You do not have to be Dr. Who to time travel. On a recent Downton Abbey Tour run by P&P tours, the moment I walked through the doors of Highclere Castle, I was immediately transported back to the middle of the 19th century. Highclere Castle, known to millions as Downton Abbey, is enormous and boasts over 300 rooms. Every room I walked into, I immediately recognised them from the scenes in the television series. In the library, I imagined Lord Grantham at his desk, and Lady Granthham sitting up in bed in her bedroom being served breakfast. The paintings and the tapestries were awe inspiring, not to mention the furniture from China. Seeing the red couches and sofas, straightaway I could see the Lady Dowager (Dame Maggie Smith) sitting very upright on them.
The tour began when we met other like minded fans at Oxford train station at 9.30. We (my mother and I) were met by a friendly lady called Debi from P&P tours. She welcomed us and signed us off her list. We hopped on the coach exciting waiting for the coach to leave.
The first location the coach took us too wasBampton town which doubled as Downton Village. As we arrived at Bampton my first reactions was how quaint and charming the village was. It was a bit like stepping back in time with all the yellow brick old cottages and buildings, it felt like we were in Yorkshire so it was easy to see why they used this village for Downton.
The village was regularly used throughout the series and is home to two fictional pubs – The Grantham Arms and The Dog & Duck. First up we visited St Mary’s Church, renamed as St Michael and All Angels in Downton Abbey which hosted a number of weddings, funerals, christenings in the series and even the sad episode when Edith was jilted at the altar. It’s a beautiful old Norman church with a ladies only chapel which was used in the series. Outside in the grave yard Polly the guide explained how the grave stones have had years of deterioration which was visible in the series. Apparently it was far too expensive to have them restored to their former glory so you only see very quick shots. Also when it came to creating Mathew Crawleys grave stone they used polystyrene.
Below is Polly the tour guide who was very informative , knowledgeable and approachable. Her knowledge of the cast and the series were amazing, and there was not a single question she could not answer.
Next to the church is the green which was used for the Downton Fair and the war memorial in series 5 but it is surprisingly a lot smaller in size than it appears on screen in the series.
Churchgate House, the old Bampton rectory was used for the exterior shots of Isobel Crawley’s house and this is situated right next to the green which is shown in the image below. The house is privately owned and the owners are getting a tad bit annoyed with fans nosing around but I managed to take the sneaky photo below.
Next up we walked a few feet to the old Grammar School building, which now houses Bampton library. The exterior shots were used as the as Downton hospital. Here you can go in and see a selection of Downton Abbey memorabilia including cards, mugs, pictures and a town map.
While wandering around this quaint town the guide Polly explained how they covered all the doors in the village, or at least ones which would be in shot, with replica old looking doors relevant to the early 1900s. They also completely covered the old sign with a wooden one made especially for the series.
We walked down this lane which in the series leads up to Downton Abbey, but the actual castle or country house rather is actually about 38 miles away which was our next stop.
Excitedly we jumped back on the coach headed for Downton Abbey! As it’s about 40 miles away from Bampton they played the first episode of Downton which was well received. We also stopped off for lunch at a service station as the pub which is normally used for the lunch break had closed down sadly. But the food on offer at the service station was fine and we enjoyed the break.
Highclere Castle in West Berkshire which doubled for Downton Abbey is an impressive building which sits on an estate that totals 6,000 acres. The Jacobethan style country house covers 30,000 square feet. The majority of the rooms are uninhabitable while repairs are underway. The current owners are the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and are real friends of Jullian Fellowes who created the show. It was Julian’s links with the couple and his visits to Highclere which helped him decide to use Highclere for Downton Abbey. With the spiralling costs of the upkeep of a house like Highclere, the success of Downton has helped the owners tremendously. The castle is now open to the public for around 60-70 days a year which is bringing in some much needed extra income to help with these repairs.
The drive up to the castle goes on and on but eventually the castle comes into view and it’s pretty spectacular. Below is selfie of myself about to walk up the drive
Photographing inside the building is prohibited but I can tell you that it looks exactly like you see in the series. The rooms that are available to view by visitors are the Library, the music room, the drawing room, the saloon, the dining room and the gardens and parks. What I can tell you is that the rooms seem much smaller than they appear on screen. There are beautiful paintings and huge tapestries which took years to complete. Lots of old furniture and fittings and lots of photographs of the current owners and their family are on display. Each room had a guide behind the barriers which would answer any questions you had. The kitchen and servants’ quarters and some of the “upstairs” bedrooms were constructed and filmed at Ealing Studios so we didn’t see any of these, but we could see the door they used to go through as if they were going downstairs.
There is also an Egyptian Exhibition which costs extra. The reason for the Egyptian Exhibition is because in 1922 the 5th Earl of Carnorvan with his colleague Howard Carter discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun. So the current Earl and Countess have opened this exhibition to celebrate this story of their ancestors.
There is a gift shop and 3 cafes where you can grab some lunch. All the cafes served the same food but we opted for the converted stables where we opted for tea and scones. The tea was served in bone china cups and saucers and scones came with clotted cream and jam. It was delightful and gratefully received!
There were pictures around the café and gift shop showing some behind the scene images:
You can take a bit of Highclere home as in the court yard they are selling plant cuttings which they have grown on the estate. Below is my mum taking a look at what’s on offer.
The gardens go on and on and we only saw a small amount of it. I wouldn’t mind going back and really exploring the grounds but we just didn’t have the time. The old trees are magnificent and the lawns kept immaculate. We learnt that Capabiility Brown designed the massive gardens and the number of gardeners it took to maintain them.
We boarded our coach and fell with a bump back to the 21st century, but the journey to the past was very informative, enjoyable and to be highly recommended.
P&P tours put on a great day and the tour guides were fantastic I wouldn’t hesitate in booking with them again. There were lots of Americans on the tour who were fascinated by the whole experience. Being a Brit I loved it just as much and I would really recommend this tour to all Downton fans, or anyone who just loves to visit old English country estates and see some of Oxforshires beautiful countryside.
Sadly P&P is no longer running tours, but they worked closely with Brit Movie Tours who run a Downton Abbey Locations Tour of London here: http://britmovietours.com/bookings/downton-abbey-locations-tour-london/