A few days at Highclere Castle
As part of our 30 year anniversary tour we spent two nights and most of three days at the London Lodge at Highclere Castle, the setting for the show Downton Abbey. When we weren’t in the Castle on a tour or at afternoon tea, we were hiking around or being driving around (thank you Sam and Matthew!) on tours of the grounds. This is a summary of what we did and where we went. If any reader has any questions or comments, please feel free to post them at the end.
Since this is a bit long with lots of photos and videos, readers who would like to can jump to different sections here:
- Highclere Castle
- The Gardens and around the Castle
- The Grounds
Our first view of Highclere Castle was through the mist on a cloudy day. We’d flown into Southampton from Paris that morning, rented a car and drove to Winchester. The rain didn’t detour us from touring Winchester Cathedral and Castle, and remembering how to drive on the other side of the road. My wife only had to holler at me “stay on the left” a few times.
We pulled into the visitor’s parking lot, awaiting Sam from Highclere who would show us the way to London Lodge, and couldn’t resist walking through the wet grass up to the Castle.
After settling into London Lodge, Matthew (one of the butlers) was kind enough to drive us around the grounds. It was a great way to get the lay of the land even though the weather was cold and misty. We saw several excellent places where we would hike in the next few days, saw the horses (!) and even got a great photo of the castle in the mist.
The next day was the day of our tour of the castle, the Egyptian exhibit and the gardens, as well as afternoon tea (as you do!). Though it was cold and windy, the skies were clearing and we and the Castle were ready for a tour.
The Castle was postcard perfect.
Though we’ve seen several photos from the tour, there were multiple signs requesting no photography on the castle tour and the Egyptian exhibits. We respectfully complied with the requests of the Highclere Castle staff, all of whom were amazingly knowledgable and willing to share.
Our tour time was for entry anywhere from 10am to 1pm, with our afternoon tea at 2:30pm. During that morning at London Lodge, we saw several taxis coming in and out. Apparently several people come in via the local train station and take a taxi over to the Castle. The tour times provide a window for entering. Pro tip – if you see a tour bus, enter before them or tour the castle grounds before you enter the castle so that the large groups are not clogging up the tour.
The tour starts downstairs (of course) in the library, which houses over 5,000 books. It then proceeds through other downstairs rooms before heading upstairs. Several of the upstairs bedrooms are labeled as to which of the ladies in the Downton Abbey series used them. The tour then heads back downstairs to the saloon (which was the two-story room where the Christmas tree always is in the series), the dining room, and then down the back stairs and into the Egyptian Exhibition.
From the Castle tour you can continue downstairs to the Egyptian Exhibit. This exhibit consists of three sections – one with actual Egyptian artifacts, a second with a history of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (who not only funded the expedition but was one of the first inside King Tut’s tomb, along with Howard Carter) and a room of replicas of the Tutankhamun finds (the actual ones were sold to the British Museum after Lord Carnarvon’s death). There is also a brief explanation of Lord Carnarvon’s death (he was weakened due to injuries from multiple car crashes, cut himself with a razor while in Egypt and died of infection) and the “mummy’s curse” (King Tut also appeared to have died from an infection from a cut). The 5th Earl of Carnarvon is buried on Beacon Hill overlooking Highclere (we hiked up Beacon Hill later that day).
The Egyptian tour exits on the side of the Castle where the gift shop and offices are located. The photo below is taken in front of that exit a day later, with our new friends Sam (on the far left) and Matthew (on the far right). We cannot thank them enough for their hospitality and for sharing their knowledge about everything on the Highclere Estate. Luis took the photo and contrary to rumors and predictions…it did not turn out to be a selfie (thank you, Luis!).
It was still quite windy, but we walked around back of the castle through the meadows.
The landscaping for the grounds was done by the landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who designed over 170 parks including the grounds around Highclere (the Stowe Landscape garden and Blenheim Palace are others that bear his mark). Everywhere we looked on the estate we saw green rolling hills and trees. Many of these trees are Lebanon Cedars believed to have been grown from seeds brought to England in the 17th century. Matthew told us that the estate replaces the cedars as they succumb to the English winters, high winds or age.
We walked down the hill in the back of castle through what is called the wildflower meadow. The day was warming and clearing, turning quite magnificent.
There is a gravel trail which passes in between two of the Lebanon Cedars, connecting the castle and the gardens.
Below is a scan of the map of the gardens from a brochure provided by the Estate. It gives a good reference of where everything is located relative to the Castle.
The Monk’s Garden
Through an interesting aqueduct-looking wall of arches lies the Monk’s Garden.
There’s a very well-groomed series of hedge tunnels that cut across the garden.
The Secret Garden
Through this gate lies the Secret Garden. If they wanted to keep it a secret, they should not have put the sign there!
Through the gate the garden was partially in bloom. Matthew told us there had been snow on the ground very recently. The plants probably weren’t sure what season is was as some were blooming and some had blooms that were closed. There were gardeners out trimming. All of the beds were perfectly manicured.
There are several structures around the Highclere Estate that are known as “follys” – buildings that serve no apparent purpose other than as visual accouterments upon the landscape. Jackdaws Castle is the folly that is closest to Highclere Castle.
The sign in front of Jackdaws describes it in these words:
This folly was built in 1743 by Robert Herbert, who had inherited the Highclere Estate from his mother, Margaret, 8th Countess of Pembroke and daughter of Sir Robert Sawyer, Attorney General to Charles II and James II. Robert Herbert’s nephew, Henry Herbert, became the 1st Earl of Carnarvon in 1793.
It was build using Corinthian columns salvaged from Berkeley House in London, which had burned down in 1733. It acts less as a view point than a temple to be admired from Highclere Castle.
Even though it says it is a “temple to be admired from Highclere Castle,” the Castle can also be admired from Jackdaws.
We strolled back around the Castle, and had a hard time finding the spot for Afternoon Tea. Matthew came and rescued us, and escorted us upstairs in one of the buildings behind the castle which was laid out with tables and tea cups. But, of course, before the tea came the champagne. And then the tray of “snacks.”
Matthew came by and told us they lovingly referred to this as “lunch.” He’d given us a heads up about the size of the snacks, so we had cancelled our evening dinner reservations, opting for a bottle of Highclere champagne and cheese later that evening.
The Grounds of the Estate
That level of snacks had to be walked off. We drove over to the parking lot at Beacon Hill and hiked up, then hiked over to another folly, the Temple of Diana. A list of walks around the Estate grounds can also be found here.
Beacon Hill hike
With sandwiches and sweets from the Highclere Afternoon tea fresh in our bellies, we put on our hiking shoes and made the short drive to the car park at Beacon Hill. The Highclere Estate leases the land that makes up Beacon Hill park to Hampshire County Council. We chuckled at the “No Hang Gliding” warning on the park entry sign…until we got to the top, felt the wind and saw the drop offs!
Beacon Hill is 856 feet (261 meters) in elevation. The trail up is somewhat steep, and can get slippery if there have been recent rains. A fellow hiker told us that somewhere in the general direction of the photo below is an estate now owned by Andrew Lloyd Weber. We briefly considered going to knock on his door, since we were in the neighborhood.
At the top of the hill is the tomb of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert the Egyptologist.
The views of the surrounding countryside include a spectacular view (weather permitting) of Highclere Castle in the distance.
The following photo is a close-up of Highclere from the hill.
A map showing how to get to Beacon Hill from Highclere can be found here.
Temple of Diana
When we returned to London Lodge from the hike, the gates were closed. This meant all of the guests visiting Highclere Castle had left, and set us up for a peaceful walk through the grounds. Not far from the Lodge was the Temple of Diana, a folly that most people drive by as they exit the castle grounds. In the picture below, in addition to the Temple and my gorgeous wife, you can see Dunsmere Lake in the background, and one of the Lebanon Cedars to the far right.
The Temple of Diana is indeed a folly – there are no doors (other than the fake one you can see in the picture), fake windows, and really no way to climb around on it (which I like to do). So we laid out a blanket behind it and opened a beer. But not just any beer.
This beer is called “Butler’s Brew” and is sold in the Highclere Castle gift shop. Apparently some of the butlers (I will not name names as I was sworn to secrecy!) did a lengthy and in-depth taste-test of several candidate brews before selecting this, their namesake beer. We quite enjoyed it. If I hadn’t focused on the beer in the picture to the right, the top of Highclere Castle could be seen over the treetops.
We enjoyed Highclere Champagne and Butler’s Brew beer, but were a few weeks too early to be able to taste the gin that Highclere is releasing. If we needed another reason to visit, that certainly provides on. Coincidentally, the Bombay Sapphire distillery is a very short drive from Highclere.
After our respite, we hiked down the hill toward Dunsmere Lake, and used a step over to get through one of the fences. The views back up the hill towards the Temple showed once again how well laid out and maintained are the grounds of Highclere Estate.
On our last day at Highclere Castle, Sam was gracious enough to drive us around to see some of the animals. The first stop was to see the orphan lambs. If I recall the numbers correctly, the Highclere Estate has over 2,000 sheep, and this year had over 50 orphan lambs. As our visit was in April, it was still “lambing season” so there may have been more after we left.
The lambs like to nibble and some of them were getting sharp teeth. There was an auto-feeder providing milk through nipples to the lambs (for when they got tired of our fingers!).
There were several different “corrals” set up, including an area with space heaters for the newborns.
Chapel and Graveyard
There is a small chapel and graveyard on the grounds – you can see where it is in respect to Highclere Castle on this map.
The Chapel was locked, this is the view Inside through the front door windows.
One of the Earls of Carnarvon (the gravestone is marked “LT COL THE EARL OF CARNARVON”) is buried there; from the family tree in Lady Carnarvon’s book “Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey” it appears this is the gravestone of the 6th Earl. Also in the graveyard is the tomb of the wife of the 4th Earl of Carnarvon and several other locals. There are very old tombs and recent headstones in the graveyard.
We packed up and left Highclere shortly after this part of the tour (stopping briefly to get Audrey a copy of Lady Carnarvon’s lasted book which she was so very gracious to inscribe for her). Our 30th anniversary tour headed to the Bombay Sapphire distillery, Stonehenge and off to Dublin and exploring Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Our visit to Highclere exceeded our expectations, due as much to the people we met at Highclere as the wonderful experiences and sights. We hope everyone gets the opportunity to see it.
Sights from Downton Abbey
I’m putting this part last with a break/jump, as there may be spoilers. If you haven’t watch Downton Abbey, I’d advise you to stop reading the article here.
Down a road that is not open to the public (promise, we didn’t trespass – we were driven!) is a familiar turn in the road. This is the site of Matthew’s infamous car crash, past the Castle towards Highclere Stud.
On the road where cars drive to exit the castle grounds (past London Lodge where we stayed) is the ditch where Mary falls off her horse. I assume they either removed the fence before filming or edited them out.
Just read your story about visiting Highclere. I enjoyed it so much. I had been looking for a photo of the inside of the chapel! Seeing pictures of Highclere lowers my blood pressure. It has been 11 years since “Downton Abbey” was shown in the US, and I still love it. Greetings from Nashville, Tennessee.
Dorothea, thank you for the kind words and so very glad you enjoyed the story. My wife and I talk about that trip often, and we wish everyone would get to visit. The people, the grounds, the history were all quite wonderful. Best from Austin Texas.