Two Days at Downton Abbey

Well, Highclere Castle is its real name. Like many American women, I loved the TV show Downton Abbey, and wanted to go visit the place where it was filmed, which is actually a lived-in home owned by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. It’s only open certain days of the year, primarily in July and August (presumably the owners are at their summer estate somewhere), which must be booked in advance.

When my friend Amber was visiting last month, we (plus Baby R) went for a day trip.

We got an absolutely perfect day, weather-wise. Tickets let you tour the castle (well, part of it) either in the morning or afternoon (between 10-1 or 1-4), and then wander the grounds/gardens the rest of the day.

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Touring the castle takes about 45 minutes, more or less. Sometimes there’s a queue to enter the castle, but not always. If you’re not in a rush, wander the gardens until the queue dies down.

Tourist attire on point
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See? No more queue

Photos aren’t allowed inside the castle, so my pictures stop here at the entrance.

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You walk through the library, drawing room, dining room (the table looked reasonably sized, but I was informed it has 12 leaves and can seat up to 28), smoking room, music room, and the “heart of Highclere,” which is the centre of it all; and you can peek into several bedrooms, including Cora’s, Mary’s, and Edith’s.

What struck me the most was how worn and shabby a lot of the furniture looked. The castle itself is quite grand, of course, and the many oil paintings of past and present family members let you know this is an aristocratic household that goes back a long way, but the furniture and home decor in the rooms isn’t particularly fancy. Well maybe apart from Napoleon’s writing desk. I’d love to get a peek at the rooms they actually live in and see how modern they are. Apparently there are 50 bedrooms in the castle, so you see a relatively small portion of them.

There are loads of family photos in frames all over the tables throughout the castle, plus modern books and magazines lying about, which serve to remind you it’s not actually Downton Abbey.

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There are three different small cafe-type food purchase options all in a row behind the castle, with plenty of outdoor tables; or you can pack a picnic and just enjoy sitting outside on the lawn and admiring the views of the estate. There’s a gift shop, too, of course.

I went back again this month with my in-laws (plus Baby R again, and this time E too, since she’s out of school for summer holidays).

I treated my MIL to afternoon tea in the Coach House, which is an add-on option when you buy your tickets. Children aren’t allowed at the tea, so my FIL was kind enough to hang out with the girls on the picnic blanket while my MIL and I clinked glasses of Champagne.

 

Getting to Highclere Castle

Getting to Highclere Castle is not the easiest thing to figure out. The best thing to do, probably, is to drive there. It’s certainly the most straightforward and direct option, and may even be cheaper than using public transit. Google Maps estimates it will take between an hour and 20 minutes to two hours and 10 minutes from here. If you’re like me and afraid to drive in England, you have to find another way. It took us about two and a half hours one way, door to castle gate, but through my trial and errors, I now think I could get there faster.

The castle website says there’s good rail service from Paddington Station to Newbury, or Waterloo Station to Whitchurch, and from those two stations you can get a taxi to Highclere. However, we had complications arise both times that resulted in a fair amount of stress.

When Amber and I went, we took a train from Clapham Junction to Waterloo, then a train from Waterloo to Whitchurch, and had pre-booked a taxi from there. However, the morning of, I received an email that the taxi I had booked online the night before to pick us up at Whitchurch Station had canceled on us, no reason given. So we arrived at Whitchurch and didn’t have a way to get to the castle. It’s a tiny station in a little village, with no one working at the station at all. We looked at a board posted on the station with travel information, and there was one other taxi company listed besides the one that had just flaked on us. So I crossed my fingers and dialed. We got really lucky that he was available right then, because the private car-hire company is just him. Steve at AAP Private Hire came to our rescue in just five minutes, agreed to pick us up from the castle that afternoon, and charged us £20 each way, which was less than we had paid online for the other company.

So I thought I had it figured out for the second trip, but no. There are major issues at Clapham Junction and Waterloo this month while they are constructing more platforms (or wider platforms? or longer platforms? I am not really sure, I just know it’s a huge pain in the ass to get anywhere right now), so we had to figure out a way that didn’t involve going through Waterloo. We also had to get to Clapham Junction extra early, because they’ve been warning that you may have to queue for 45 minutes to enter the station or board a train, because there are fewer trains running. Also, Steve from AAP was already booked for the morning, so we had to go with a different private car hire out of Whitchurch, who was going to charge us £35 instead of £20, ugh.

It was actually all going pretty smoothly to start, we didn’t have trouble getting into the station or onto the platform… but then we got on the wrong train. We had tickets for the train to Basingstoke, and then were going to change to a train to Whitchurch. Well, we got on an earlier train to Basingstoke, which turned out to be the slow train that called at a lot of different stations, rather than the train we were supposed to be on that was scheduled to leave 6 minutes later but was direct. Which meant we were going to miss our connecting train to Whitchurch. Which departs only once an hour.

In a flurry of frustration and panic, I tried to figure out what we could do. As it turned out, the train we were supposed to have boarded was one of the trains delayed thanks to the Waterloo works, so we would have missed our connection anyway. Eventually I came upon a solution that worked out even better: I got a taxi to pick us up at Basingstoke once we arrived, and for some reason, even though it’s farther, he only charged us £20! I don’t know why the castle website doesn’t list Basingstoke as an option, but it’s definitely easier to get a taxi from there than from Whitchurch, and it’s the same price.

Now I finally know the best way to get there from where I live: Train from Clapham Junction to Basingstoke (42 minutes), then taxi from Basingstoke (about 25 minutes; call ahead to order one; we used Alpha Cars.

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Of Winnie-the-Pooh, Anne Boleyn, and Sodden Shoes: A Tale of a Weekend in the Countryside

Memorial Day Weekend in the States is also a bank holiday weekend here in England, so we had planned a getaway to the English countryside, from Friday to Monday. One of M’s business associates had recommended the Griffin Inn to him as a family- and dog-friendly place to stay. He told us to ask for the room over the pub, so the baby monitor reaches down there. Good tip!

We absolutely loved the Griffin Inn. We can’t wait to go back, and would recommend it to anyone, whether you are bringing kids with you or not. I think it would be a really cosy place to stay in the winter, too, but that time of year there wouldn’t be much for kids to do. Summertime is ideal to bring the kids, as there is a huge pub garden for them to play around, and a nice grassy hill they love to roll down. Ah, the simple joys of childhood.

It’s a classic English pub and inn in the tiny village of Fletching, in Sussex, and it’s been there for over 400 years! There isn’t much else in the village (some cottages, a village hall, and a Norman church with a picturesque steeple and lovely ringing bells), but it’s fine, because the food was fantastic, so we really didn’t need any other restaurant options.

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Our city girl saw the church steeple from a distance and thought it was the Shard

M brought his bike and enjoyed going cycling each morning. It’s only about 40 miles from London, but it takes nearly two hours to drive there, between London traffic and tiny winding lanes through tunnels of trees wide enough for one car.

The first half of the car ride was fine, as the girls both slept in the backseat, while we discussed important things such as what we would name our English pub if we owned one (we decided on “The Wren and Rose”; or, for a baby-friendly pub, “The Chubby Arms”; or, for a cyclist pub, “The Padded Rears”); but then they woke up and were pretty vocal about wanting to get out of the car.

“I LOVE THE PEACE OF THE COUNTRYSIDE!” I yelled over the din of baby screaming and older child whining.

Fortunately, the Griffin has lots of drinks on offer.

We spent a lot of time in the Griffin’s pub garden. It’s 2 acres, with lots of picnic tables, a beautiful view of the countryside, and we could have the dog and the kids there without a worry.

On Friday night, after the kids were asleep, we took the baby monitor and snuck downstairs to the pub, where a pianist was playing some jaunty tunes, which gave the place an old-timey saloon-type feel. We enjoyed a delicious sticky toffee pudding, and Wren enjoyed the life of a pub dog, begging at all the other tables for their scraps.

“Sir, you seem to have left some fish and chips on your table over there.”

On Saturday, after a fantastic breakfast (best fresh, homemade pain au chocolat I’ve had outside of France), we just hung around the inn and garden a bit, and checked out the nearby playground.

The Griffin has a big built-in barbecue and wood oven outside, and were doing a big barbecue menu there for lunch over the weekend.

This area is right on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, which is where A.A. Milne set the Hundred Acre Wood for Winnie-the-Pooh. So after our barbecue lunch, we decided to head into the forest and do a bit of exploring.

We stopped at the Ashdown Forest Centre and picked up the map for the Pooh Walks and directions to Pooh Bridge, where the characters play their games of Pooh Sticks. (And they had some Pooh colouring sheets for E.)

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We found Eeyore’s house!

Amusingly, there is quite a lot of poo to step around on the Pooh Walk. (Left by horses, not fictional honey-loving bears.)

E loved picking up sticks along the walk to then throw off the bridge for several rounds of Pooh Sticks. We counted to three, tossed our sticks into the creek below, and then went to the other side of the bridge and waited to see whose came out first.

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We found Pooh’s house!

Then we invented our own version of the game, wherein Mom asks E to sit on Pooh Bridge with her feet hanging off the edge in order to get a picture, and E’s shoe immediately falls off and into the creek below, and we rush to the other side of the bridge to watch for it to float by, while Dad throws Mom murderous looks because this is clearly her fault for suggesting the child hang her feet off the bridge. Then Mom scrambles over the fence and down the muddy bank and searches for the biggest Pooh Stick she can find, and, getting her own shoe wet in the process, at last triumphantly fishes out the footloose footwear. There are no winners in this version of the game.

Look at the sweet picture I eventually got, though! Worth it?

The biggest non-winner was Dad, who had to carry the barefoot child all the way back to the car park on his shoulders, which was alllllll uphill. Once again, the Griffin Inn has lots of drinks on offer.

On Sunday, we got in the rental car and drove to Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.

We stopped at a Waitrose on the way and picked up food for a picnic, which we ate on the banks of the lovely lake on the castle grounds.

We only paid for entry to the gardens and not the castle itself, and that was plenty. The castle grounds have lots of things for kids to do, and it makes for a great family outing on a nice day. There’s a yew maze, an adventure playground (E loved the zipline after she worked up the courage), fun shaped topiaries to look at, pedal boats you can rent for the lake, costumed reenactors, and “have a go” archery lessons, which, surprisingly, you can do from age 2 1/2. They were also doing Edwardian games on a lawn and butterfly walks, and you can buy a bag of koi and duck food for 50p to feed the inhabitants of the moat. There are cafes and ice cream stands and a big gift shop with lots of toys. E and Wren weren’t fans of the hourly cannon demonstrations, however, especially poor Wren.

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The Tudor chess set topiary garden

The most fun thing there for kids is the water maze. You have to try to make it to the middle without getting wet. When you step on certain stones, jets of water shoot up, so you have to turn around and find another route. It’s really fun, and when it’s warm out kids turn up in their swimming costumes and play away. E was nervous at first, but eventually got really into it, and we even eventually solved the maze and found the one right route to the centre!

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Like most things I plan for my children that are intended to be fun and make magical memories, it all ended in tears and a wet shoe.

She was happily running around the maze, and then suddenly slipped and her leg went into the space between stones, scraping her badly up her thigh, and submerging her foot and lower leg in pond muck. Oh, the crying.

A castle employee was there with first aid and some fresh water to rinse her off, but E wailed dramatically all the way back to the car.

The next day she was dragging her injured leg around like a peg-legged pirate, which was a bit comical. “Argh, it’s an old castle water maze injury,” I imagined her telling the other pirates.

Wet shoe incidents aside, we had a wonderful weekend in the countryside and may go back again next May bank holiday weekend!