Have you ever watched a television show and fallen in love with its filming locations? I have! I am a fan of Downton Abbey, so while in the U.K. on vacation, I made sure to do a day trip from London to Highclere Castle - home of the actual 8th Earl Carnarvon and the fictional Earl of Grantham on Downton Abbey. Grounds and most upstairs interior scenes are filmed on site.
If you are likeminded and interested in visiting the estate, the first thing you must do is check the website to see when tickets will be going on sale. There are specific opening times throughout the year, typically in the spring and summer. Tickets may go on sale up to 5 months in advance, so be prepared. If you want to press your luck, there are a limited quantity of day of tickets available for sale. Obviously, for the day of tickets, you have a better chance of getting in if you arrive early and come on a weekday.
Getting to the estate is neither easy nor cheap. If you are staying in London, you can either choose the train or the National Express bus. Of course, this assumes that you won't have a car in London (because that's a terrible idea, in my opinion). The most convenient transportation is the train. Leaving from Paddington Station, you can take a First Great Western train to Newbury. There are nonstop trains that should take approximately 50 minutes and cost a minimum of £50, depending on advance fare and return fare discounts. At the train station in Newbury, you will have to go to the taxi queue to get a cab. My suggestion is to ask around and see if anyone else in the queue is going to Highclere because the taxi will cost you anywhere from £16-20 each way. When you get to the estate, talk to your taxi driver about either coming back at an established time or getting a card and phoning your return request. Another completely separate option to consider is to look for organized bus tours out of London stopping at Highclere, though make sure that you are getting admission tickets included in your tour price because you may be surprised to learn that your access will be for the grounds only.
When you purchase your admission ticket, you will have to select the morning entry or the afternoon entry to the house. Personally, I always want the morning time. The grounds open before the house, so you can get there and roam about before any busloads of people arrive. Entry can also be purchased to include the basement exhibition of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon's archaeological digs in Egypt, including real artifacts collected in the Vally of the Kings and replicas of the items he found when he discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen. The house tour is of the first two floors, with many rooms that are recognizable from the Downton Abbey series, including the dining room, the entry atrium, the library, Lady Grantham's bedroom, Lady Sybil's bedroom, and the bedroom where Kemal Pamuk...well if you know the series, you know what happened to him. The architecture was designed by Charles Barry, who is more famous for his design of the Houses of Parliament in London.
I was actually surprised by the state of some of the rooms, as the upholstery and bedding looked really shabby - faded and/or in need of replacement. If I were staying there, the room would get a two-star bed and breakfast rating. I understand why the antique furniture would not be restored because of the expense, but the bedding is an easy fix and the chairs that have not seen new fabric since the 1980s, send those out to be recovered or at least trim the loose threads hanging from the bottom of the couch! It seems clear that the Countess spends more energy on the upkeep of the first floor rooms than the upstairs apartments. I also found some of the decor to be confusing - side tables cluttered with piles of recent hardback books that made no sense and abstract presentations of photos in mat-less frames that clashed with all of the other traditional artwork and sketches. If you can't tell, I was pretty underwhelmed by the clearly neglected bedroom floor. Downstairs was much better.
If you're hungry, there is a tea room to get a bite to eat before making your journey back to London (there's a food option at the train station too). Sadly, there's not much else to keep you in Newbury. Hopefully you are more lucky than me and have better weather so that you can enjoy a longer walk around the extensive estate grounds.