Downton Abbey, one of the most widely watched television shows in the world, welcomes its viewers to a fantastical narrative rooted utmost in a reality that seems unimaginable now. It is the Edwardian period, fact-checked and come alive: the first episode begins with the RMS Titanic sinking and its subsequent four seasons cover World War I, the Spanish influenza pandemic, the Interwar period and formation of the Irish Free State and more. Yet what truly entrances us is the life of illusory luxury presented: the grand confinement of British aristocracy, separated from modern social politics but held aloft by centuries-old decorum and etiquette. The show meticulously researches its time period and marvelously re-enacts the social protocol, surroundings and activities of turn-of-the century nobility, buffered by a large selection of filming locations that breathe life to the narrative. For a true Downton Abbey experience in Britain, why not literally step right into it?
Highclere Castle, Hampshire – photo by labellemelange
Unlikely as it might be, the history of Highclere Castle actually transcends the drama and narrative of Downton Abbey. Tour members are thrilled to pass Lady Grantham’s bedroom, or float down the main staircase like Lady Mary has done a thousand times, but in actuality, the imposing Georgian mansion and its sweeping grounds are not Downton Abbey but rather Highclere Castle and gardens. Dating back to 1839, this castle was a one-time hospital unit during World War I and later home to Lord Carnarvon, the man who discovered the tomb of the King Tutankhamen. Of course, even with the history and its vast Egyptian exhibit, visitors won’t be able to contain themselves while they’re actually standing under the Gothic columns of the entrance hall, wishing Lord Grantham to receive them, or marveling at the gilded wallpaper in the magnificent saloon, where Dame Maggie Smith’s Cousin Violet would have reclined, swanlike, over the luxuriant red armchairs. Who are we kidding here? It might be Highclere Castle, but it’s still Downton Abbey.
Bampton, England – photo by homeiswheretherootslead.wordpress.com
Located an hour north of Highclere Castle is the village that one would, during seasons 1 and 2 have had the best luck of bumping into the dashing Matthew Crawley. Bampton, Oxfordshire, is also the area where the outdoor scenes of Downton Abbey are filmed, most notably St. Mary’s Church which dates back to the 12th century (where the church scenes are filmed and the setting of Mary Crawley’s wedding), The Bampton Library (better known as Downton Hospital), and the manor house where the Dowager Countess of Grantham resides. More than anything, visitors will enjoy walking around the antique buildings scattered around the village, as well as early settlements that are reputed to date back to the Iron Age and Roman Times. There are grand edifices and greens that also hint at the important role the area played in the Medieval Age.
Inveraray Castle, Scotland – photo by Michael Austin
Located in the county of Argyll in western Scotland, the grand 18th-century neo-Gothic Inveraray Castle will be the place best remembered by Downton viewers as Duneagle Castle, home of Hugh and Susan McClare and their defiantly modern daughter, Rose. It was also the setting of the 2012 Christmas Special. The castle itself is a remarkable piece of architecture, restored after a fire to incorporate looming spires on the corner towers; a veritable gothic fortress but inside, delicately dressed with exotic tapestries, heirloom chairs, centuries old portraits framed in gold, and crystal chandeliers hanging low from high ceilings. The interior rooms shift from French Baroque to regal Scottish armoury. Inveraray Castle sits surrounded by 16 acres of private gardens on an estate of 60,000 acres.
Bluebell Railway, West Sussex – photo by VisitEastbourne
Visitors going between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead can also be transported into 19th-century English countryside on the historic Bluebird Railway, the last remaining steam line in the United Kingdom, with the largest collection of steam locomotives after the National Railway Museum. Because it is the only steam railway line in operation, the Bluebird Railway has been the filming location to a large number of movies and television series meant to evoke 19th century England: Downton Abbey, of course, but also The Woman in Black, The Wind in the Willows, Miss Potter, A Room with a View and many more.
Greys Court, Buckinghamshire – photo by Peter Fowler
What happens when your family runs into financial troubles due to bad investments and may be unable to afford their staff of 15 or their illustrious mansion? Move into a tidy Tudor manor house further north and rename it "Downton Place," of course! Luckily, Robert Crawley didn’t have to resort to this option, due to the gracious contributions of Matthew "Dreamboat" Crawley, but, still, an English country home isn’t the worst one could do. Owned by the National Trust, Greys Court and gardens dates back to the 14th century and encompasses a medieval fortification tower of 1347, a Tudor wheelhouse and a Cromwellian tea room. Historically, the house has been owned by Sir Francis Knollys, treasurer to Elizabeth I and jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as a long lineage of noblemen and important clerics.