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Visiting Downton Abbey in London
The 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon still dwell under the sandstone turrets of Highclere Castle (Highclere Park, Newbury; www.highclerecastle.co.uk; tel. 01635/253-204; admission £23 adults, £21 students/seniors, £12.50 children 4–16), known to TV viewers as the idyllic and stately Downton Abbey. Time and spendthrift earls took their toll on this historic home, and as recently as 2009, more than 50 rooms were uninhabitable due to mold and leaks. The current Earl faces repair bills running around £12 million, so he welcomes visitors to admire his home and spend the day exploring the 1,000 acres of private rolling Berkshire countryside. He also rents out to film production: The upstairs scenes of the ITV/PBS show are shot in the ground floor and first floor using the house’s actual furniture, but downstairs is shot on a soundstage in Ealing, west London. At Highclere, the basement is full not of servants but of mummy stuff. The 5th Earl is the guy who bankrolled Howard Carter’s 1923 discovery and emptying of King Tut’s tomb in Luxor, so unseen beneath Lord Grantham’s feet lay items taken from the tombs of Egypt. Highclere is only open for 60 to 70 days a year but they’re scattered all over the calendar. The castle is typically open Easter Week, bank holiday weekends, and from mid-August to mid-September. Be sure to purchase advance tickets online as some dates do sell out. Coming on your own from London involves a 52-minute train from Paddington (from £23) or a National Express bus (£13) to the adorable town of Newbury and then a £15 taxi (try www.newburytaxi.co.uk) from there. There is also overnight accommodation with a small kitchen in a refurbished 1840s building on the estate grounds (but not in the house); that is called London Lodge and costs around £350 a night.