James Hastings visits Highclere Castle – the setting for the popular television series

Andy Warhol promised all of us 15 minutes of fame. At Highclere Castle, you may just manage 30 seconds.

I was standing on the drive in front of this stunning stately home which TV fans know is the setting for Downton Abbey.

On my right was Lady Mary's bench where she avidly read the latest work by that controversial new author, Oscar Wilde. On my left was the glorious lawn where Lord Grantham ended the first dramatic series of Downton by announcing that ‘Britain is now at war with Germany’.

Directly in front of me was another busload of impatient 21st Century tourists – mostly Australians – who were waiting their turn to be photographed where I stood, before one of the world’s most famous living stage-sets. I could almost hear the acerbic Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Dame Maggie Smith, whisper ‘how vulgar’.

But for us mere mortals, a visit to Highclere Castle is a delight on two levels. Yes, we are attracted by the turbulent lives of the aristocratic Crawely family and their servants, superbly brought to life by Oscar-winning writer, Lord Julian Fellowes.

We are also attracted by beautiful Highclere itself – designed in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, the architect responsible for the Houses of Parliament – and its glorious 1,000- acre estate.

Firstly, the facts.

Highclere in Hampshire is just over a two-hour drive from Taunton, making it ideal for a day trip. The Carnarvon families have lived here since 1679. Highclere was the seat, 100 years ago, of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 with Howard Carter.

Today, the eighth Earl and Countess have opened a new Egyptian Exhibition which includes rare antiquities from the fifth Earl’s earlier excavations.

Besides managing the affairs of Highclere, Lady Carnarvon has written several books.

The New York Times bestseller Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere is an amazing tale covering the same period as the first two series of Downton.

The follow up, Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey (left), focuses on the remarkable American heiress who came to reign at Highclere in the 1920s.

On a glorious sunny day, I could think of no better place to start my reading than on Lady Mary’s bench.

Unfortunately, there was already a lengthy queue for photographs.

For full details on Highclere, including opening times, go to highclerecastle.co.uk

DAY OUT: Highclere in Hampshire is just over a two-hour drive from Taunton.