How best to come calling at Downton Abbey?
January 10, 2013 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Highclere Castle has become quite famous due to the success of Downton Abbey. As a result, the castle is open to ticketed tourists on particular days over the year, mostly the summer. Now, this is all well and good, but for folks visiting from across the Atlantic, a loaded question arises: Given that Highclere in and of itself is a very small village, which of the surrounding cities would serve best as a base of visiting operations for a day or two?

Newbury is nearest, Reading isn't too far, Basingstoke has a hilarious name. For visitors appreciative of the walking-around charms of York or Edinburgh, for shops, great pubs and history, where might a native or experienced traveler recommend? (Note: Optimally, we'd be coming from Heathrow the same day, spending a couple of days, then heading on by rail to Wells Cathedral (via Castle Cary) to the west.)
posted by grabbingsand to Travel & Transportation around Newbury, England (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Reading and Basingstoke are not great for tourists because they are boring and deeply ugly. Newbury is prettier but not much better. Head somewhere like Salisbury (50 mins away) or Marlborough (35 mins away), which are both pretty and historic. Salisbury is a small city, Marlborough is a market town. England is not a large place. I assume you are driving. Salisbury to Highclere is a trivial journey and you'll be just off the A303 so going to Wells is simple. Don't forget to visit Stonehenge and Avebury Rings.

Also - I presume you are going to see something/someone specific in Castle Cary. There's not a lot there.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:40 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We plan on traveling by rail as much as possible. Castle Cary is the closest rail station to Wells.
posted by grabbingsand at 6:42 AM on January 10, 2013

It's an hour on the train from London Paddington to Newbury and then there's a bus that gets you close to the castle -- have you considered staying in London?
posted by katrielalex at 6:44 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

My sister used to live within easy walking distance of Highclere Castle. There are a few villages around there with B&Bs. The area isn't great in terms of transport options, to say the least.

Oxford is pretty close, and offers much of what you're looking for.
posted by pipeski at 6:49 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are package tours that depart from London by bus, which could save you a lot of hassle in sorting out your transportation. Here's one that includes a stop at the village used for filming (including Mathew's house) in the morning and Highclere in the afternoon. In my experience, these are good ways of getting to some of the more remote sites when touring around. It might cost more than getting there on your own power, but I find that worth it for not having to worry about the stress of catching connections or waiting around.

And before you go to Wells, be sure to rewatch Hot Fuzz! After you get done the cathedral, you can then wander around making gun noises.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:51 AM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Winchester is nice, and has a lovely cathedral itself, but it's a little bit of a pain to get to Newbury on the train from there. You'd have to go via Reading and it takes about an hour and a half in total.
posted by corvine at 6:53 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Second vote for Marlborough as the nicest closest town. Stockbridge is also lovely, and only slightly further. Hungerford is quaint and also very close. Newbury is tedious, Amesbury is awful, Swindon is unbearable, Basinstoke is unthinkable. Of course if it's British TV locations you're after, how about Slough, home of The Office?
posted by roofus at 6:55 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Balls. Missed the bit about the train. I'd still suggest staying in either London or Marlborough. Marlborough is just off the main rail line from Reading and is easy to get to from Heathrow (there is a direct coach that takes 1.5hrs). You can get a coach from Marlborough to Newbury that takes only 35 minutes (National Express). To get to Castle Cary you'd get a local bus or short cab ride to Pewsey, from which it is about 40 minutes to Castle Cary on the train.

Other than that, as others have said, London works. I wouldn't go up to Oxford even though it is nice. If you're not driving, it's hard to get down to Castle Cary from there easily on public transport.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:56 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it's stately homes you're going for, maybe you could rent a miniature one of your own - Fox Hall or Oxenford Gatehouse?
posted by Segundus at 7:01 AM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oooh! I live 11 miles away. That's my only qualification because I've not seen Downton Abbey and I only go to Highclere castle for the annual car boot sales :-)

I think Marlborough is the best suggestion, it's such a pretty place with old buildings and lovely shops, not just chains (Monsoon, etc.) but independents. There's a famous tearoom called The Polly that's definitely worth a visit.

If you're into walking, don't forget Watership Down.

Feel free to memail me.
posted by humph at 7:13 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Henley-on-Thames is close to Reading by train, and it's very pretty and old-fashioned. If you're coming over to see the kind of old-world charm that Downton Abbey shows, it would be perfect -it's very cute, quite posh and very English. There are lots of antique shops, second-hand bookstores and places to eat there.

Bath is lovely but (from a small islander perspective) quite far out. However, if you are Jane Austen fans as well, you'd be mad not to go. Also, the commuter line from Berkshire to London is insanely overcrowded, as in 175% capacity during rush hour, so if you can't work around this then I'd avoid a London commute.

Finally, if you're going by rail DO NOT buy your tickets on the day - get them in advance via It will be significantly cheaper. UK rail travel is very expensive (it's cheaper for me to get the train to Paris than to go to visit my mum) and surprisingly complicated in termd of ticket restrictions.
posted by mippy at 8:02 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Segundus: If it's stately homes you're going for, maybe you could rent a miniature one of your own - Fox Hall or Oxenford Gatehouse?

I second this in the strongest language the Dowager Countess will permit. Staying in a Landmark Trust property in Derbyshire has been one of the greatest experiences of my life.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:20 AM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

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