Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Highclere Castle – Our Trip to Downton Abbey!



Welcome back for the next installment in our UK roadtrip. You'll remember we've been to LegoLand, Harry Potter World & London Town. Everything we’ve done so far on our budget UK road trip was for my four children, but this one was for me.

I’d promised myself a visit to Highclere Castle for years - in fact, every time I've watched an episode of Downton Abbey - I’d go online and start researching but something always came up, so I didn’t get a chance to book it. We were in London, I had a car, so why not? Ah yeah, tickets were sold out!


What is Highclere Castle?




Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six years, you’ll recognise Highclere Castle as the home of multi-award winning period drama Downton Abbey. It’s one of the most famous historical buildings in the UK nestled in 5,000 acres of farmland, woodland and parkland.


History of Highclere Castle



The estate was established by Charles Barry, who also built the Houses of Parliament. Highclere Castle was constructed using Bath stone in Jacobean style, completed in 1842 with a history dating as far back as 1086, and the land has been inhabited by the Carnarvon family since 1679. 

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon George Herbert returned from his hunt for the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt when WWI broke out across Europe, and his wife Almina turned Highclere Castle into a hospital to care for soldiers returning from the war in 1914. As soon as the war was over the search for Tutankhamun resumed.

Lord Porchester, the son of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife Catherine, handed Highclere Castle and estate over to the war effort during WWII and the castle itself was transformed into a home for evacuee children and the estate was used to train allied soldiers.




The 8th Earl of Carnarvon -also called George Herbert - and his wife, the Countess of Carnarvon, currently reside at Highclere Castle. Lady Carnarvon writes an insightful and fascinating blog which she’s kept regularly updated for the last three years; she shares behind the scenes information, photographs and anecdotes keeping us up-to-date on the daily goings on at Highclere Castle.

Getting to Highclere castle




Car

Highclere Castle and Estate is located in Newbury, West Berkshire; 45 miles west of London. I had no problem at all finding it, I took their advice by inputting post code RG20 9LE (local restaurant) into my Sat Nav and then following the brown tourist signs.

If you use their post code it’ll bring you to the wrong entrance as the estate operates a one way system for traffic.


Public Transport

There is a regular train service from London Paddington to Newbury Station 5 miles from Highclere Castle. Train tickets cost approx £23/€26.77 per adult return, you’ll then need to take a taxi from the rank at the station costing between £15/€17.46-£20/€23.28 each way.

There is a cheaper option of a bus but that involves a walk from the train to the bus stop and then a long walk from the local village to the castle.


Tickets for Highclere Castle




Highclere Castle is only open to the public Easter holidays, UK May Bank holidays and Sundays to Thursdays over the summer months. They also hold special events such as Vintage Garden parties, Capability Brown Open Days; Capability Brown is responsible for designing over 170 landscape gardens and parks throughout the UK including gardens at Highclere Castle, White Tie Vintage Gala Dinner and Battle Proms, which I must say sounds amazing.

It’s an open air concert/garden party/picnic which attracted an astonishing 10,000 people earlier this month. Classical music is played with cavalry displays and spitfires in the air choreographed to perfection with the added thrill of cannon fire topped off with a firework finale. Their Christmas Craft Fair is also high on my list of reasons to return.



Tickets are like gold dust and sell extremely fast each time they are released. Some tour operators offer tickets to visit the real Downton Abbey but at a vastly inflated price so my advice is to book early. Tickets for spring and Easter are released for sale on their website in early November with summer tickets going on sale in early February. There are different ticket options available with variations of castle, gardens and exhibition.

As I mentioned earlier tickets were sold out for the day we wanted to visit. Luckily for us though they keep a limited number of tickets back for walk-ups. Their advice is to arrive early, or after 2.30pm, for the best chance of securing a ticket. 

We arrived at 10.30am and chose a family ticket costing £60/€69.78 which admitted 2 adults and up to 3 children to Castle, gardens and exhibition, with children under 4 years old admitted free of charge and do not require a ticket. The reason I chose this ticket is that it would have worked out more expensive to pay for 1 adult and 3 children separately.


What’s to see and do at Highclere Castle?


Apologies for the lack of interior pictures of the Castle as photographs of the interior are strictly prohibited, but that's all the more reason for you to go, right?



We spend about an hour taking in the glory of the Castle wandering from room to room chatting with the knowledgeable members of staff in each room. Strangely the 120,000 square foot castle didn’t feel as big inside as it looks on screen. I was delighted to get to see the library with its oversized fireplace and matching red sofas.

We had a peek inside some of the bedrooms, they’re roped off but it’s far enough into the room to allow you a full view inside. We even got to descend the grand staircase; it’s exactly the same as on TV. The tour guides were fantastic giving us a brief overview of each room as we entered but then floating like social butterflies from person to person offering more detailed information.



The castle sits on 1,000 acres of formal gardens and parkland which you are free to roam and explore. There are three tea rooms offering everything from hot dinners to a champagne afternoon tea. I spent a small fortune in the gift shop on lots of stuff such as His Lordship’s Chutney, fancy Highclere biscuits, Tutankhamun pencils and rubbers for the kids for school and handmade soaps. 

Unfortunately my budget couldn’t stretch to the £37.50/€43.69 it cost for a hand painted Christmas bauble so I made do with a key ring in the shape of the outline of the castle for £3.95/€4.60, which I’ll remove the metal from and attach to some red ribbon for our travel tree.



The piece de resistance for my children was the Egyptian exhibition which spans throughout the cellars of Highclere castle. My older three had been learning about King Tut in school just before the summer break so it was fresh in their minds.

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon George Herbert was the financial backer in the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. He, along with Howard Carter, searched for many years throughout the Valley’s near Luxor in Egypt, eventually discovering the tomb of the boy-pharaoh in the Valley of the King’s in 1922.

Sadly the Earl of Carnarvon passed away before the tomb was completely excavated; he never got to see the true extent of the artifacts they discovered. His passing led to the story of the ‘curse of Tutankhamun’ - whereby people believed if you disturbed the mummy of an ancient Egyptian person, ESPECIALLY a pharaoh, you’d be cursed with bad luck, illness or death. There are hundreds of artefacts on display in the exhibition including a full size replica tomb complete with sarcophagus.




I particularly loved the black wall with what looked like letterboxes dotted around it, upon further inspection by the children we learned it’s a replica of exactly what George Herbert and Howard Carter saw when they first discovered the tomb. When you lift one of the many flaps it casts a beam of light into a pitch black room but it’s enough light for your eye to catch the dazzling jewels and the shine from the gold of King Tut’s mask.


Stone Travel Verdict?



I loved every moment of our tour and the kids really enjoyed it too, even my 4 year old was kept entertained throughout our visit. It’s steeped in history so it’s educational as well as pure indulgence. My only thought is can I squeeze in another trip at the start of December to visit the Christmas fair?! I’d imagine the Castle would be like a winter wonderland decorated for the festivities.

Please note that no children’s buggies/prams are allowed into the castle, if you’re visiting with young children you’ll have to carry them around so make sure to bring a sling.

Have you been to Highclere? What did you think?

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