Tuesday, August 13, 2013

High Tea at Highclere Castle (aka: Downton Abbey)

Miss Katie Neipris at Highclere Castel in England
Novel Travelist has been exploring the idea of a location, a house, a city, as an integral character in a story. What better lead character to examine than Downton Abbey herself, Highclere Castle.

We have a wonderful post today from Miss Katie Neipris, an American student who earned the rare opportunity to study at Oxford. During one of her weekend adventures, she enjoyed a stately high tea at Highclere Castle. I'll let her tell you all about it:

Last Summer I traveled out of the country for the first time to study at my dream school. Oxford and England were more magical than even my wildest expectations, and I spent a very happy five weeks traveling around the midlands. Every British book and movie that my Anglophilic mind consumed created high expectations and reality surpassed them. The first week at Oxford, I befriended a girl in my class who possessed a similar affinity (obsession) for and we bought our tickets to tour Highclere Castle. The volume of visitors is quite high so we had to buy them three weeks in advance, which seemed a terribly long wait (but was assuaged by three weeks' worth of delightful travels elsewhere). Finally, the magical day arrived, and we chattered happily on the train to Newbury. After a not-too-expensive taxi ride into the countryside (around £15, split in half) we reached a patch of green that appeared untouched by the twenty-first century, until we reached the rows of cars lined neatly on the grass. We continued down the path (the path that Branson drives on!) and there it was, Highclere Castle, looking exactly the same as it did in the show. No, better, if that's possible.

Photo by Katie
I think I stood there, open-mouthed, for about ten minutes before I realized that we could actually go in. Rachel and I half-ran up the gravel path (that crunched just like in the show) and hesitated before we crossed yet another portal to fantasy. Like Alice’s door in Christ Church or the doors of the Great Hall in the Harry Potter studio tour, the heavy Highclere doors welcomed us into another world entirely. The kindly ticket lady smiled at our dumbfounded expressions, which I’m sure she’s used to seeing, before directing us into the library.

This was the room I was most excited to see, and I remember the floaty feeling of walking into a truly magnificent library, draped in dark red and manly brown. Family photos of the Carnarvon family adorned the piano and the shelves, and a few more modern pieces of furniture replaced those on the show, but other than that the room was identical to its televised counterpart, and I kept expecting Hugh Bonneville to pop out.

We followed the downstairs circle of rooms, each one offering more excitement and surprises than the last. The music room contained a desk that was owned by Napoleon, and similarly unexpected treasures cropped up in every room: tokens of overseas travel, vases that adventurous ancestors carried back to England, and heirlooms that could easily deserve a place in the British Museum. Each room held more history than can be explained on the show, and I loved learning about how the mint-green walls were incorporated into the drawing room and how the men and women had their own sitting rooms. The smoking room is the sheer epitome of masculinity, and it’s basically the gradually-modernized equivalent of a man cave: dark wood, richly paneled walls, ornate billiards tables and games, furniture that makes you want to pull out a pipe and a brandy snifter. The adjacent pink room is just the opposite: delicate and feminine, though no less impressive. Each room bears a fascinating history, and some of these have been incorporated into plotlines. The dining room served as a makeshift hospital, and much of Season Two is based on the real World War I experiences of the castle’s inhabitants. If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, which describes the history of the house and is written by the current Countess of Carnarvon.

Book written about the WWI days at Highclere Castle
I loved hearing the exclamations of surprise from our fellow visitors as we enjoyed this communal experience of learning about the secrets behind a story and a house that we’d all fallen in love with. The docents were incredibly knowledgeable and happily answered all questions, and their excitement mirrored our own. I asked one of them how much it costs to get married there and she told me that it’s around £15,000 “before champagne.” Then she leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “but the heir is nineteen!” and winked. I really love British people. (And yes, there really is a handsome 19 year old heir to Highclere.)

We continued around the house, excitedly pointing out sites where our favorite scenes had taken place: the dining hall where Mary and Matthew danced, the hallway where so many whispered conversations transpired, and, most importantly, the staircase. We walked upstairs and entered a narrow hallway (you could definitely tell which tourists were American by their clear unfamiliarity with tiny corridors) that took us around to the bedrooms that are used in the show, and I loved seeing how unchanged the house was from its filmed version. We walked down the hallway where they carried Mr. Pamuk before returning downstairs.

Lovely Cream Tea
We crossed the salon once more and entered the side "garden" (which is more like a park) where we enjoyed a lovely cream tea. Rachel and I were easily the youngest people there, but all of our fellow travelers were extremely kind and just as Downton-obsessed.

It sprinkled lightly as we wandered through the many gardens, follies, and sheep-dotted hills that surround the castle, and each path uncovered some new, beautiful facet of the Highclere estate.

There is nothing in the surrounding meadows to indicate that you are in the twenty-first century; it's so timeless and pastoral that it almost seems like it can't be real, as if it's a Keats creation rather than a real place. 

Sheep-dotted hillside
There really is a Secret Garden, and a Monk's Garden, and every shade of flower you can imagine. Highclere rests on over 1,000 acres of land, and we happily explored as much as was open to the public. 

We met people from all over the world bound by love of the same show, and chatted happily with Germans and Australians and Canadians as we all helped each other out taking pictures. 

One of the many follies
Eventually, we had to leave, but I know that it was not the last time I'll see Highclere. I can't recommend visiting here highly enough, and I can't wait to go back.

If you'd like to visit Highclere Castle and enjoy a tour and tea, here's the link for reservations.


  1. Hi Katie,

    Thanks so much for this great post. Where are planning to travel next? And how's your novel coming along?

  2. Thank you for letting me!! I loved writing it and re-living my awesome day. I'd love to go back to Europe after graduation, but I also want to go to New Zealand and visit Hobbiton. It's almost done :) Just editing and hoping to publish before my birthday! How's yours going?