarvon’s family home. A stately one, but still, a very much lived-in, cherished home with plenty of family pictures and anachronic modern-day trinkets.
Sidenote: the following photos are admittedly not my best work as photography is prohibited inside the castle; quite frankly I thought this was a ludicrous rule so I went ahead and photographed whatever I could in the most inconspicuous way possible (more on that at the end of the post) – needless to say that Carson would NOT have approved.
The sooner you come to grips with the fact this is not the Universal Studios of all things Downton Abbey, the better your visit will be.
One of the most frequent observations people made during the visit is how much smaller the castle actually is by opposition to how it was portrayed in the series. Wide angle lenses, y’all.
Most of the rooms, including the great hall, are actually fairly regular-sized. And this being England, nothing about the decor was ostentatiously opulent – sure, it was ornate and filled with what I presume to be very valuable antiques but there wasn’t, like, offensive marble statues and gold bars scattered around (is that what rich people do?).
It just screamed “understated old-world English money” to me, which I thought was quite fitting with the classy Crawley family.
As I was listening to the guide telling behind-the-scenes stories about filming Downton Abbey, I realised that a lot of the scenes inside Lady Mary’s bedroom actually depict her getting ready at her coiffeuse.
Was it an attempt to convey that she is vain, or was it simply an excuse to strengthen her relationship with her maid Hannah? Regardless, that now iconic crimson bedroom got a lot of airtime – which I certainly won’t complain about as Lady Mary was one of my favourite characters.
Also worth remembering: the infamous “we must dispose of Mr Pamuk’s body RIGHT NOW” scene from series one!
Can you see how infinitely smaller this room is compared to what it felt like on television?
Mind you, Highclere Castle obviously remains an extraordinary stately home but it just doesn’t do justice to the grandeur and pomposity of Downton Abbey – which I guess is normal since most of what we saw on the screen was masterfully manipulated to look like a house fit for the aristocratic Crawley family.
This visit just really goes to show how ingenious set designers and directors have to be!
Once I wrapped things up indoors, I spent the remaining hour I had left exploring Highclere Castle’s gardens and woodlands.
They’re really quite expansive so I didn’t get the chance to see everything but it certainly felt nice to no longer feel like I was on a secret mission to photograph everything and to breathe the fresh Hampshire air.
How to visit Downton Abbey
There are basically two ways you can get to Downton Abbey on a day trip from London: either on your own means or on a guided trip, and none of them come cheap.
Again, remember that the castle is only open a few days out of the year.
HOW TO: Guided day trip to Downton Abbey
There seems to be several companies offering day trips to Highclere Castle.
I went with this one because I found the itinerary to be the most interesting (some tours also feature the Yew Tree farm and other filming locations) but at this point, it really depends on your personal preferences.
The three stops (Oxford, Bampton, Highclere) were plenty for this day trip; any more would have felt rushed and crammed in, in my opinion.
HOW TO: Independent visit to Downton Abbey
The truth is that an independent trip to Highclere Castle will not be all that low-priced either. Welcome to the wonderful world of English trains…!
To get to Highclere, you will need to take the train to either Newbury or Whitchurch (roughly £20 each way) and then take a taxi (which you should absolutely pre-book, and which will set you back between £15 and £20 each way). This is the simplest and pretty much only way to do it unless you plan on renting a car.
In addition to the transportation costs, you will also need to factor in the £15 entry fee to the castle. You’re looking at £95 day trip total per person.
Visit Downton Abbey: Know Before You Go
Photography is not permitted
One of the things I really wish I’d known before I visited Downton Abbey (I guess I should call it Highclere Castle at this point) is that photography is not permitted.
Rant alert: this is my almighty-Canadian-I-am-a-paying-customer speaking but GOSH if you’re being paid millions of pounds by a major network to have your estate featured on international television, people are going to want to take fucking pictures. Downton Abbey takes place in the 1910s but this is 2019; there is no such thing as travelling and not taking pictures nowadays. So yeah, that was kind of a bummer (but also not really because I’m a sneaky bitch).
Check opening times ahead
As you know by now it is a family-owned, lived-in castle, and, therefore, it is only open to the public a handful of days every year. You WILL need to time your visit right, regardless of whether you’re going independently or with a group.
Tickets sell out quite swiftly – Downton Abbey is indeed quite popular still.
Guided tours to Downton
If you want to visit Downton Abbey with a guided tour, chances are you’ll be departing from Victoria Coach Station (some companies do offer hotel pick-ups; call ahead and confirm with them).
The gate is not clearly announced at the entrance, though: you will need to go all the way to the end of the station (if you think you’ve walked past it, you haven’t, keep going).
Also remember that you will have enough time to grab something to eat in Oxford before you head on to Bampton.