How to visit the real Downton Abbey
The last tickets of 2014 have just been released for Highclere Castle... so how can you get them, and what's there to see inside the real Downton Abbey?
What's all the fuss about?
Erm, where have you been this past five years?
Downton Abbey is the period drama to end all period dramas, and it's back for a fifth season of toffs, tension and Upstairs/Downstairs titillation on ITV (Sundays, 9pm) and TV3 (Wednesdays, 9pm).
Much of the series is shot on location at Highclere Castle in West Berkshire. Tickets are like gold dust for visitors, but the Castle has just announced a special December public opening and Christmas craft fair.
Tickets "are now available to purchase," according to its website.
So where is the real Downton Abbey?
Highclere Castle (picture above courtesy of Visit Britain) doubles as Downton in the TV series. The hottest TV location of the day, if not the century, is set among 1,000 acres of parkland in West Berkshire, about an hour from London Heathrow.
How can I take a tour?
Tours of Highclere Castle (www.highclerecastle.co.uk; £20) run during Easter holidays, each of the UK May Bank holidays, and for two months (Sunday to Thursday) over the summer months.
The castle's next public opening (December 6th and 7th) sold out shortly after it was announced, but tickets are still available for the Christmas fair (£20), with an added £2 charitable donation allowing attendees to view Highclere's magnificent Galleried Bedrooms.
2015 Spring and Easter dates will be confirmed at the start of November, with Summer 2015 tickets confirmed in early February. For the best chance of nabbing tickets, stay glued to Highclere's website, Facebook and Twitter account (@highclerecastle) for updates.
Whenever you plan on visiting, act fast - tickets sell out rapidly.
What's there to see?
Designed in Jacobean style by Sir Charles Barry, Highclere is a Bath stone beauty crowned by a Gothic crenellated tower. It's been furnished over the centuries with treasures including Napoleon’s desk and a collection of Egyptian artefacts - sourced by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who financed Harold Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The vaulted ceiling over the saloon, a definitive backdrop for Downton Abbey intrigue, is 30 metres tall. As well as Dame Maggie Smith, Richard E Grant and Co., Queen Elizabeth herself has been known to take tea in the library.
How did Highclere become Downton Abbey?
Julian Fellowes is a longstanding friend of the Carnarvon family (pictured with staff on their Facebook page, above), who have lived at Highclere Castle since 1697.
Reportedly, he had the castle in mind as he wrote the ITV series.
Fact and fiction occasionally overlap, too. Lady Almina, the fifth Countess, turned the house into a convalescent home during the First World War, for example.
NB: This story has been updated since first publication.