How to Visit the Real Downton Abbey and Travel the English Countryside Like an Aristocrat
Pack a stately gown and prepare your best dowager quip because we’re traveling to the English countryside. Turns out you don’t have to be born into the British aristocracy to travel like you live in your own Downton Abbey movie (now available to stream or buy) episode. Think castles and historic manor houses. We’ve planned the whole weekend for you, actually. From Champagne tea in London to clay pigeon shooting in the country, here’s your Downton Abbey–style itinerary (all of which is delightful even if you don’t have servants to dress you for every occasion).
VISIT HIGHCLERE CASTLE, THE REAL DOWNTOWN ABBEY
The ideal Downton Abbey experience begins, of course, at the real-life Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle. Located about an hour west of London by car (or by train to nearby Newbury), the castle was built by architect Charles Barry in the 19th century and was featured in all six seasons of the TV series, as well as the film. Highclere is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, who welcome visitors throughout the year for tours and special events (including a recent screening of the Downton Abbey film in the castle’s library to raise funds for a local charity).
To visit, book tickets in advance online and arrive early. The Countess of Carnarvon, who runs the house, recommends making a day of an adventure to Highclere, especially during nice weather. “Above all, I hope people give themselves the time to have time out,” Lady Carnarvon says. “When I travel I prefer not having a schedule. My life here is so scheduled. People can come here and lay down on the lawn and have a snooze in the summer. They don’t have to have the bustle and pressure of everyday life. It’s the green peace of the countryside.”
Word to the wise: Do not miss the expansive grounds, which provide the best views of the castle (for Instagram, obviously).
EXPLORE THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE
Highclere Castle isn’t the only filming location from Downton Abbey. Bampton village in Oxfordshire doubles as the town of Downton, both in the series and the film, and offers a quintessential British country village experience. Look for St. Mary’s Church, where poor Edith was jilted at the altar. Lacock Village, in Wiltshire, was also used in the film to create the town’s parade route for the king and queen. Both are most easily accessed by car, especially if you want to explore the rolling hills and small villages of the nearby Cotswolds. Be sure to stop by Cogges Manor Farm in Witney, which was known on Downton Abbey as Yew Tree Farm.
Lady Carnarvon recommends visiting Hungerford, a nearby historic market town filled with antique shops, as well as Winchester Cathedral, which shares its stonework with Highclere. Windsor and Oxford, both of which have royal ties, are not far away, and Highclere Castle is on the way to Stonehenge and Bath. Blenheim Palace, England’s answer to Versailles, makes for a nice afternoon of wondering why you couldn’t have been born a ridiculously rich person.
And of course, no trip to the English countryside is complete without traditional afternoon tea, which should be taken with as much opulence as possible. The Cotswolds are filled with adorable tea rooms, but Lucknam Park Hotel, in Chippenham, is a good spot for a fully indulgent afternoon tea, which is available on the terrace in the summer.
Where to Stay in the English Countryside
Immerse yourself in countryside luxury at the Four Seasons Hampshire, a sprawling Georgian estate that offers the sort of aristocratic pursuits usually reserved for old white men. Try your hand at clay pigeon shooting on the back lawn, play a round of croquet or saddle up to go horseback riding. You can even pursue falconry, a true upper-class sport.
Those looking for even more contemporary opulence should book a room at Coworth Park in Ascot, where Prince Harry spent the night before his wedding. The five-star country hotel has its own polo fields and an equestrian center, as well as clay pigeon shooting, croquet and tennis, and the high-end service will make you feel like a royal.
If you prefer to base yourself in Oxford, stay at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a 15th-century manor whose restaurant has two Michelin stars. The decor is ornate, with historic touches, so you can pretend you’re a countess with her own manor home. Or, to experience the world below stairs, enroll in the hotel’s cookery school, which will train you up for your next fancy dinner party.
HOW TO DO LONDON ‘DOWNTON’-STYLE
Although the Downton Abbey film didn’t take its drama to London, the characters have a long history of hanging out in posh places around the city. Before you catch your flight home, visit a few of the Grantham family’s favorite haunts. Lancaster House, in St. James, stood in for Buckingham Palace when Lady Rose made her debut and the family picnicked in Kensington Gardens during the 2013 Christmas special.
Finish off with a celebration in Hoxton Hall, the Victorian music hall where Rose found some nightlife excitement. Today it hosts comedians, cabaret and live music, but if you squint you might feel like you’re back in time enjoying one last moment as a member of the British elite.