“We must always travel in hope.” Mr. Carson, Downton Abbey, Season 5
I’ve been putting off writing about our day at Highclere Castle because it was so special that I’m not sure mere words could do it justice. From the moment we were invited to the vintage garden party, Rachel and I ran out of adjectives to describe our elation.
Downton Abbey has been a part of our lives for the past few years, joining our existing obsessions with English stories and storytellers, including Harry Potter, Jane Austen, the modern monarchy and British history.
We are not ashamed to be sold-out Anglophiles, so to be invited to experience a place of both rich history and modern storytelling in costume was beyond our wildest dreams.
Once we’d explored Bath in Regency attire and had a taste of the Jane Austen Festival and Sally Lunn’s famous buns, we moved on to the next phase of our storybook English adventure, hopping an early morning train journey from Bath to Reading to Newbury, the closest town to Highclere Castle. Unfortunately, the train was delayed more than an hour, so our already limited time at the garden party was shrinking before our eyes.
Upon arrival in Newbury, there were wardrobe malfunctions and last minute costume substitutions, but within about 10 minutes of checking in at the Elephant at the Market, we were in a taxi and headed for our next costumed adventure.
There was much squealing and primping in the backseat; our poor cab driver seemed perplexed to have picked up two giggling girls in lace, gloves and fascinators outside the back door of a casual pub.
Driving up to the estate, I had butterflies. I found the soundtrack from Downton Abbey on YouTube, so as we drove the winding roads awaiting the first look of Highclere Castle’s gothic facade to pop into view, the score set the mood.
We composed ourselves as best we could, and stepped out of the taxi into 1912.
There’s something magical about seeing a place you’ve fallen in love with via books, film or TV, and that’s one of the reasons I love visiting such locations. A place is so much more alive when a storyteller has brought it to life in a way that’s made you laugh and cry. Castles, museums and historic sites are wonderful in their own right, but when you can imagine characters you love and care for in that same space, it’s just that much more powerful and personal.
Highclere Castle’s true history is every bit as intriguing as the world Julian Fellowes created for Downton Abbey. There are wars and scandals and Rothschild heirs and Egyptian curses — yes, in the real life version! It makes the will-they-won’t-they drama of Carson & Mrs. Hughes look awfully tame by comparison.
**And yes, you can read all about the true history of the castle and the family in Lady Carnarvon’s books, “Lady Catherine, the Earl and the Real Downton Abbey” and “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle.” I have signed copies on my nightstand just begging for my attention.
Highclere Castle’s vintage garden party was almost an out-of-body experience. I wasn’t quite myself, I didn’t fit in my shoes or perhaps my fascinator was a bit too tight. Oddly enough, it was a delicious feeling.
What a treat it was to go back in time, even just for a day, into life just before the Titanic sank, before the world wars ripped Europe to shreds, before atomic bombs, before 9/11, before this morbid and embarrassing election season.
While Saturday’s party attendees were drenched with some traditional English weather, we were blessed with the picture perfect sunny September Sunday. We frolicked and photographed all around the castle’s grounds, designed by Capability Brown, the 18th century master of grand landscapes.
We picnicked with traditional pork pies, cupcakes and Pimms. We played carnival games, enjoyed the vintage carousel and interacted with the preposterously friendly Highclere staff.
We enjoyed entertainment from a brass band and a jazz singer. We cheered in the most dignified manner as the Lord & Lady Carnarvon awarded prizes for the best “upstairs” and “downstairs” costumes. We also deeply appreciated that they took time out of the festivities to play the Star Spangled Banner and remember 9/11.
Nothing much intimidates me (I have interviewed with Donald Trump, after all), but on these historic grounds, surrounded by lovely people from around the world all dressed in Edwardian finery, I did feel very enthusiastically and wholly American. If you’ve ever been the only American girl on a bus of Europeans, you might understand what I mean. I’m proud of my heritage and perfectly happy to be the smiley, chatty, never-met-a-stranger American girl, but it is a funny moment when you suddenly feel the distinction and know in your heart that Lady Mary would probably think you were a complete horse’s behind.
I cringe to admit it, but I could almost write a whole post entitled, “All the ways we embarrassed ourselves in front of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.”
But let’s save those stories for a future cocktail party and pretend for a moment we were the most polished, poised society ladies and not giddy girls nerding out and playing dress up.
Unfortunately, you can’t take photos inside Highclere Castle, but as part of the festivities, we had the chance to tour some of the rooms that are filled with priceless art and 5,000-year-old Egyptian antiquities.
I’m not sure why it seemed so shocking to me that the family still lives there much of the time. Perhaps it’s because I can’t comprehend waking up in such a splendid, historic place every day. My imagination would run wild with so many rooms (even Lady Carnarvon isn’t totally sure of the exact number) and secret passageways and unused corridors… oh, and artifacts from King Tut’s tomb in the basement. (The 5th Earl of Carnarvon helped to discover them in 1922.)
In the magnificent library, I felt like Belle from Beauty & The Beast. There are nearly 6,000 books dating as far back as the 16th century. Nearby is Napoleon Bonaparte’s desk. I swooned.
And then we promenaded down the staircase like the ladies we were born to be.
Well, maybe in a past life.
I can’t wait to share more about our day at Highclere Castle, including our illuminating tea with blogger, author, marketing mind and countess, Lady Carnarvon, who I’m sure you’ll find as fascinating as I did.
In the meantime, if you’d like to visit Highclere Castle, I highly recommend you keep an eye on their website for similar events. I have it on good authority that a 20s-themed party may be in the plans for 2017.
Otherwise, be advised the castle is not open for visitors all the time, so you’ll need to plan well in advance if you’d like to stop in and say hello. Check out Viator’s private coach tours from London, which include the Bampton where many village scenes from Downton Abbey were filmed.
Until time travel is worked out, we’ll never get back to 1912… but Highclere Castle’s vintage garden party was close enough for me.
Tell me… would you travel for an event like this? Are you a huge Downton Abbey fan like we are? Did you know Highclere Castle had its own rich history, even more fascinating than the Crawley family tale?
Our day at Highclere Castle was in partnership with Visit Britain. All #OMGB moments, opinions and photos (aside from the sister portrait on the stairwell courtesy of Adam Hillier) are my own. Special thanks to the inimitable Alex Popplewell and magnanimous Lord & Lady Carnarvon for making all of our Downton Abbey dreams come true. Images on this page are copyrighted and may not be used without written permission.