Sunday, January 19, 2014

Highclere Castle

So, this happened.
If you want to read my blog leading up to the 2013 season opening of Highclere Castle, you can definitely visit this post. (This would be part 2 of a two part blog post). For many reasons, my mind has been on Highclere all the more now that season 4 of Downton Abbey has finally premiered in the U.S, yet I'm afraid the concluding blog post about this visit is quite overdue. Afterall, the following events occurred almost eight months ago.

I can safely claim that days I describe will easily find themselves listed among the best moments of my life thus far. Actually, I would love to revisit the entire week that I visited Berkshire and southern England, but I think a huge portion of the thrill was the suspense that I endured. That suspense can never be replicated, so I know the experience as a whole was a once in a lifetime deal. The torture of not knowing if it would all come together and the anxiety of driving on the other side of the road, let alone trying to find the right roads had practically worn a hole in my stomach. There were several concerns during what should have been a carefree spring break. You see, as I explained in my earlier post, the tickets for touring Highclere Castle (the filming location for my favourite drama, "Downton Abbey") during the 2013 Spring-Summer season were entirely sold out the day that they went on sale. It was a shame because Highclere was probably the site I most desired to see while I was overseas. I even tried emailing the office to secure a ticket, but they could not guarantee a pass. So, in an act of faith, I planned that my spring break would end with a tour of Highclere Castle. And to play it safe, I gave myself two days to try to get in in case the waiting list was too long and I was not allowed to tour it on the first day.

Here are highlights of what I remember:

Once I arrived at the Reading train station, I took a cab to my hotel. The cabbie graciously pointed me in the direction of Highclere when she dropped me off at the Carpenter's Arms. During this portion of the trip, I would not have my own vehicle. It was somewhat easy to get around without access to a car in a metropolis, but this was the countryside. I would be walking to the box office of Highclere at the break of dawn to get in line. Of course, when the cabbie pointed which way I should walk, it was late and I was tired so my memory did not serve me right the following morning when I set off to find Highclere. Thankfully, I had a day to time my practice walk...(Oh, are you wondering if Ross Geller took over my blog yet?). I walked through the countryside of Berkshire thinking I was walking towards Highclere Castle (which should have been 2 1/4 miles from my Bed & Breakfast). I could not have been more wrong. I probably walked an hour in the wrong direction until I was able to ask someone for directions. (The joys of being a tourist!) Fortunately, the scenery was absolutely pastoral!. (Picture the cinematography of "Glorious 39")
Yes, I walked in the opposite direction of this sign...because I'm brilliant.
AND the opposite direction of this sign. It was fine though because there's really not a whole lot to do in this vicinity.
I had the entire day to figure out how to get to Highclere and then I could know exactly how long it would take me to get there the next morning. The Castle did not open until the next day, so I had time to form a strategy. I spent a great portion of the day feeling like my efforts were going to be in vain. As I travelled by foot, I couldn't ignore the nightmares of cars speeding by me, securing their place on the tour and preventing me from making the dream a reality. I cried a bit (alright--a lot) on the phone to my parents and we prayed that God would allow for me to have the experience of touring Downton...I mean, Highclere if it would be His will.
After several hours, I crossed an overpass that would lead to one of Highclere's gates.

During the unnecessarily long walk, I was hoping that I would at least be able to get a glimpse of the estate from afar. But I couldn't even see any of the sheep, let alone the golden towers of Highclere. As I stood at the wrought iron gates like Charlie Bucket looking into Wonka's Factory, the automatic gates started to open as a car pulled up. The thought crossed my mind that this could have been my only chance to see Highclere. I could have pushed in like some trespasser, making a run down the mile long drive until I was escorted off the property and asked to never return ...or I could be patient and wait to see if God allowed for me to have another chance in the morning.  ("A chance to live...a chance to die..." Is that a line from Titanic?) So I walked away, holding on to a hope.

I told some people at the pub that night that my reason for visiting was to see Highclere. They were very skeptical being that I didn't have any tickets. That made me go through another wave of worried emotions.

The very next morning crept in with the anxious tension of a race and my alarm was the starter's pistol. My adrenaline made me feel like I was one of the tributes in The Hunger Games and I had to find my weapon or run for my life. I clipped through the woods like I was delivering a message over enemy lines. I don't even recall seeing this darling red post-box in the middle of the forest even though I must have taken a picture of it on my practice walk. ;)
 Oh, you might be wondering what I was doing in the middle of the forest. There aren't sidewalks or as the Brits call them "pavements" I was hoofing it through mud and over fallen trees to get to Highclere.
I also saw skulls and roadkill as I was traipsing through the woods. 
It was also very cold as England had been hit with a cold snap. I can't stress that detail enough. In some parts of the country fields of unsuspecting sheep where covered in blankets of snow. Actually, I was surprised that there wasn't any snow in Berkshire. It was clearly cold and I wasn't dressed for it. I don't even know how I took this picture because my fingers were icicles.
As I was running along the highway (For real! You need to picture Forest Gump right now!) I had images flooding my head of smug married couples sitting in their heated cars listening to the BBC, lining the driveway or crowds and crowds of people, all ahead of me in line. But as I crossed the overpass, I saw virtually no one. I started to panic that I was at the wrong gate and that the bus loads of tourists were camped out on the other side of the estate and securing the only extra tickets available.

The gates would have to open sometime, so I tried to fine a moss-free brick to sit on. Good ol' Moldovan squat. Did I mention it was bitterly cold? It was also 7 in the morning. I tried to preoccupy myself with a book. Thank you, Kate Morton. But I was still so concerned.

Twenty minutes or so passed and a car from the estate started coming down the driveway. An older gentleman dressed in tweed exited the car. Then he went to the back door of the car and withdrew a sandwich board sign. He was preparing for the Season Opener.
 I said, "Excuse me. Could you please tell me what time the box-office opens?"
He said, "Why the box office does not open until half past ten."
"Would I be able to wait in line now?" I asked
"You want to wait in line now?" the man questioned.
"Well, I would like to see if I could still buy a ticket. They were all sold out online and I wrote to the office and they said if I got here early enough I might be able to get one," I nervously rambled.
The man was alarmed, "You don't have a ticket!"
"No, do you think there will be any left?" I worried.
He smiled and reassured me, "I think we can get you a ticket."
"REALLY?!?!?" I'm sure I started crying here like George on the "Wedding Singer."
He laughed.
"When can I walk to the box-office?"
"You can walk up there right now, if you'd like." he said.
"Thank you!!!!" I was thrilled. I started walking down the driveway and couldn't see where I was going anymore because I was crying so much. I had to stop and capture this sight. Can you see it peering over the tops of the trees? It's so small from here, but the early sun light made it look like it was made of butter.

As I made my way down the driveway, I kept on crying. Happy tears of course. The giant oaks and cedars were bigger than I could have ever imagined.

Here was another set of gates. The box office didn't open until 10:30, so I had to duke it out in the cold. I tried Kate Morton's "The Distant Hours" again, but it was too cold to hold the book. I Moldovan squatted again and tried to cover my frozen legs with the fabric of my coat. It was hopeless trying to distract myself from the biting, bitter wind. I can only imagine how crazy I looked. Squatting like an insane chicken outside these gorgeous gates. So lady like!

As hypothermia was claiming me, another member of the staff approach the box-office building and started chatting with me. (I imagine I sounded a bit like Jack Dawson here."Your gonna die an old lady, warm in your bed. Not here. Promise me that.") He was hanging up signs and we got to talking about Cincinnati. He had visited there once and I thought it was odd that someone would visit Cincinnati of all the places in the U.S. I laughed at him and found out that he had made some American friends while in service. He was very friendly and must have put in a good word for me, because, before I knew it, the man in tweed that said I could buy a ticket responded to a message on the walkie talkie. The man (who I later learned is the Butler of Highclere Castle) said that they were going to let me in the cafeteria early to warm up. "GREAT SUCCESS!" Of course, that made me cry again! So sweet!

I really don't think I will be able to top this selfie for a long time. Still totally crying. 

This little cutie also greeted me in box office...
Wait there are two friends!! 
They let me buy a ticket and a tour booklet! YAY!!

On the way to the cafeteria, I took all of this in. Notice that there are no tourists yet. That's because I was the first one--the craziest one, more like it.
Look at those mighty cedars!

Doesn't this look like a image off of google? Nope!  Totally from my camera!

SO, I pretty much cried the entire way to the cafeteria. Once I got there,I opened the doors to a wave of heat. I was so nervous that someone would spoil the experience by being snobby (I'm talking about you, Blenheim Palace staff!), but as I walked up to the counter to order a coffee, the clerk said, "Well, Hello Miss Seven A.M!" with a huge grin on his face. "What can I get for you?" "May I please have a Americano?" "Sure thing!" he said. "How much do I owe you?" I asked. "It's on us!", he replied. They were so amazing to me. I was so blessed and I want to start crying again just thinking about it!

I brought my coffee over to the table and tried to let my fingers thaw as I grasped the mug. I warmed up a bit and then was joined by a couple who were also early birds. She was from California and he was from Wales. I had a lovely time chatting with them and it's so amazing to hear how much we had in common beyond Downton. Downton fans are truly wonderful!

In my element.

These are my most Downton-esque shoes.

Pictures were not allowed in the Castle and would never risk getting tossed out, so the was as far as I pushed the envelope. Besides, it looked exactly as it does on the show and I'm sure my camera wouldn't have captured it's magic.

I stood in the magnificent library and cried for a several minutes straight. That's what happens when your dreams catch up to you. God allowed for me to have a great moment and I totally didn't deserve it. He's so amazing that way!

Although they didn't let you take pictures, they didn't have a problem with anyone sketching. This is a crude drawing, but I really enjoyed taking my time during the tour to sketch this view. I was standing right outside of the room that is used as Lady Cora's bedroom, if I remember correctly.

This was sketched in the library. It was the most beautiful library that I saw during my entire time in England. It was so rich and the red velvet chairs were begging to be curled up in with a classic. The lighting in this room was extraordinary as well. If I could have pick only one room to see again, it would be the library, hands down.
The tour commences with another tour of the basement where the replicas of King Tut's tomb are located. It was amazing to see, but I couldn't get upstairs quicker. They let me go through the tour twice and I spent more time talking with the room guides and asking questions about what it's like to work there, the cast, working around the film schedule, and so on.

Now for the part of the blog where I stand in the various places in a sad attempt to recreate some of my favourite scenes.
Here I am playing the part of a Crawley sister. Standing waaaaaay off to the side. When I watch the show now, they're not that far from the door.
This is my best Lady Mary impression.
Any Downton Abbey fan worth their salt would recognise that bench. There was some serious crying going on when I saw it for sure. There were a few tourists who didn't understand why I would ask them to take my picture there. "Why you cry, Mrs. Geller?"
This was definitely a moment to take in--evaluate life. I'm sure I changed a bit this day and I can see why Lady Mary would come here to think. ;)

Here's a view of the fictitious Downton that audiences rarely see.
Recognise that banner from Season 2?
Here's a port-hole view from the dinner hall.
All around the cafeteria there were candid images from the show. It was a really nice way to pay homage to the show without having to trivialise the estate during the historic tour.
I wish I could remember what I ordered. Probably something piping hot and I'm positive that it was the sort of occasion that would call for dessert. You'd be proud of me, I managed to keep it together during lunch.
See where Grantham is standing in this picture. That's actually where I was standing when I sketched the armchair in the Library.

I didn't realise until later, but there is a really great scene in Season 2 that is filmed at the end of this little drive. I believe Lady Sybil approaches Branson at that garage and Lady Mary sees them interacting from a distance and is curious what that would have to discuss. Or do I have it all wrong? Downton fans, does that look familiar?
I couldn't have hoped for a prettier day! God really blessed me!! It was evident!

The garden was featured in the second episode of Season 4 just recently. I hadn't noticed it on camera before. It was lovely to walk through and I learned that it was where "Secret Garden" was filmed.

This shot reminded me of the garden party during Season One. Next time you watch it, you'll notice the servants have to avoid this rather large obstacle of a tree stump.
So, I obviously had to take several pictures of that very stump.
Isn't it funny that I would get excited over this?

This was cute. Okay, so these had to be Europeans, because I can't say I've EVER seen American men dressing in bright red pants like that (except for maybe Andy Benard), but as I walked up to this follie  (which is the very follie that Lady Edith walks to with "Patrick" in Season Two), I saw room for improvement in their photo shoot and ran over to take the picture of all 5 of them. I wish I had a copy of that one, because they all had fantastic poses.
Aren't the daffodils lovely? Ah, England in spring!
The bright coloured pant group later caught up to me and offered to take a picture for me. I thought that was sweet of them. I probably cried again after they walked away having been so touched by their friendliness.

As I was leaving I ran into the man I had met that visited Cincinnati and he asked if it was everything I had hoped it would be. I think he was sarcastic because I was grinning like a fool and had bought bags of souvenirs in the gift shop. He offered to take my picture for me and I thought that was sweet of him too! What a great day! 

As I moved away, I was still elated. I couldn't believe the day had just occurred. There were sheep on every side of me and so many lambs. It was on the noisy side. Still I called everyone overseas to tell them the good news. As I took my time walking back to Carpenter's Arms, a car slowed down as it started to approach me. One of the owners of the lodge where I was staying rolled down her window and yelled, "Did they let you in?" I held up my Highclere Castle gift shop bags and said, "Yes! It was wonderful!" And the woman nearly jumped out of her car with excitement and threw her arms in the arms screaming "BRILLIANT!!!"

How very British, indeed. ;)

If you haven't started watching Downton, I recommend it for many reasons. You can borrow my copies if you'd like. Just let me know!

Here's a screen shot from Season One I believe. It takes me back.

from Period Films & the like.


  1. Lovely. I am so happy you got to experience that, Jana!

  2. Dear Jana,
    What a marvelous description of your visit to Highclere Castle. It's so charming. In fact it's Brilliant ! Your enthusiasm is infectious. And your obvious gratitude for the kindness shown you is lovely. Thanks so much for sharing your drawings and the vast number of candid photographs. I now feel almost as if I've visited there myself. All my best wishes. (Thanks for the blog on Bamton too.)
    Gary K. - A ''New" Englander


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