What is a Weekend? – Visiting the Real Downton Abbey

Open the Map and find a place that inspires your imagination or fuels your passion. Whether it be the setting of your favorite novel, the birthplace of a historical figure you admire or even where your favorite band is opening for a world tour. Go and see that place which reminds you of something that interest you or makes you happy.

Two weeks ago my mother told me I needed to come home on Friday early from field hockey practice for an orthodontist appointment. After coming home she sprung a surprise on me: there was no orthodontist appointment. Instead, we had a flight to London for the weekend so I could go on a Downtown Abbey tour! Downton Abbey is my favorite show and I am trying to stay patient for the movie to open in September. I was in shock until I actually made it through customs at Heathrow!

London for just a weekend? Of course, especially if it is for a special purpose. I would not recommend a transatlantic flight for two days in a place you’ve never seen before. But having been to London a few times, this was perfect for squeezing in one last summer hurrah and indulge my love of Downton Abbey.

Using American Airlines Vacations, we bundled air and hotel for a very reasonable price. We stayed at the beautiful and iconic Langham, built in 1865. We indulged in high tea at their restaurant The Palm, where high tea was born. We went shopping at Selfridge’s and toured Westminster Abbey. But the purpose of the whirlwind trip was the icing on the cake. My mother booked a Small Group Downton Abbey Tour through Viator. Along with 8 other guests, we embarked on an 11 hour tour on Sunday with our witty and informative guide Tony. We drove to Oxfordshire and into the Cotswolds town of Witney to see Cogge’s Farm, a period farm that serves as the setting of Yew Tree Farm in the series. Idyllic and untouched by time, even a non-Abbey fan would appreciate this tranquil and charming place. Next we went to Bampton to see the town that serves as the English town of Downton. We toured the church where all the weddings and funerals from the show were filmed. The church has a tower that dates to 1066. The final stop was the crown jewel of the excursion: Highclere Castle. Highclere Castle, built in 1679, is the home of the current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It is only open to tour two months in the summer and briefly over the Christmas holidays. So if you are a Downton Abbey fan, plan accordingly if you’d like to take this tour.

We had three hours to explore the castle and its spacious gardens. There is 1,000 acres of gardens and 4,000 acres of farmland and forest. The views are lovely and the land is dotted with those majestic Cedars of Lebanon trees that always seem to be a fixture at every castle in Europe. The Countess is very involved with the tours of her home and can be seen mingling with visitors. She has taken every effort to ensure an enjoyable visit. She limits the number of tickets that can be sold in a day so there is never overcrowding. There are two restaurants on site that offer quick bites as well as hot dishes (I had a great mozzarella, tomato and pesto pannini- both a quick bite and a hot dish). There is a bar serving champagne and cocktails, some made from Highclere’s signature gin. There are two well located restrooms and a very nice gift shop with beautiful souvenirs, though none are Downton Abbey specific. There is a wonderful non-fiction book the Countess authored titled “Countess Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey”. My day was really made special when the tour guide, friends with the countess, presented me with a signed copy.

The tour inside the castle is quite extensive. The castle is bigger than a manor house but smaller than what one would imagine a castle to be. It is a 30,000 square foot building so very large. The number of rooms open to tour is quite generous, especially considering places like Versailles only have four or five public rooms. Fans of the show will recognize every room. The grounds are no less spectacular and familiar to Downton Abbey fans. For those not familiar with the show, Highclere Castle is still a destination of interest and history. The castle was home to the 6th Earl of Carnarvon who famously discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922 with fellow Brit Howard Carter. There is an Egyptian exhibit on the lower floor of the castle that is also a must-see. It was a long but satisfying day. We returned to the Langham for a relaxing stop in the bar and then headed to bed. We had a late flight out back to the states Monday afternoon so were able to sleep in and enjoy a hearty breakfast before departing to Heathrow.

So what is a weekend for? Travel! Open the Map and find that place with special meaning or interest for you. Go ahead and indulge yourself since life is short. I will be forever grateful for my surprise weekend trip to London and Downton Abbey.