Touring Highclere Castle is like navigating a minefield of "Downton Abbey" plot spoilers.
The third season of the hit TV series, which is filmed largely within the walls of this honey-colored stone mansion in Berkshire, 70 miles west of London, premieres Sunday on "Masterpiece" on PBS. But it aired in the United Kingdom this past autumn, so many of my fellow visitors are already privy to the latest windfalls and misfortunes affecting its bevy of duplicitous footmen, scheming maids and high-spirited heiresses.
"That's where Edith had a good cry after ___," says one woman with a sympathetic tut. "Oh, this was ___'s room," whispers another. "Such a pity what happened there."
Sure, a few architectural aficionados might come to admire Highclere's gorgeous symmetry, devised by Sir Charles Barry, the same mastermind who designed the Houses of Parliament. The mansion also features an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts and a partial re-creation of Tutankhamun's tomb, which was discovered by the fifth Earl of Carnarvon (the family that owns Highclere), in conjunction with Howard Carter. But judging from the chatter, most are here to see where the Granthams breakfast over crisply ironed newspapers, sip their sherry beside the fire in the drawing room, and argue behind bedroom doors.
They will not be disappointed. When one steps into the library, the room is instantly recognizable, from the fluted columns to the red velvet sofas and shelves of leather volumes, their aged covers glinting with embossed gold. Beyond lies the drawing room, its walls swathed in green silk, and a chandelier -- could this be the one tickled with a feather-duster in the opening credits? -- sparkling in the sunshine. The central "saloon" is, if anything, even more impressive than it appears on television, with a soaring ceiling reminiscent of a cathedral, and it's impossible to descend the oak staircase without feeling that you might find Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley at the bottom of it, engaged in an illicit embrace.
What visitors might not expect, however, is evidence of this castle's ongoing role as a 21st-century home -- and its royal connections. Scattered around side tables, family photos show grinning children on the ski slopes, recent portraits of an attractive young couple that prove to be the current earl and countess, and older black-and-white images, including a grinning man hoisting a little blond boy into the air.
"That's the seventh earl with the young Prince Charles," a guide explains.
And that woman in the headscarf standing among a field of cows is Queen Elizabeth II, who is the eighth earl's godmother. She still visits the earl's mother on the estate and, according to another guide, spent her last birthday here.
More than a set
Upstairs, most bedrooms are open for inspection. Although ropes across the doorways prevent us from wandering in to bounce on the beds, we get a good gander at the trappings. Every room has a dressing table laden with creams and lotions, a flashlight on the bedside table, and stacks of well-thumbed novels by the likes of Patricia Cornwell and Dick Francis, as well as lesser-known books such as the amusingly titled "The Other Half Lives" -- all further clues that this is not a museum or an artificial set, but a home where the earl and countess spend much of their time and continue to entertain.
That being the case, they are understandably protective of Highclere when film crews arrive. "We always have someone on site (during shooting), because I'd like the castle to be standing at the end of the day, the doors on the hinges and the windows in the panes," says the countess, Lady Fiona, who spoke at London's Grosvenor House hotel in November to promote her book "Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle."
Lady Almina was the wife of the fifth earl and resided at Highclere approximately the same time the series is set. Many tales related in the book correspond to "Downton" storylines, as well -- a wealthy woman married for her money, a great home transformed into a hospital during the war and changing fortunes. This may not be entirely coincidental, as Julian Fellowes, who writes the series, is a friend of the Carnarvons.
Drawing on the past
"I never think he nicks my storylines, but I'm delighted if there's anything he uses," the countess insists, though she admits "it wouldn't have been very happy if they made the earl and countess really hideous characters."
Still, balancing a friendship and the overwhelming success of the series can present challenges. "If it gets very tricky, I just open a bottle of Champagne," Lady Fiona says, laughing.
Of course, the world of "Downton Abbey" exists beyond Highclere's bubble. For an in-depth understanding, I have teamed up with Helen Porter, a guide who specializes in historical drama tours. She has partnered with Brit Movie Tours to create a three-day "Downton Abbey" tour, which launches this spring, and we have condensed a few highlights into one winter's day.
Our first stop is Halton House, which has a dual connection to the series. In Season 2, it serves as Haxby Park, the estate of Sir Richard Carlisle, who brings Lady Mary here for a tour. In reality, the home was built as a weekend escape by Sir Alfred de Rothschild, father of Almina -- hence its second link to Highclere and "Downton" -- though it has served as a home for Royal Air Force officers since 1919.
"In that sense, it's still living up to its bachelor pad days," explains Min Larkin, a historian and archivist for Halton House, where he leads tours. With its sweeping staircase and ornate balconies, it is grand enough to have also been featured in such films as "The Queen," "The World Is Not Enough" and "An Ideal Husband."
No shrinking violet
Closer to London, we pay a visit to Byfleet Manor, which doubles as the home of the dowager countess. But the woman who opens the door -- an attractive brunette stylishly turned out in a miniskirt, polka-dot stockings and black knee-high boots -- is quite different from the indomitable Maggie Smith.
Julie Hutton has lived in this redbrick 17th-century home for 12 years. Although she's the lady of the manor, "Generally, I'm relegated to the kitchen (during filming)," she says with a smile, settling into a blue velvet armchair in the parlor so often seen in the series. Once, she nipped upstairs to change clothes, only to find that Smith had commandeered her bedroom.
Although she's witnessed "Downton" behind the scenes, Hutton, like millions of others, has been drawn into its web of plot twists. She's even become an avid follower of several spoof accounts on Twitter.
"One day, I was having a (Twitter) conversation with 'Mr. Bates,' and I thought, 'This is quite exciting.' Then, 'Wait a minute! This is a fictional character!' How sad is that?" she says with a laugh.
Aside from Highclere, perhaps the most immersive experience available to fans is a walk around Oxfordshire's Bampton, which serves as the village of Downton in the series. There's the library, easy to spot as the entrance to the hospital; the church at its center, which features rather prominently in the third season; the little lane, which, in the "reel" world, leads to Downton Abbey; and the village green, a surprisingly tiny triangle of grass in front of the Crawley mansion, which is sequestered behind a stone wall.
"There's something about being in the actual place where scenes were filmed," says Porter, who has seen clients kiss doorknobs because their favorite actor might have touched them. "They feel a connection -- and it gives people a tingle."
Wandering among its centuries-old cottages, I find it easy to imagine I'm prowling the lanes of Downton, where intrigue lurks behind every door. I'm tingling, I admit -- but I do draw the line at kissing a doorknob.
Contact Amy Laughinghouse via firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Visit on your own:
Highclere Castle is where many of the "upstairs" scenes of "Downton Abbey" are shot. (Downstairs scenes are filmed at Ealing Studios.) Highclere opens on select dates (but not continuously) from March 30 to May 28; castle and gardens tour costs about $18 for adults and $10 for children. Learn more at www.highclerecastle.co.uk.
Brit Movie Tours (http://britmovietours.com) offers a variety of "Downton Abbey: options:
Where to stay:
Lady Cora sounds off:
Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Cora, has formed a band called Sadie and the Hotheads. She plays occasional gigs around London and is sometimes joined onstage by members of the cast. For information on future shows, go to www.sadieandthehotheads.com.
-- Amy Laughinghouse