Downton Abbey Dish #14

Deborah Gilbert | April 19, 2013

Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly EastEnders e-newsletter, and an EastEnders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.

One of my favorite forms of New York City entertainment is just walking around. London was no different:

Trafalger Square, Piccadilly Circus, Notting Hill, The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Parliament Square, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Carnaby Street, the High Street, it just went on and on. London is a very walkable city. I loved turning off a main drag into a small street no bigger than an alleyway and finding little boutiques or galleries. There were so many street names that I was familiar with. Sometimes when I came across those streets I went looking for familiar addresses. On my way to the National Gallery I happened upon Charring Cross Road, so naturally I looked for number 84. There are still a number of antiquarian book dealers on Charring Cross Road but Marks & Co booksellers is long gone; though it is remembered with a plaque on the wall. These round blue plaques are quite common, most designating the former home of a person of significant accomplishment who has passed on.

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Something else that I needed to get used to while walking around London was the opposite side of the street traffic. Now I understand why so many characters in British shows have met their demise in traffic accidents: On my first day I almost got hit by buses twice because I was looking in the wrong direction when crossing the street. I was told that the reason they drive on the opposite side goes back to horse and carriage days: People would want to stop, as they passed in their carriages and greet each other, and because you shake hands with your right hand,  driving on the left side of the road made it easier to do that. And they continued on with that when cars came along. They can’t figure out why we chose to drive on the right side. But the intersections that had these signs were helpful!

Another thing you notice about the traffic is they’re all driving small cars. No SUV’s, no pickups or minivans – tiny cars – and virtually no horn honking. I’d been there at least four days before I heard a horn honk and it wasn’t until day six that I heard a siren!

Here’s a car so tiny it fits in a pizzeria window display in Notting Hill!

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I returned to Buckingham Palace later in the week because I had a ticket to tour the mews, and I got there early so I walked around the neighborhood. The Palace sits in the toniest section of London, the south west neighborhood of Belgravia (we’ve heard Lady Edith mention Belgravia on Downton Abbey). The postal code SW1 is the most upscale in the city and it is also home to another familiar address, 165 Eaton Place. Naturally, I went looking for it. I found Eaton Place but there is no number 165 (probably a good thing). However, the street looks just as it did in Upstairs Downstairs. Tight zoning prevents owners of the townhouses from changing the exteriors, and thus changing the character of the neighborhood. If this was New York City, you just know those homeowners would have sold their air rights and the neighborhood would be destroyed by high rises. But here the neighborhood remains intact. That is why they can film period dramas here — it looks exactly as it did in Upstairs Downstairs (except for the cars on the street)! Though interestingly enough, while I was there, there was an article in the paper about how homeowners in Belgravia who want to maximize their square footage are, because they cannot build up, are building down—digging sub-basements sometimes two and three stories underground! All the construction drilling noise is causing problems for neighbors and some are now trying to put a stop to it.

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At the top of my London to-do list was visiting my favorite version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which lives in The National Gallery on Trafalger Square. Van Gogh reworked the sunflower theme eleven times and the painting in London (version #4) was purchased from Theo’s widow in 1924 for (if I recall correctly) $1,200. That seemed like a paltry sum for a Van Gogh until I remembered that my grandparents bought their house in 1923 for the same amount! I’ve always wanted to see the London Sunflowers in person, and what a thrill when I was finally standing face to face with them! And much to my delight, displayed right next to them is Van Gogh’s iconic chair painting. The National Gallery, like most of the museums in London, is free!

One thing I wanted to do while in London was to get an insider’s view from a local, and you can’t get a better tour guide than cabbie Tony Walker. If you have ever seen one of Michael Apted’s ‘Up Series’ documentaries, you’ve seen Tony. Actually, if you have seen Seven Up, the first one from 1964, you have seen Tony; his personality is exactly the same as it was when he was seven years old! If you haven’t seen any of the Up Series, you should check them out. I met him several years ago at an event in New York (at the time I hadn’t actually heard of the Up Series and had no idea who he was, I just thought he was a funny Cockney bloke).  I wondered if he would let me ride around in his cab as he picked up passengers one day. He was game so he picked me up at my hotel at 6PM (he works at night) and off we went. As it turns out, there is no front passenger seat in black cabs so I sat on a little metal box in what is normally the luggage hold. It was a quite an interesting way to see the city! This was only my third day in London and  actually my first time riding in anything but the train  since I’d gotten there and due to the opposite side of the road thing, it sometimes feels like you’re driving into oncoming traffic. It’s a weird sensation and takes some getting used too. But another thing you notice about drivers there: Some of the streets are so narrow it doesn’t look like it is possible that they are two-way streets, and yet they are! The drivers take turns politely letting each other pass (very un-New York). We drove all over—to the East End, to Bow Bells and Bethnel Green where he grew up (he laments the changes that make him feel like has been pushed out of his East End home), and we also drove over the Thames, over Waterloo Bridge and saw that gorgeous view of the city all lit up at our feet, as well as Westminster Bridge with the great view of Big Ben. We also stopped off to say hello to a friend of his, David Samuelson, a cameraman on the early Up Series films, who won an Oscar for inventing a kind of camera crane. He invited us to hold his Oscar. I’d never held one before (it’s heavy!) and when you pick it up, as a natural reflex you say, ‘I’d like to thank the Academy’. Here’s Tony with it. 

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Later on we stopped off at a cafe that is a cabbie hangout and Tony came in for some good natured ribbing from the other cabbies, all top Cockney blokes, as they shared their dinner break while watching a football match. I don’t understand football (soccer) but it didn’t sound like England was doing too well! In between plays they were making suggestions for sights, ("did you remember to show her this; did you remember to take her there, etc.") A great bunch of lads!

Anyone who is anyone has been in Tony’s cab over the years and he has all kinds of stories to tell as well as interesting London factoids. It was fun listening to him chatting away with his fares as well. Several of my newsletter readers have hired him while in London and have all had a great time. If you will be in London and would like a tour like no other, you can hire Tony to drive you around (and you’ll be sitting in the back where you can relax in comfort!) Contact him at:

Saturday I had plans to visit Highclere Castle and getting there was almost like an episode of Downton Abbey! It started before I ever left the States. By the time I’d booked my trip the website (and ticket office) said tickets were sold out and the only way I’d be able to get in would be to wait on a standby line on the chance that other guests would leave early so I could get in the last hour of the day! They said there were absolutely no more tickets. Oh no! After a bit of back and forth I was able to get one ticket because of this blog. Phew! So I set off early Saturday morning for ‘Downton Abbey.’ Highclere Castle is in Newbury, Berkshire, about an hour west of London by train. My directions were to catch the train from Paddington Station but when I got there they said (because of construction on the bank holiday weekend) the train would be leaving from Waterloo Station instead, so back on the tube to Waterloo. The wrong station meant I’d missed the first train and on top of that there would be no direct trains this weekend, I’d have to change trains in Redding. That turned out to be a good thing as several fellow travelers on the Reading train were coming home from a night out on the tiles in London and seemed to be confused about where the loos were, so I was relieved to get off and change trains for the final leg. But because of the station mix-up I missed the connection and had to wait another 45 minutes for the next train to Newbury. After all the mishegas I wanted to make sure I got off at the right stop and there were two stops with Newbury in the title (Newbury and Newbury Park). So I asked a woman on the train if she was local and she said she was, so I asked her if she knew which stop was the one for Highclere Castle. It was Newbury.

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As I asked her I could see the faces of a few other passengers nearby light up and I asked if they were going to Highclere as well. They were. It turned out they were THIRTEEN viewers from upstate New York (small world!) We struck up a conversation and I found out they didn’t have tickets to get in (again, because they were sold out). They were just hoping to be able to see the house from afar. I mentioned what I had learned and said maybe they could get in that way. For the final part of the journey, I’d been told there would be cabs waiting at the train station who knew how to get to Highclere Castle and there were, so this motley crew of Downtonians split a cab to the castle. As we got closer we could see big rolling fields of grazing sheep (it is a working farm) — and then you see that familiar house in the distance! There it is!

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But what’s this? When you first approach Highclere you see that there are cars parked out in front in a roped off, makeshift parking lot on the lawn. Carson would not approve! And tour buses keep pulling up to the front door (one, oddly enough, was called the Crawley Bus Company!) When we got there our newfound Downtonians walked right up to the ticket booth and were able to buy tickets to get in. No fuss, no muss! (And fortunately I had brought a ‘I heart Downton Abbey’ sign from THIRTEEN’s Pinterest page to capture the moment). So let that be a lesson to you: If you are going to the UK and they say tickets are sold out, go anyway and you might very well get lucky.

They don’t allow photography inside the castle. Like with any museum that houses paintings, the relentless flashes would likely damage the art. But I’m guessing it might also have something to do with the house not looking quite the same in person as it does on TV (like any TV or film set). There is a lot to be said for the talents of lighting designers and cinematographers! When you are outside the house you can wander around anywhere on the grounds, but when you go inside there is a roped-off route you follow as you walk through the house. The carpets are a bit worn and the upholstery frayed (as you would expect from items of their age) and I was surprised they were letting us walk on the carpets at all. On the tour route, you walk through the grand downstairs rooms that we are all familiar with from the show. There is Lord Grantham’s desk, there are the sumptuous red couches, there is the grand entryway and staircase, and on and on. The upstairs bedrooms have red velvet ropes across the doorways so you cannot enter, but can peer in. On the tables in the hallways sit some books which look a bit out of place. I thought that maybe there were precious items that normally live there but which (understandably) had to be removed before it opened for tours. And interestingly enough, prominently displayed on one table was a book called, The Appalling Guests. We were joking about whether that was a message to us, the tourists who were traipsing through their house (though I was told that the family doesn’t actually live in it – they live in a smaller house on the estate). I spent most of my time there outside, walking around the grounds. The best view (I think) is from the folly in the side yard that has appeared in the background of so many scenes.

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It was a very interesting place to visit, but this studio apartment dweller can’t imagine living there. It is so huge and cold you can understand why the characters and their extended family on Downton Abbey all live there together: It is a house that requires a large number of people to fill it up. When it was time to leave I called the cabby who had driven us out from the train station and he was there to pick me up in minutes. As he was driving me back to the station, we had been driving for almost ten minutes when he mentioned we were still on Highclere Castle estate property! It’s just massive! If you’re going to be in the UK and would like to visit Highclere Castle (and it IS worth a visit for any Downton Abbey fan), get all the info here:

As I mentioned, there was just one thing on my list that I didn’t get to do while in London— ride the London Eye. I kept waiting for a clear day but a clear day never came! It was densely cloudy and freezing cold with occasional snow flurries all week; the weather forecasters kept saying it was the coldest Easter week in years. But it didn’t matter: I had the time of my life!

Of course I had fit in some shopping along the way. So much so that I needed an extra bag on the way home for all the goodies I’d bought. I’d picked up assorted souvenirs for friends and family, gluten free goodies we don’t have here in the States, plum jam from the Highclere Castle gift shop, strawberry jam and English Lavender from Buckingham Palace, shoes from Carnaby Street, a sweater from Notting Hill, and I discovered Boots No 7 (it’s amazing!) Being the not-so-seasoned traveler that I am, while it seemed like everyone else at Heathrow had nice fashionable luggage, I was shlepping my booty in a big plastic laundry bag bought for £1.50 off the Camden High Street. What can I say? That’s me all over.  When I got to the gate to board, the supervising flight attendant told me he’d received a letter informing him I’d be on his flight and to take care of me. Like I said, British Airways has the BEST customer service anywhere! I haven’t been cured of my fear of flying, but the British Airways staff (with the assist of the Ativan) made it manageable. On the flight home I willed myself to stay awake long enough to get my gluten free meal (filet of sole – excellent!) I watched a movie (I think) but I cannot for the life of me remember what one it was – and then we landed!  So I made it home! It was a magical trip, made that way by the many special people I met along the way. Hopefully, someday I’ll summon the nerve to return to jolly old England – til then I’ll have to get by on the great telly we get on PBS!

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