Call Upon Highclere Castle, the Real ‘Downton Abbey’

The third season of “Downton Abbey” debuted on PBS on January 6, renewing interest in the series’ scandal-ridden Edwardian gentry and their staff. Set just before and during World War I, the first two seasons of this Emmy-winning miniseries revived costume dramas to “Brideshead Revisited”  levels of glory. It had more than 11 million viewers, sold rights in 100-plus countries and cost an estimated $1.6 million per episode.

But you don’t have to be an aristocrat to catch an inside glimpse of the world these aristocrats inhabit. “Downton” films almost exclusively on location, which means fans can immerse themselves in both TV sets and actual places. And, oh, how they do! Thanks to their numbers and spillover to other stately homes, England is enjoying a heritage tourism boom.

The series’ bedrock is Highclere Castle, which acts as the Grantham family home. The honey-colored, gorgeously symmetrical 19th-century castle preens over 1,000 acres of parkland near Newbury, England, an hour west of London. The “200- or 300-room home” (no one has bothered to count them all) remains the part-time residence of the real-life 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon; the earl's family tree has rooted here since 1679. Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes — a longtime friend — modeled the fictional Grantham estate on Highclere, which Architect Sir Charles Barry spruced up after plotting his masterpiece: Britain’s Houses of Parliament.

Before the show, the stately home struggled: Turrets crumbled, damp had rendered at least 50 rooms uninhabitable and the repair bill rang up at a daunting $19 million. Now up to 1,200 visitors descend on summer days — the crowd once peaked at 4,000 — plumping up the coffers as surely as marriage to an heiress would.

"So many big houses were destroyed in the 1950s and '60s, but today there's a sense of wanting to feel grounded and people wanting to understand their history, and houses like this are living history with a real personal connection to the past." Lady Fiona Carnarvon told the Independent.

Visiting "Downton"

Highclere receives visitors on select days from March 30 until mid-September ($29 adult, $17 child for access to the castle, gardens and exhibition. Buy admission tickets in advance via the castle's website). Guests can descend the oak staircase, stroll the sumptuous chambers and murmur over the central saloon’s Gothic-arched ceiling. They can even peek into Lady Mary's bedroom, where the Turkish diplomat Kemal Pamuk suffered a premature and suspicious demise in an early episode. They also can pop into the cellars — no longer the province of servants, but instead a treasure trove of Egyptian artifacts and replicas. These showcase the legacy of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who sponsored the discovery of the boy-king Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. His death a year later, probably from blood poisoning, led to enduring legends of the mummy’s curse.

In 2012, more upscale guests could swank into the social epicenter of Edwardian England as part of a $12,700 package, which included an intimate high tea with the earl and countess. Another company, Zicasso, continues to offer a seven-day themed tour ­— complete with a private driver/historian — starting at $4,500 per person.

More budget-conscious fans may prefer a one-day spin around locations with Brit Movie Tours ($120, via bus) or Great British Tours ($280, with chauffeur). And public footpaths and summer walks around Highclere remain blissfully free of charge.

Away from the abbey

Abbey-ites can also leave their calling cards in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, 40 miles to the north. The series films many of its town exteriors there, including the pub, the church, the hospital and the home of Matthew Crawley. Stop for a spot of lunch at the elegant Vineyard at Stockcross hotel, where rumors say actress Dame Maggie Smith has stayed. Potential star-spotting aside, the eatery won a Restaurant of the Year award from Decanter/Laurent-Perrier and dazzles with dishes like carpaccio of rose veal and a 3,000-strong wine list.

Many then continue into the Cotswolds, an area of outstanding natural beauty and historical charm. The thatched cottages and idyllic rolling hills may look familiar from Lady Sybil’s second-season scandal with driver Tom Branson: the pair eloped to The Swan Inn at Swinbrook.

Farther north lies York, where a key character will be imprisoned this year. Closer inspection reveals the site of the “jail” to be Lincoln Castle, south of York in eastern England.

Insatiable Downton devotees will have to wait for vacation time to peer behind the scenes in person, but they can get a taste from this side of the pond with an hour-long special, “Secrets of Highclere Castle,” screening before the "Downton" season premiere.

Jolly good show!

by Amanda Castleman

Top: Lady Carnarvon walks her dogs in the grounds of Highclere Castle, made famous as the setting for the hugely popular  series “Downton Abbey.” (Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

Right: The "Downton Abbey" cast poses in front of Highclere Castle. Season 3 airs over seven Sundays on PBS. (Photo courtesy of Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece)

Left: Lincoln Castle doubles as a York prison in “Downton Abbey’s” third season. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)