‘Excuse me! Pardon me!”
My cries were in vain. The crowd clogging the slick sidewalk did not part, or even budge. With no other option, I played the part of Oliver Twist — minus the petty theft — and dodged sharp elbows and backpacks as deftly as I could.
I was reckless, yes. But my recklessness had a purpose. I was precariously close to missing an opportunity to visit Highclere Castle, the stunning 17th-century manor in the British countryside where “Downton Abbey” was filmed. My bus to Downton, I mean Highclere, was leaving London’s Victoria Station in less than five minutes. I needed to be on that bus, but I was running late.
I pumped my legs until I pulled a calf muscle and was wincing in pain. The drizzle turned to rain and I was soaked to the skin. Like a latter day Kerri Strug, I pushed through the pain. You see, I love “Downton Abbey.” I was hooked on every season of the posh, sudsy drama, and I cannot wait to see the movie. I have dreamed of strolling the stately rooms where the Dowager Countess shot disapproving looks and traded icy bon mots with Isobel Crawley. I wanted to be surrounded by ancient tapestries and tufted velvet sofas.
As I ran, I rang the tour company and asked them to hold the bus, that’s just how desperate I was.
The woman who answered my call was not amused. “You want us to hold a full bus for you?”
So I continued to run my entail off until I finally saw the bus. And then I saw it pull away.
I sat with a very soggy ticket and no way to get into Highclere Castle. There are other means of transport to Highclere from London, but to actually get into the castle, you need a proper ticket, and those tickets generally sell out as soon as they are offered to the public at the beginning of each season. I’m not a fan of bus tours, but this one included admission to the castle. So without the bus tour, I would be as welcome at Highclere as Nanny West, Sir Richard Carlisle, or Edna Braithwaite. Meaning I would quickly be shown the door.
Walk-up tickets are available, but I’m going to make an educated guess that they would be about as common as golden tickets in Wonka Bars. I could not take any chances.
I concocted a plan. I could rent a car and meet the bus when it reached Highclere that afternoon. If I timed it right I could hit all the other important “Downton” filming spots as well. I dried off as best I could, rented a car at a Hertz conveniently located next to Victoria Station, and set out on my drive to the country.
In much the way that Highclere Castle stands in as Downtown Abbey, a modest town called Bampton serves as the fictional Downton Village. Before I intercepted the bus at Highclere, I pointed my GPS to the Oxfordshire Cotswolds to find Bampton. Do you recall how the Crawleys and their staff would walk into Downton Village from the main house to do 20th-century things such as place notices for lady’s maids in the post office window, cure dropsy, or spy on Mrs. Patmore when she ran a clandestine soup kitchen? I don’t recommend trying any of that, because you’d be walking for more than 11 hours. Bampton isn’t near Highclere, it’s about a 50-minute drive. Also, I don’t think dropsy is really a thing anymore.
Bampton — particularly the area of town that serves as Downton Village — is just a sliver of a place. Sneeze and you’ll likely pass by it. However, for those of us who adore all things “Downton” (and I’m going to assume you do if you’ve made it this far into the story without falling asleep), Bampton is magical.
The centerpiece of the town is St. Mary’s Church, which is called St. Michael’s in the show. The church dates back to the 12th century, with gothic flourishes added in later centuries. When I approached the familiar spires the memories came flooding back. Those moments may have come from the mind of creator Julian Fellowes and the creative team behind “Downton,” but I’d say in the almost 10 years since the show debuted, those memories now belong to all of us.
I wasn’t so much taken with the architecture of the church. It’s what it represents. Outside the church I walked through the cemetery where Matthew and Sybil Crawley were buried. I can’t count the number of conversations that took place here, because for some reason everyone on the series liked to walk through the cemetery in nearly every episode.
I held my breath when I opened the door to the church. It was empty, except it wasn’t. I could practically see poor Lady Edith standing at the alter as the knavish Sir Anthony Strallan sprinted on cowardly legs toward the door. I could see Lady Mary’s happy wedding day, and the heartwarming union of Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. So much history. I sat in a pew to collect myself.
Downtown’s hospital, which is actually Bampton’s Community Archive, sells some “Downton” goods and other souvenirs, but otherwise you’d be hard-pressed to find much else to do here except walk with your heart in your throat and butterflies in your stomach. The town is more of a set piece. There’s no Grantham Arms or Dog & Duck Pub, but you will see Churchgate House, an old rectory used for the exterior shots of Isobel Crawley’s house. There’s a small path nearby where I distinctly remember Matthew walking his bike with Lady Mary at his side.
I could have sat here all day marveling at it. But there was the matter of meeting a bus and getting into a castle.
I arrived at Highclere before the bus tour and waited as patiently as possible. But there it was! The titular castle standing grand, majestic, and incredibly imposing. This was my Universal Studios and Disney World moment wrapped up in one classy package. I’m not above admitting that I may have watched a few episodes of Downton on my phone while I waited for the tour bus. All the while I was sweating like a hooker in church, fearful that I had missed the bus again.
At last I saw the bus that would allow me passage into the mansion. After a lot of explaining to the woman leading the tour, I was allowed to join the group. I was shocked that my half-baked plan actually worked.
Inside, one of the first things we were told was that photos are not allowed. I was more than happy to oblige. Finally, I’d have an excuse to leave my phone in my pocket and just enjoy. The request prompted a fair amount of groaning, and I could tell that there were some people who were pretending to text, but taking photos.
When we finished the tour I sat in the gardens with the intention of describing what I had just seen. But instead I started writing down feelings. I’ll spare you my “Downton Abbey” word association. Instead, this is what you’ll see on the tour: The library, which is Lord Grantham’s preferred hangout, although I don’t recall seeing him ever reading during the show. The great hall is as gorgeously ornate as what you’ve seen in the series.
The tour continued to Lady Grantham’s bedroom, Sybil’s bedroom, Edith’s bedroom, and Mary’s bedroom. Seeing these rooms in person feels quite different than watching them on PBS (or your streaming service of choice). They appear slightly smaller and more lived in. The same goes for the salon. But now we were in the dining room, and all I could imagine was having gravy spilled on me by Mr. Mosley or getting stuck sitting next to Evelyn Napier (yawn). I nearly shushed a couple who wouldn’t stop talking, primarily because they weren’t talking about “Downton Abbey.”
There was also an Egyptian exhibition, but I hadn’t come to Highclere for mummies. I went out to explore the distinctive gardens and park designed by Capability Brown. Despite the fact that I had been through the castle, this part of the tour is what felt most authentic. Here I could sit with Highclere in the background, away from the selfie-obsessed crowds and pretend, at least for a little while, that my last name was Crawley.