Highclere Castle is best known as the real-life Downton Abbey, as it was where Downton Abbey was filmed. Many people visit to see the fictional home of the Crawley family and their servants.
However, Highclere Castle, the family seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, has a rich history of its own that rivals the fictional stories of the TV series. The current Earl’s family has been living on the estate since 1679. The Carnarvon family has been involved in the founding of Canada, the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, scandalous affairs, and sordid court cases. Royalty, politicians, famous writers, and film stars have stayed at Highclere Castle.
The great thing is that you can visit Highclere Castle to see it for yourself as it is open to the public during certain times of the year. The main three things to do at Highclere Castle are to tour the State Rooms inside the castle, visit the Egyptian Exhibition, and explore the extensive gardens and grounds.
We’ll share some of the fascinating history of this house and its occupants, share our own experience of visiting Highclere Castle, and tell you all you need to know to visit Highclere Castle yourself. If you are a Downton Abbey fan, we’ll also share information about Downton Abbey tours and other Downton Abbey filming locations in the area that you may want to visit.
Let’s get started!
Planning your Visit to Highclere Castle
First, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details you should know about planning a visit to Highclere Castle. The castle is not open year round so it is especially important to pay attention to the details so that you don’t miss your chance to visit.
Where is Highclere Castle located?
Address: Highclere Castle, Newbury RG20 9RN
Highclere Castle is located in the county of Hampshire, a county along the southern coast of England. It’s 5 miles outside of the small town of Newbury in Berkshire and very close to the village of Highclere.
Highclere Castle is located about 66 miles from London, 33 miles from Oxford, and 50 miles from Portsmouth.
How to Get to Highclere Castle from London?
The easiest ways to get to Highclere Castle is via car or by taking a day tour, but there are also options for those who want to travel by public transportation.
This information is geared to those traveling from London, but most information is also relevant for those traveling from other locations in the UK. If you have any questions, feel free to just ask us in the Comments section at the end of the article.
Highclere is located near a major motorway (M4), which makes it fairly easy to reach from London and other major cities in southern England. Depending on traffic, it normally takes between 1.5 hours to 2 hours to reach Highclere Castle from London.
Do NOT use your GPS to navigate to the Highclere Castle parking area, it may lead you to the wrong entrance. Instead, follow the brown tourist signs once you get close.
There is a designated car park near the Visitor Reception Center. Parking is free for visitors of the castle. It is a short walk from the parking area to the ticket area and entrance.
By Public Transit
No public transportation options go directly to Highclere castle; however, you can take a train or public bus to a nearby station and then take a local taxi to the castle.
The closest train station to Highclere Castle is Newbury Railway Station. There is a direct train service from London Paddington to Newbury. From there you can take a 15 minute taxi ride to Highclere Castle (or a long 2.5 hour walk!). Taxis can often be found waiting outside the station.
Alternatively, you can take the train from London Waterloo to Whitchurch station or to Andover in Hampshire. From Whitchurch station, it is a 10 to 15 minute taxi ride to Highclere Castle. From Andover station, it is about a 25 minute taxi ride to Highclere Castle.
You can book tickets and check for further train connections via Trainline here.
We recommend that you prebook your taxi (or call once you arrive), as they are not always readily available at the stations. You will need to arrange your taxi from the Castle back to the station as there is no taxi stand at the castle. You can check directly with local cab companies or check prices and book online via minicabit.
If you are planning to do a lot of traveling around the UK by train, you might want to compare the cost of booking individual tickets to the price of a BritRail Pass. These passes can save visitors who plan to do a lot of train trips money and they also come with additional benefits.
By Bus / Coach
There is a National Express Coach Service from London Victoria station to Newbury. From Newbury, you can then take a taxi to the castle; it is about a 15 minute taxi ride.
You can check for other coach service options here.
By Day Tour
There are a number of day tours to Highclere Castle from London. The majority of tour prices include your admission fee to Highclere Castle, but always be sure to check to see what is included before booking.
Many of the tours also stop at other locations such as Bampton (often used as the fictional Downton village in the TV show) and other Downton Abbey filming locations, Oxford, and/or villages in the Cotswolds.
There are also a few tours in the UK that leave from other locations in England, including Oxford and Southhampton.
Tours from London to Highclere Castle
There are several tours you can take to Highclere Castle from central London.
- This popular guided tour from London includes transport by luxury coach, a visit to Highclere Castle, and lunch in the village of Bampton.
- This small group tour includes a visit to Highclere Castle and the village of Bampton. Tours are limited to 16 persons.
- This is another popular small group tour that includes a visit to Highclere Castle, Bampton, and Cogges Manor Farm.
- This 9 hour tour includes a visit to Highclere Castle and a guided tour of the village of Bampton. This is one of the least expensive Downton Abbey tours from London.
- This full day guided tour includes visits to Oxford, Bampton, and Highclere Castle.
- If you are looking for a private tour, this full-day private black cab tour from London includes a private driver-guide, hotel pick-up, visit to Bampton, and a visit to Highclere Castle. Since it is a private tour, the itinerary is somewhat flexible.
Tours from Cities Other than London to Highclere Castle
- This small group tour from Oxford, includes a visit to Blenheim Palace, Highclere Castle, Bampton, and a couple of other Downton Abbey filming locations like Cogges Manor Farm.
- This private tour from Southampton (for up to 4 persons) includes driver, hotel pick-up, and transportation to and from Highclere Castle. Tour itinerary is flexible. Good potential option for those on a cruise that stops at Southampton.
If you are planning to travel via public transit, you will need to take a taxi (or be prepared for a very long walk) from the bus or train station to reach Highclere Castle. There are currently no rideshare options to and from Highclere Castle of which we are aware.
You can book a taxi in advance (recommended if you know your arrival time) or call for a cab once you arrive. Sometimes there are taxis waiting at the stations (particularly Newbury), but I would not depend on this. You can check directly with local cab companies or check prices and book online via minicabit.
If you are thinking of taking a taxi directly to Highclere Castle from London, this will be a more expensive transit option. Taxi costs between London and Highclere Castle are over £100 each way.
When is Highclere Castle open to the Public?
Highclere doesn’t operate on a traditional set schedule so you will want to check the opening calendar in advance of your visit. They vary a bit each year. Opening dates and special events are normally announced several months in advance to help you plan your visit.
There are generally two main public opening times, once in April for 2 weeks and then again for 2 months in the summer.
In 2020, the main public opening Spring dates are April 11th, 2020 through April 26th, 2020. The main Highclere Castle summer public opening dates are July 12th, 2020 to September 8, 2020 (the Castle is closed on Fridays and Saturdays of each week during the summer period).
Guided tours are generally offered once per week throughout the year. They also open for certain bank holiday weekends, special tours, and other events.
You can view their most updated public visitor calendar and tour dates on their ticketing website.
Cost of Tickets at Highclere Castle?
The ticket prices for Highclere Castle vary depending on which areas of the estate you wish to visit. Tickets can be purchased separately for the gardens and grounds only, the castle plus gardens, or the Egyptian Exhibitions plus gardens. Or you can purchase a ticket that includes entry into all three areas.
Below are the prices for each of the entry tickets (as of October 2019):
A visit to the private gardens and grounds only is £7 for adults and £3 for children 4-16 years old. Children under 4 are free.
Ticket to tour both the castle and gardens are £17 for adults, £11 for children 4-16 years old and £15.50 for seniors, students, and disabled visitors. Alternatively, you can buy a family ticket (which covers two adults and two children) for £44.
Tickets to the Egyptian Exhibition and the gardens (but excluding the castle) are £17 for adults, £11 for children 4-16 years old and £15.50 for seniors, students, and disabled visitors. A family ticket costs £46.
Tickets to tour all three sections: the gardens, the castle, and the Egyptian Exhibition are £24 for adults, £14 for children 4-16 years old and £22 for seniors, students, and disabled visitors. A family ticket is £66.
Finally, there is the option to tour all three sections of the estate and have afternoon tea with champagne in the Coach House. This ticket is £59 for adults and £57 for seniors and disabled visitors. Because of the included champagne, children are not allowed to participate.
Specialty guided tours and events like the yearly Easter Egg Roll, book talks, and Christmas Gala all have their own special charges. Check the Highclere website for details.
All tickets purchased online need to be printed out and presented in person on arrival at the castle. Please make sure you have time to print your tickets before your visit or you may not be admitted.
You should also bring the debit card or credit card used to purchase the tickets online as you may be requested to show it.
Are Guided Tours of Highclere Castle Offered?
Most visits to the castle, gardens, and Egyptian Exhibition are self-guided. However, guided tours are possible on certain dates if booked in advance.
Guided tours of the castle and grounds are generally offered once a week. The itinerary and focus of the tours change on a seasonal basis. This is a great way to explore the castle when it is not as crowded with other tourists during the general public opening periods. They are generally limited to about 50 guests.
Every Spring, the Countess chooses a theme for the guided tours of the castle. For example, in May 2019 it was “Art & Architecture” and in May 2020, it is “Living in a Castle”. These experiences include a lecture, a guided tour of the castle, and a guided visit to the gardens (weather permitting).
Guided tour tickets generally range from £85 to £150 depending on the tour. These all include a talk, a guided tour of the State Rooms of the Castle, and access to the Gardens. They may also include a visit to the Egyptian Museum and/or light refreshments, depending on the tour.
Dress code for all tours is smart casual.
Can I Visit Highclere Castle without pre-booking my ticket?
Yes, during the public opening days in the Spring and Summer it is possible to visit the castle without booking a ticket or tour in advance. You can purchase admission tickets at the entrance.
However, it is recommended that you book your time in advance in case the Castle is fully booked for the date of your intended visit. Although this is unusual, the Castle may refuse entry to visitors without prebooked tickets if the visitor numbers get too large. Or you may have to wait for a later entrance time.
Note that you can NOT join any of the tours or other special events without a pre-booked ticket and reservation. So be sure to book these in advance.
If you are visiting as part of a guided day tour, it is likely that the company will already have your tickets arranged for you. But do be sure to check to see if admission is included.
Do I need a Ticket to Visit the Gardens?
Yes, the Castle gardens and grounds are only accessible for those with an admission ticket. You can purchase a Gardens only ticket or the gardens are included with all of the Combination tickets. The Castle gardens are only open on the dates that the Castle is open to the public.
However, there are three public footpaths near the estate and some longer countryside walks nearby (only open in the summer months). Here is a rundown of all the public walking paths available in and around the estate.
Can I see Highclere Castle without paying?
No, not really. The castle is a private home and can’t be seen from the highway. Although there are a couple of public walking paths on the estate that go near to the castle, most of the views from these paths are partially obstructed.
The best way to see Highclere Castle without paying a lot is to visit during one of the public visiting dates (the castle is only open to the public part of the year) and purchase a Gardens Only ticket. This is the cheapest ticket and allows you full access to visit the private castle gardens and grounds where you can get great views of the exterior of Highclere Castle.
Accessibility at Highclere Castle?
Many areas, but not all, of the Highclere Estate are accessible to visitors with disabilities and reduced mobility.
Motorized wheelchairs and scooters are allowed on the grounds but not inside the castle, but those with manual wheelchairs may visit. A limited number of manual wheelchairs are available to borrow for use in the Castle and Egyptian Exhibition. If you will need to borrow a wheelchair, it is advised that you call the Castle Office in advance to pre-book one to ensure one is available during your visit.
The ground floor of Highclere Castle is step-free and accessible for visitors with manual wheelchairs, but there is no elevator access to the upstairs Castle rooms. However, picture albums are available to see photos of the upstairs rooms for those not able to use the stairs.
The Egyptian Exhibition is also accessible for most visitors as are most of the other buildings (gift shop, tea room, etc). There are also disabled toilets on-site.
There are designated disabled parking spots. Most of the parking is on a gravel surface. The Reception area and entrance to the castle are located a short distance from the parking area.
The paths around the castle are mostly gravel and the paths in the gardens and estate paths are rougher grass paths, which may not be easily accessible for those in wheelchairs.
Carers who are accompanying a registered, paying, disabled visitor are entitled to complimentary admission to Highclere Castle, Gardens, and Egyptian Exhibition. Disabled visitors should book the free Carer ticket when booking their own ticket. Only one complimentary Carer ticket is allowed per disabled visitor.
Those with questions about access are encouraged to call or email the castle staff before visiting.
Parking at Highclere Castle?
There is a designated car park near the Visitor Reception Center that is open to visitors of the castle during the castle’s opening hours. It is free to park here for visitors.
Note that if you are planning to access the nearby public footpaths or summer walking paths, they are not accessible from the visitor parking area. Those planning to walk along the public footpaths should park off the estate for access to these paths. See walking map here as it lists parking areas as well.
Eating at Highclere Castle?
During public opening dates, the tea rooms are generally open from 9:30 AM onwards and offer coffee and tea, hot light lunches from 12:00 to 2:00, and light refreshments throughout the day. A full afternoon tea experience may also be booked in advance (see below).
You are also welcome to bring your own picnic to eat out on the grounds. There is a picnic area on the lawn near the Visitor Reception building. There are some picnic tables available but you may want to bring a blanket to sit on in case they are occupied or wet.
How do I book afternoon tea at Highclere Castle?
Afternoon tea at Highclere must be booked ahead of time on the Highclere castle website as part of a combination ticket to visit Highclere Castle. There are generally three afternoon tea time slots per day during Highclere’s open days: 1:15pm, 2:30pm, and 3:45pm. Spots generally sell out well in advance.
The afternoon tea experience includes a selection of sandwiches, scones, and cakes as well as your choice of tea and a glass of Champagne.
This combination ticket includes entrance to Highclere Castle, the gardens, the Egyptian Exhibition and a Champagne Afternoon tea. The current cost (as of October 2019) is £59.00 for adults and £57.00 for seniors and disabled visitors. Due to the inclusion of Champagne, children are not allowed to participate.
If you are visiting with children (or are looking for another tea option), you can still enjoy a cream tea (tea plus scone with clotted cream and jam) at the Tea Room without a reservation. The Tea Room also serves sandwiches, baked goods, and snacks.
How much time do I need to visit Highclere Castle?
We would recommend allowing for at least 3 hours to visit Highclere Castle, but you could probably do a quick tour to see the highlights in 2 hours. If you only have 2 hours, we’d recommend about 1 hour to tour the Castle itself, 30 minutes for the Egyptian Exhibition, and 30 minutes to explore a bit of the gardens.
You’ll want to add extra time if you want to shop in the gift shop, see the follies, have coffee or lunch in the tea room, or do any of the estate walks.
Those who have a strong interest in the history of Highclere Castle, an interest in Egyptology, or exploring the estate grounds will likely need much more time to explore at a leisurely pace. Some people spend several hours here.
How to Avoid the Crowds at Highclere Castle?
Highclere Castle is a very busy attraction, largely due to the popularity of it being the main filming location of Downton Abbey. If you visit during the public opening dates, do expect it to be busy, especially inside the house. The number of people who are permitted into the house at one time is limited, so sometimes there can be short queues to enter the house.
There are some things you can do to avoid the crowds at Highclere Castle. During the public opening dates, we recommend pre-booking your ticket and going in the morning so that you are one of the first to tour the house. When planning your visit, I’d do the house tour first and the Egyptian Exhibition second as these are the areas that get the most crowded.
You can also avoid the large crowds by booking a visit outside the public opening dates. You can join a guided tour or attend a special event at Highclere Castle that is scheduled outside of the public opening dates. Although more pricey, tickets to these events are more limited in number.
If you are not that interested in visiting the inside of the Castle, you may just want to consider a Gardens Only ticket. You may find yourself relatively alone in certain areas of the garden and you can find a bench and enjoy a nice view or read a book.
The estate paths are also worth exploring and can be relatively quiet. When we did our walk up to Beacon Hill we only passed a couple of other people. Waterproof hiking shoes recommended as paths can be muddy.
Special Events at Highclere Castle?
Highclere has a variety of special events throughout the year, including an Easter Egg Hunt, Mother’s Day Afternoon Tea, and various Christmas events. These events sell out quickly, and they must be pre-booked online.
Are dogs allowed at Highclere Castle?
Dogs are not allowed in the Castle, the castle gardens, or private castle grounds. The only exception is for accredited guide dogs.
Dogs are allowed on the nearby public footpaths and should be kept on a short lead. Dog owners should keep dogs well away from grazing livestock and ground nesting birds.
Is Photography Allowed at Highclere Castle?
You are permitted to bring cameras to the Castle, but photography is not permitted inside the Castle or the Egyptian Exhibition. Personal photography and videography are only allowed outside and in the gardens.
The use of drones is not allowed anywhere on the Highclere Estate.
Those wishing to take photos or videos for commercial or event purposes on the Estate should call or email the Castle Office for rates and to arrange permission.
What Items are Not Allowed at Highclere Castle?
Dogs and other pets are not allowed on the estate with the exception of trained guide dogs. Drones are also not allowed on Highclere Estate.
Strollers and pushchairs are allowed on the estate, but are not allowed inside the Castle or Exhibition, but can be left in the front hall of the castle (space permitting).
Smoking is not permitted on the premises inside or near any of the buildings.
Can I stay overnight at Highclere Castle?
It is not possible to stay overnight inside the castle (unless you are invited!), but there are two guest lodges owned by the Carnarvon family on the estate. Both are small historical buildings on the estate that have been remodeled as self-catering guest cottages and fitted with modern furnishings.
The Grotto Lodge is a circular stone cottage that was built nearly 200 years ago. The 2-floor cottage has two double bedrooms, modern furnishings, and bespoke wooden furniture. There is a fully-equipped kitchen with a dishwasher and a washing machine on site. There’s central heating and a wood burning fireplace, as well as a private outdoor garden.
The London Lodge was built in 1793 by the first Earl of Carnarvon. The stone archway marks the original carriage entrance to the grounds, and is flanked on either side by a small cottage which have been turned into guest accommodation. One side has a cozy sitting room and full kitchen, and the other has a double bedroom and bathroom. You have to walk outside to go between the two parts of the lodge.
Note that priority for booking at the estate cottages is given to those who are looking for longer stays of 4 days or more.
Accommodation near Highclere Castle?
In addition to the two on-site cottages, there are several options for staying nearby. There are a couple of places you could stay that are within a longer walk to the Castle entrance (30 to 60 minutes), but there are many options that are within a relatively short drive. Options range from campsites to simple B&Bs to 5-star luxury hotels.
The below accommodation options are listed based on their driving distance from the Castle car park, starting with the closest options:
- The Carnarvon Arms in Whitway – This 18-room historical country inn is the closest option to the Castle. Offers comfortable en-suite rooms and a pub and bar. A 4 minute drive to the Castle car park or 30 minute walk to the Castle entrance. If you want to walk to the Castle, this would be our recommendation.
- The Carpenters Arms in Burghclere – This country inn offers an on-site restaurant, free private parking, a bar, and a garden. It is located a 5-minute drive or 40 minute walk from the Castle.
- The Pheasant in Highclere – The Pheasant (formerly The Yew Tree) is a traditional 17th-century country inn that has been turned into a pub and an award-winning restaurant with rooms. The inn offers 8 cozy and modern rooms. An 8 minute drive to the Highclere Castle car park or a long walk.
- Bel and the Dragon in Kingclere – A renovated 15th century inn upscale country inn that offers a sunny outdoor patio and an on-site restaurant. All rooms are en-suite with flat screen TVs. A 12-minute drive from the Castle.
- The White Hart in Whitchurch – Another historic inn that has been converted into a cozy B&B. Offers an on-site bar and restaurant. A 15 minute drive from the Castle.
- The Vineyard in Stockcross – This 5-star hotel offers luxurious guest rooms featuring marble baths and private art, a sauna, spa, fitness room, gardens, and on-site gourmet dining restaurant. This is one of England’s top wine hotels, with a focus on California wines, and the hotel also does wine tastings and courses. A 15 minute drive from the Castle.
- Donnington Valley Hotel & Spa in Donnington – This 4-star countryside hotel offers well-appointed rooms, an on-site restaurant, health club, and spa. The hotel overlooks an 18-hole golf course so makes for a perfect place to stay for golfers. A 17-minute drive from the castle.
- DoubleTree by Hilton in Newbury – This 4-star chain hotel offers comfortable rooms, an indoor swimming pool, fitness center, and on-site restaurant. A 17 minute drive from the Castle.
- Regency Park Hotel in Thatcham – This 4-star hotel is a bit further away but features contemporary decor, pool, spa, health club, bar, and fine dining restaurant. A 25 minute drive from Highclere Castle.
- Four Seasons Hampshire in Dogmersfield – If you want to stay in 5-star luxury in an elegant Georgian manor house, this is the hotel for you. The hotel has an on-site spa, swimming pool, tennis court, bar and restaurant, a 24-hour front desk, and free parking. Guest activities that can be booked here include horse riding, canal boating, and clay pigeon shooting. It is about a 40 minute drive from Highclere Castle.
- Swan Inn in Swinford – This country inn is much further from the castle, but we’ve included it on the list because it was used as a Downton Abbey filming location. In Season 2, the inn was depicted as the place where Lady Sybil and Tom Branson try to stay overnight with plans of eloping. Lady Mary, Edith, and Anna find them at the inn to stop the elopement. It is about a 1 hour and 15 minute drive from the Castle but may be convenient for those also planning to visit Bath and/or Bristol.
- Check nearby Airbnb listings here if you are looking for a private room, apartment, home, or glamping options in the area. There are a number of options in the Newbury area.
- Camping? If you are looking for campsites for a tent, campervan, or motorhome, there are several campsites near Highclere Castle. You can see a list of them here.
Other Nearby Places to Visit with a Connection to Highclere Castle?
Highclere village is the local village outside the castle and is strongly associated with Highclere Castle and the Carnarvons.
The church was commissioned by the 4th Earl of Carnarvon and designed by architect Sir Gilbert Scott. Highclere village also has a pub called The Red House that serves drinks and food.
Also nearby is Beacon Hill, which includes a memorial to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (the Earl who funded the discovery of King Tut’s tomb) as he is buried at the top of the hill. It can be reached via one of the public walking trails on the Highclere estate.
Other Downton Abbey Filming Locations Nearby?
The primary real-world filming location for Downton Abbey was Highclere Castle and the surrounding gardens and grounds. However, there are a few other places in the area that were major filming locations in the series as well as numerous minor locations.
Here are several Downton Abbey filming locations located within a 1 hour driving distance of Highclere Castle that you can visit:
- Bampton – This small Cotswolds village often doubled as the village of Downton in the TV series and was also used in the Downton Abbey film. It was primarily used for exterior shots, and a walk around the village will reveal the buildings used for Isobel Crawley’s house (Churchgate House), St. Mary’s village church and churchyard (St. Michael’s and All Angels), Grantham Arms pub (Church View), the village green, and the Cottage Hospital (old Grammar school building).
- The Portal Hall in Burghclere was used for the village school (exterior and interior) for a number of scenes. It was built in 1890 on land that was donated by the Earl of Carnarvon. The hall is rented out for special events so you can’t visit the interior, but you can see it from the outside.
- Cogges Farm Manor – This family farm in Witney was the setting for Yew Tree Farm in the TV series. It is where the Drewe family live and where Edith’s daughter Marigold is raised briefly by the Drewes. After the Drewe’s leave, the Mason’s become tenants here. Open to the public during visiting hours.
- Basildon Park – The interior of this National Trust house near Reading was used to film a number of scenes that take place at Grantham House, the Crawley’s London house, in the series. Open to the public during visitor hours.
If you don’t have a car, these locations are not going to be easy to combine with a day visit to Highclere Castle via public transit, so we recommend joining a guided tour that includes a visit to Highclere Castle as well as additional filming locations of interest. A couple of options are this tour from London and this tour from Oxford.
There are many more filming locations of the TV series and 2019 film that you can visit in England and Scotland. We have visited most of the filming locations, and if you have any questions in planning a visit, just ask us in the Comments section at the end of the article.
It should be noted that the TV series is primarily set on a fictional estate in Yorkshire, which is a northern region of England. However, the actual filming of the show took place almost entirely in southern England, mostly in and around Berkshire, Hampshire, and Oxfordshire.
However, if you do head to Yorkshire, there are a few filming locations up there. We would strongly recommend a visit to Wentworth Woodhouse (a filming location for the 2019 film). The size of Wentworth Woodhouse and the wealth of the owners in its heyday would have greatly eclipsed that of the fictional Crawley family and Downton Abbey. The royal visit depicted in the Downton Abbey movie was inspired by the real-life visit of the King and Queen to Wentworth Woodhouse.
How to Find out more Information about Highclere Castle?
The Highclere Castle official website is a great, comprehensive resource about how to visit the castle and current visitor offerings and events. Countess Carnarvon also has a personal blog, where she writes about life at Highclere, history, and news related to Downton Abbey.
The 8th Countess of Carnarvon (the current countess) has written several books about the castle and its most famous inhabitants. It was actually this book about Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, that got me initially interested in Highclere Castle and watching Downton Abbey. She has since written more books about the real-life people of Highclere Castle as well as guides to entertaining. You can see a list of the books she has written here.
If you are interested in Egyptology and the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter and the 5th Earl Carnarvon, there are a lot of books and films about the famous discovery. Although the Earl died shortly after the opening of the tomb, Howard Carter wrote a 3-volume set of books about the discovery and the contents of King Tutankhamun’s tomb if you want to read a first-hand account.
If you want to learn more about the creation and filming of the Downton Abbey TV series and film, you can check out the series of books written by Jessica Fellowes, the niece of Julian Fellowes. These include The Official Series Companion Book and The World of Downton Abbey. You can find more books written by Jessica Fellowes here.
A Brief History of Highclere Castle & the Carnarvons
Highclere Castle and the Carnarvon family have a long and fascinating history. The current Earl’s family have been living on the estate since 1679 and the house and family have gone through a number of ups and downs over the years.
While most visitors are primarily interested in its connection to the fictional Downton Abbey, the history of the house and the people connected to it are just as interesting (if not more so!).
The Early History of Highclere Castle
The location of Highclere Castle has been inhabited for a long time and Iron Age and Bronze Age remains have been found here. The first recorded inhabitation of the land dates back to 749 when the land was granted to the Bishops of Winchester. Bishop William of Wykeham built a medieval palace and gardens here.
By the 16th century, a red brick Tudor manor was built here. In the late 17th century, the palace would be rebuilt and named Highclere Place House by Sir Robert Sawyer, the Attorney General of England and Wales.
Sawyer’s descendant (his grandson’s nephew), Henry Herbert, would later inherit the house and become the first Earl of Carnarvon. The 1st Earl would have the parkland designed by the famous landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
Victorian and Edwardian Eras at Highclere Castle
In 1838, the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon hired the famous English architect Sir Charles Barry, the architect who remodeled the Palace of Westminster, to redesign the home into a grander and more impressive mansion. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the Square Tudor manor house would be converted to a classical Georgian mansion in the Jacobethan (Jacobean Revival) style and faced in Bath stone.
It would be during the tenure of the 4th Earl of Carnarvon that most of the interiors of the house would be completed. The house today looks very much like it did in the mid-19th century.
In the late 1860’s, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, the 4th Earl would be involved in drawing up the Constitution of Canada and setting the foundation for present-day Canada.
During this era, the castle was considered a glamorous center of culture, politics, and parties. For example, in 1895, the 5th Earl welcomed the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) to Highclere Castle.
However, not all was well and the 5th Earl had a large number of debts. It was his marriage to Almina Wombwell in 1895 that allowed him to pay off his debts, pay for the upkeep of Highclere Castle, and live an extravagant lifestyle. Almina was the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and her father left her a fortune.
If you are looking for a period of time at Highclere Castle that closely mirrors that of the fictional Downton Abbey, I’d recommend reading about the lives of the 5th Earl and his wife. There is plenty of drama, scandal, romance, death, royal connections, and family-infighting to rival anything on Downton. Two books about Almina include this one by the current Countess and this one by researcher William Cross; the two books represent different viewpoints on her life.
In 1901, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who loved fast cars and car racing, would have a car accident in Germany which would leave him disabled and in poor health for the rest of his life. In 1903, because of his injuries, he began spending the winters in Egypt and eventually became interested in Egyptian history and artifacts. in 1907, he began financing archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter to excavate tombs in Egypt.
The 5th Earl also loved fast horses and in 1902, he established Highclere Stud to breed thoroughbred racehorses. In 1905, he was appointed one of the Stewards at the Newbury Racecourse.
In 1909 and 1910, aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland made his first test flights from the Highclere Estate.
The World Wars
The World Wars were a time of upheaval and change at Highclere Castle. During the first World War, Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, converted part of Highclere Castle into a hospital for wounded soldiers to convalesce. She became a skilled nurse and nursed many patients herself. In 1922, it was converted back to a private home.
During World War II, Highclere Castle was briefly used as a shelter for children who had to be evacuated from London. Over the six years of the Second World War, it is believed that a total of eight Allied military planes, including those with American, British, Canadian, and New Zealand crews, crashed on the Highclere Estate. The crashes were due to adverse weather conditions and the surrounding hills.
The Discovery of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb in Egypt
Although George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon had begun funding Howard Carter’s expeditions in 1907, little had been found by 1922. Although a concession to dig in the Valley of Kings had been granted in 1914, work had stopped during World War I and didn’t resume until the end of 1917.
However, in November 1922, Howard Carter would make an important discovery. In February 1923, the pair entered King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The discovery was a worldwide sensation, creating a renewed public interest in Egyptology and providing scientists and historians with more information about the ancient Egyptians.
Carnarvon would not live long to enjoy the fame, dying just 3 weeks later of pneumonia and an infected mosquito bite. Or perhaps his death was caused by the Pharaoh’s Curse if you believe in that!
Howard Carter would spend about 10 years recovering, documenting, and preserving over 5,000 artifacts from King Tut’s tomb. Carnarvon’s wife continued to fund Carter’s work for many years. A large number of these objects can be seen today at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
Over the years the 5th Earl and his wife acquired an extraordinary collection of Egyptian artifacts. Although most of this collection would be sold to the Metropolitan Museum of New York to pay Lord Carnarvon’s death duties in 1926, a small amount of these objects are now on display in the castle’s Egyptian Exhibition.
Decline of Highclere Castle
Following the World Wars, like many stately houses in Britain, Highclere Castle and the fortunes of the Carnarvons began to decline. High taxes, shortages of staff, and high maintenance fees made it impossible to keep the house running as it had before WWI. Despite the large fortune Almina had inherited from her wealthy father, the Carnarvons spent extravagantly and managed their money poorly. Almina died estranged from her son, the 6th Earl, with almost no money.
During the stewardship of the 6th and 7th Earls Carnarvon, the castle fell victim to neglect and disrepair. Large sections of the castle were closed up and became disused. The Carnarvon family began living in the cottages on the estate rather than in the castle itself.
The 5th Earl’s love for horse racing continued through the generations. His grandson, Henry George Reginald Molyneux Herbert, the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, would become Queen Elizabeth II’s racing manager in 1969. He would become a close friend to the Queen and after his death his son-in-law, John Warren, became the Queen’s new racing manager.
In 1987, the 7th Earl and the butler rediscovered a small collection of Egyptian items that had been stored away in cabinets in the house. These were items that had been collected by the 5th Earl.
In 1988, Highclere Castle was opened to the public for the first time. The highlight, in addition to seeing the State Rooms, was the recently “rediscovered” Egyptian items. The house was opened to try to generate money for the house’s upkeep. It was open for about 60 days per year.
Highclere Castle was largely unused as home through 2009 as water damage had caused at least 50 rooms to become uninhabitable. The 8th Earl (the current Earl) and his family were mostly living in a cottage on the grounds, instead of in the actual castle. It was unclear at this point if the house would be saved and you can read about the poor state of the castle in this 2009 article.
The house was opened for weddings and corporate events to help bring in some income to help pay the large repair bills.
Downton Abbey & The Restoration of the Castle
The fortunes of the Carnarvons and Highclere Castle would change dramatically in the 2010’s with the fame of the TV series Downton Abbey.
The interior and exterior of the castle had been used for filming of a variety of television shows and movies prior to the Downton Abbey TV series, including The Secret Garden (1987), the 1990’s British TV series Jeeves and Wooster and Inspector Morse, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). It also appeared in a John Legend music video.
The use of Highclere Castle as a filming location brought in extra money which could be used to help repair the castle. The erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, in particular, came with a large budget. It may be hard to imagine the grand rooms of Highclere Castle being used for orgy scenes if you are a fan of Downton Abbey!
However, none of these had close to the impact of Downton Abbey. The television series began filming at Highclere Castle in 2010. Highclere Castle is used to depict Downton Abbey, the stately home of the Crawley family in the series that is set in the early 20th century. Both the exterior and parts of the interior are used in the series.
Highclere Castle was used as the primary filming location for the TV show from 2010 to 2015. In 2018, the film crews returned to film the Downton Abbey movie that was released in theaters in 2019.
The worldwide fame of the TV series has caused a large increase in visitor interest in Highclere Castle. The dramatic increase in paying visitors has made it possible to finance major restorations of the interior, the turrets of the castle, and other areas of the estate. The Earl and Countess and their family now split their time between living in the Castle and living nearby during the open visitor season.
The current Earl of Carnarvon is George Reginald Oliver Molyneux Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon. The current Countess of Carnarvon is Fiona Aitken, the second wife of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon. The heir presumptive of the Highclere Estate is the current Earl’s elder son George Kenneth Oliver Molyneux Herbert, born in 1992.
The 8th Countess of Carnarvon is very involved in planning tours, lectures, and other activities for visitors to the castle, and raising awareness about the history of the building. She’s written multiple books on the history of the castle and the Carnarvon family.
Highclere Castle & Downton Abbey
Julian Fellowes, a friend of the Carnarvons, chose Highclere Castle as the setting for the fictional Yorkshire estate Downton Abbey. The British show is an Edwardian era drama about the fictional aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. The show’s events take place between 1912 and 1926.
It first aired in September 2010 on ITV in UK (and on PBS in the USA) and ran for six seasons. A feature film, a follow-up film set in 1927, was shot here in 2018 and was released in 2019.
Highclere Castle was used for external shots and most of the internal filming. However, the servants’ quarters, kitchens, and some of the bedrooms were shot on a sound stage at Ealing Studios in London.
The exterior of Highclere Castle is used extensively in the series and is included in the opening sequence of the show. The main rooms at Highclere Castle used for filming were the entrance hall, Saloon, the Dining Room, the Drawing Room, and the Library. Some of the upstairs bedrooms at Highclere were also used for filming, including those for Lady Sybil and Lord and Lady Grantham.
The series was immediately a huge hit, particularly in the United States, and has resulted in a huge influx of interest and tourism to Highclere Castle. This has been a boon to the castle, which was able to put the new money towards renovations, and they have really leaned into their status as the real-life location of Downton Abbey.
What to See at Highclere Castle
Highclere Castle is huge with “between 200 and 300 rooms” according to the current Countess. Of course, many of these are not open to the public, but you can visit all the main rooms on the ground floor as well as several bedrooms on the first floor. The downstairs area of the stately home houses the Egyptian Exhibition.
Highclere Castle is surrounded by about 1,000 acres of parkland. There are gardens, follies, and estate paths to explore if you wish. The total Highclere Estate includes over 5,000 acres of parkland, farmland, and woodland. You can learn more about the working estate here.
Depending on the amount of time you have for your visit to Highclere Castle (and the time of year), you will need to prioritize your visit as you could easily spend most of a day here. However, it is easy to see most of the highlights in 2 to 3 hours.
Highclere Castle State Rooms
Highclere’s State Rooms have been lovingly restored, and most of these have been used to film scenes in Downton Abbey.
Important rooms include:
- Entrance Hall -The hall includes a Gothic arch and a marble bust of the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon by Italian sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini.
- The Saloon – This spectacular Gothic-style central room features 17th century Spanish leather wall coverings.
- The Library – This large 2-room area holds over 5,000 books. Here you’ll find the 18th century Carlton House desk (often used in the TV series as Lord Grantham’s desk) and a desk and chair set previously owned by Napoleon.
- The Music Room – This well-lit room offers a nice view over the lawn. It features a Baroque painted ceiling and tapestries.
- Drawing Room – Decorated in the Rococo Revival style, this elegant room is decorated with 19th century mint green French silk wall coverings and family portraits. It is often used as a place for family gatherings before and after meals (both in real life and on Downton Abbey). Narrow cupboards located between the double doors from the Drawing Room to the Smoking Room is where the “forgotten” Egyptian antiquities were discovered in 1987.
- The Smoking Room – This cozy room features lots of rugs and carpets and a number of Dutch paintings.
- Dining Room – This room is dominated by the formal dining table and large number of paintings. One of the most significant paintings is the large painting of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck.
Visitors are also able to go upstairs to visit about 12 bedrooms on the first floor. A couple of these recreate Highclere’s time as a hospital during World War 1.
None of the rooms located on the second and third floors are currently open to the public. Some of these are still being restored and others are in use by the family and guests.
There is no real “downstairs” part of the tour. The kitchen and servants’ quarters have been modernized and are not included as part of the tour. Much of the downstairs area is now used to house the Egyptian Exhibition.
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon made frequent trips to Egypt because of his health and became an amateur Egyptologist, purchasing and discovering a large collection of Egyptian artifacts. He also financed the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun with Howard Carter.
Lord Carnarvon had assembled a wonderful collection of Egyptian artifacts over the years. However, after his death in 1923, the collection was sold by his wife Almina to the Metropolitan Museum of New York in order to pay death duties. However, a number of smaller objects that were not sent to New York were rediscovered in cupboards at the Castle in 1987.
The Egyptian Exhibition contains the objects discovered in those cabinets, as well as other objects that had previously been lent by the Carnarvon family to museums in the UK. It also covers the story of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb and includes replicas of some of the main objects that were discovered.
To visit the Egyptian Exhibition, you need to enter through a separate entrance (it is located in the downstairs part of the house) and it is ticketed separately from the State Rooms.
Gardens & Grounds
Highclere Castle is set on about 1,000 acres of parkland and there is a large amount of parkland and gardens that you can explore. The estate also has lakes, follies, and other landmarks.
If you are interested in seeing the gardens, I’d recommend planning your visit for early to mid summer. The gardens are normally at their best in the late Spring and summer months.
Although some of the estate paths are open year-round, several paths are only open in the late Spring and Summer months (normally from Easter to the end of August). So if you wish to explore the estate on foot, it is best to visit during this period.
There are expansive lawns around the castle, and guests are welcome to enjoy these and even have a picnic in some areas. There are picnic tables located near the Visitor Reception area.
Here are some of the more notable gardens and areas of the estate:
- Monk’s Garden & White Garden – A decorative garden that includes climbing roses, geraniums, lavender, and fruit trees. There is also a glass house and a border garden planted with white flowers.
- The Secret Garden – Just off the walled garden is a gate that leads to the smaller “secret garden”, which is also full of flowers. The name is likely a reference to the fact that the exterior of the house and grounds were used in the filming of the 1987 Hallmark film The Secret Garden.
- Wild Flower Meadow – An area full of wildflowers in the summer months.
- The Wood of Goodwill – A recently planted woodland area with 38 types of British trees. You may also find some woodland flowers here, depending on the time of year. The Rose Arbour is also nearby.
- Highclere Chapel – There is a small Gothic-style chapel and cemetery on the grounds near the house which was built by Henrietta, the 3rd Countess of Carnarvon, after her husband’s death. A service is held here each August.
- The Follies – Several follies were built on the estate in the 18th century and you can walk around the estate to see them if you wish. The nearest are Jackdaw’s Castle (a rectangular pillared classical temple), Dan’s Lodge (now a ruin), and the Etruscan Temple (a round pillared temple near the woodlands). If you decide to do some of the estate walks, you may also encounter the Temple of Diana (a circular temple with rotunda) and Heaven’s Gate (a red brick arch). Grotto Lodge and London Lodge have been turned into a self-catering holiday cottages.
- Statues – Keep an eye out for statues and installations in the garden. The Airman is a memorial for the airmen who lost their lives in military plane crashes on the estate during World War II.
If you are visiting the castle, you’ll be given or shown a map of the estate and the areas you are able to visit. If you are not visiting the castle, there are still public access paths you can take although these will not allow you into the castle, the gardens, or the private grounds. You can see a full list of the walks here.
Other Things to Do & See at Highclere Castle
There is a gift shop and tea room located in the former stables. Highclere has a large gift shop where you can purchase home goods, clothing, and books.
The Castle’s tea rooms are normally open from 9:30 onwards during public opening times only. You can have a morning coffee or tea or a light lunch after noon. A more formal afternoon tea experience is also available, but must be booked in advance.
Our Experience Visiting Highclere Castle
We visited Highclere Castle in late August during the regular summer public opening dates. The public opening dates are almost always busy times at the Castle so do be prepared for it to be a bit crowded.
When we arrived in the morning, it was raining (hence the umbrella and gray skies in some of our photos) so there were less people than normal as I think the rain put some people off from visiting. However, because of the rain, everyone that was visting that morning were crammed into the House and other indoor areas. If you visit during bad weather, expect that people will stay in the house longer and spend little time in the garden and wandering around the estate.
Highclere Castle is a very impressive building and if you are a Downton Abbey fan, you might feel as if you are walking onto a film set. It is one of the few buildings built in the Jacobethan (Jacobean Revival) style on this scale. If it reminds you a bit of the Palace of Westminster (a.ka. Houses of Parliament) in London, it is because the two were remodeled by the same architect.
We did the House tour first which is self-guided so we just explored at our own pace and there was a fixed route to keep people moving in the same direction. The rooms that are open to the public are very well decorated and each room has a bit of information about the family, history, and/or furnishings. The Saloon, Library, and Drawing Room, in particular, are really beautiful rooms. The upstairs rooms are a bit less impressive but still worth seeing.
Many of the rooms, especially the ground floor State Rooms, will be familiar to Downton Abbey fans. There is some information about the TV show and film within the rooms, but most of the displays relate more to the real-life history, the Carnarvons, and the furnishings in each room. There are guides stations throughout the house that can answer any questions you may have.
As noted, the House tour can be a bit crowded, especially upstairs as many of these rooms you just look into from the hall. So just have some patience as you go through the house and you’ll get your chance to see everything.
After exiting the House tour, we then headed downstairs to the Egyptian Exhibition. Although I am a fan of Downton Abbey, because my initial interest in Highclere Castle came first from reading about the lives of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and the Countess Almina Herbert (in this book), I was probably more excited to visit the Exhibition than the house.
The Egyptian Exhibition is fairly small, but it does a good job at providing information on the Earl’s interest in Egyptology, Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and the initial exploration of the tomb by the Earl, his daughter, and Howard Carter. The collection of Egyptian artifacts isn’t huge but it is well displayed and there are also replicas of some of the objects that were found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Luckily, by the time we finished the House tour and Egyptian Exhibition tour, the skies cleared and we were able to wander around the gardens and grounds. The gardens were nice but since it was the end of summer, they were not at their peak.
The estate is huge and if you are here in summer, there are several trails that you can explore. We wandered around a bit once the sun came out. Then we sat outside and had a cream tea at the Tea Room.
Then we decided to drive over to do the Beacon Hill hike. It isn’t a long hike, but it is uphill and can be muddy. At the top is the remains of an Iron Age hill fort and the burial site of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. There is also a very nice view from here over the estate.
So is a visit to Highclere Castle worth it? For us, we enjoyed our visit, despite the initial bad weather, and we felt it was worth it to visit. There are essentially three attractions here: the House, the Egyptian Exhibition, and the gardens.
If you are looking for a less expensive way to visit and are OK with not going inside the House, we’d recommend purchasing the Gardens only ticket. The ticket allows you to enjoy the views of the house and grounds for a reasonable price. You can then enjoy either a snack at the Tea Room or bring your own picnic to have in the picnic area to get more from your visit.
Now, if you are not a Downton Abbey fan and not particularly interested in the history of Highclere Castle, there are grander houses, nicer gardens, and better museums of Egyptology out there that you can visit. England is filled with grand stately homes and country houses that you can tour and the crowds here because of it being a filming location for Downton Abbey can put off some visitors. So we would definitely not recommend it for everyone!
We are currently in the process of moving from Scotland to Somerset, so we will soon be only 1.5 hours from the castle. So we are planning a return trip very soon! We are hoping to return again to Highclere Castle in the next year to see any changes and to explore more of the grounds. We’d also like to attend one of the special events here.
Tips for Visiting Highclere Castle
We hope you are excited about your visit to Highclere Castle. Below we highlight some of the advice given earlier as well as provide some further tips for visiting Highclere Castle and getting the most out of your visit:
- Plan Around Open Days – The castle is only open to visitors at certain times of the year. Make sure your planned visit corresponds with the Castle’s opening dates.
- Figure out How to Get There – Highclere Castle is located in a rural part of England and you will want to figure out how to get there before your visit. As described earlier in the article, you can drive, take a train or bus to a local station (and then a taxi to the Castle), or book a guided tour. If you book a guided tour, the tour price should already include reserved entrance tickets to the Castle (and other filming locations).
- Book Ahead – If you are booking your own tickets, we recommend booking in advance. While walkup tickets are available on public opening days, it’s wise to book your tickets online ahead of time so you will be guaranteed entry. If you want to do a guided Castle tour or attend a special event, you must book in advance.
- Know What you Want to See – The gardens, the castle staterooms, and the Egyptian Exhibition have separate costs. Make sure you purchase the appropriate ticket based on what you plan to see at Highclere.
- Print out your Ticket – If you are pre-booking your ticket, you need to bring your printed ticket. You may also be asked to show your ID and debit or credit card used to make the booking.
- Know the Photography Rules – Photography is not allowed inside the Castle or Egyptian Exhibitions but is permitted on the grounds and gardens.
- Dress Appropriately – Check the weather forecast before you set out for your visit, and it is always wise to be prepared for rain. If you plan to spend some time walking or hiking around the estate, we recommend bringing shoes that would be OK getting some mud on them, rain protection (rain jacket, poncho, or umbrella), and sun protection (hat and/or sunscreen).
- Plan Your Lunch – If you will be at Highclere during lunchtime make sure you have a plan for lunch. The only food available at the estate is at the Tea Rooms (which usually serves a “light lunch” between 12-2). You can also book a more formal afternoon tea experience (book in advance) or bring your own food and supplies to have a picnic on the grounds.
- Leave Time to Explore the Gardens and Grounds – The gardens of Highclere are wonderful to explore, especially when in bloom, and you don’t want to miss out on them. If you have more time, we’d recommend seeing the follies and doing some of the estate walks.
Well, that is our guide to visiting Highclere Castle! We hope that this guide has helped you plan your own visit to Highclere Castle and perhaps to other Downton Abbey filming sites in the area.
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Have you been to Highclere Castle? If so, let us know what the experience was like for you. Any tips we missed or advice you’d give based on your own visit?
If you are planning a visit to Highclere Castle and have any questions about visiting Highclere Castle or the local area, just ask us in the Comments section below and we’ll get back to you. We love hearing from you!