Britain is packed with stately homes, many of which are open to the public to explore and discover ‘how the other half live’, as they say in Britain. If you love Downton Abbey – and you’ve been missing it since the series reached its conclusion, or feel inspired with the release of the new movie - head out for some fresh country air, manicured gardens and tales of intrigue both up and downstairs, by packing your tweeds and living like a Lord or Lady for real.
If Highclere Castle doesn’t sound familiar, how about...Downton Abbey? Highclere is the location that was used for the TV series and movie and on certain dates (published on its website) the house is open for visitors. Still privately owned by Lord and Lady Carnarvon, you can explore independently or take a guided tour. Many of the rooms are exactly as they appeared in Downton Abbey, particularly the Red Room (Lady Mary’s bedroom) and Lord Grantham’s study. The house is also home to an impressive Egyptian exhibition, including artefacts brought home by the famous Lord Carnarvon who, with Howard Carter, was the first man to discover Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Getting there: Highclere Castle is around a one-hour-and-15-minute drive west of London, the nearest station is a 15-minute taxi ride away at Newbury (50 minutes from London Paddington).
There’s no better way to discover the world of a Scottish ‘laird’ (the equivalent of a Scottish lord), than by spending a day in the dramatic countryside, learning the skill of clay-pigeon shooting. The Gleneagles Shooting School caters for complete beginners and experienced shots, and the joy of a clay-pigeon shoot is that no livestock is involved. Gleneagles itself has been a hotel since it opened its doors in the 1920s, and has hosted numerous Lords, Ladies, Kings and Queens – and, more recently, Hollywood royalty such as Stephen Spielberg and Harrison Ford.
Getting there: Gleneagles is around a one-hour drive north of Glasgow, while Gleneagles station is 55 minutes by train from Glasgow Queen Street station
One of Britain’s most notorious country houses, Cliveden has a dramatic 300-year history; twice destroyed by fire, bought by Lord Astor for £1.25m in 1893 and the backdrop to the famous Profumo sex-and-politics scandal that rocked 1960s Britain. In later years it has become a luxurious country hotel, surrounded by 376 acres (152 hectares) of glorious National Trust-managed parkland. Non-residents can book afternoon tea at the house, which is taken in one of the grand lounges, or out on the terrace in the summer months. Expect gleaming silverware, delicate finger sandwiches and pastries and even a glass or two of champagne.
Getting there: Cliveden is just under a one-hour drive west of London, the nearest station is a 10-minute taxi ride at Taplow, which itself is 40 minutes from London Paddington.
Strolling in the grounds was one of the major pastimes for wealthy ladies of the manor, and the walled garden at Glenarm Castle, one of the oldest in Northern Ireland, is a wonderful place to walk. Originally a kitchen garden, careful re-planting has made it a riot of colour from the first spring bulbs and fruit blossom in May, through to the vibrant herbaceous borders that carry on flowering through October. There has been a castle at Glenarm since the 13th century, although the present house was built in the mid-17th century and it remains a private residence, home to the 14th Earl of Antrim and his family.
Getting there: Glenarm Castle is around a 40-minute drive north of Belfast, Larne Station is a 15-minute taxi ride away (around one hour by train from Belfast).
There are few more genteel ways to feel like a lord (or lady) of the manor than a game of croquet on a lush green lawn. The game dates back to the mid-19th century and involves knocking a heavy ball through a series of hoops with a long hammer. A favourite pastime of the aristocracy, it was a game that allowed ladies to take part without any loss of dignity. The croquet lawn at Cricket St Thomas, a beautiful 19th-century former stately home, tucked away in the Somerset countryside, is just one of the attractions at this elegant house, once used by Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton for secret romantic trysts.
Getting there: Cricket St Thomas is a four-hour drive south west of London, Crewkerne station is a 10-minute taxi ride, which itself is a two-and-a-half journey from London Waterloo.
Lovers of classic cars should head to the beautiful Goodwood Estate, in the Sussex countryside an hour south of London, which offers the chance to experience upscale living with a car to match. The Estate has been home to the Dukes of Richmond for more than three centuries, and the ninth Duke loved motor racing to such a degree that he built a motor circuit on the estate in 1948. Pamper yourself at the luxury spa, savour a spot of fine dining and relax in one of the hotel suites, before indulging your inner race car enthusiast with a range of experiences – from following in the footsteps of legend Sir Jackie Stewart on the performance track, to channelling your inner country squire and going off-road in a classic 1960s Land Rover.
Getting there: Goodwood is around a one-and-a-half-hour drive south of London, Chichester Station is around 15 minutes by taxi, which itself is a one-and-a-half-hour journey from London Victoria.
Osborne House was the holiday residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and the location for some of their happiest times as a family. Prince Albert designed the Swiss Cottage in 1853 as an oversized play house for the children, and the family would move between the house and the cottage in a horse and carriage. Visitors to the house can re-trace their footsteps with a carriage ride around the House, and down to Queen Victoria’s private beach, with her bathing machine, which allowed her to swim in the sea while preserving her stately modesty. Visit the House this year and join in the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were born just a few months apart back in 1819.
Getting there: The Isle of Wight is linked by car and passenger ferry to the mainland ports of Southampton and Lymington. Southampton is around a one-and-a-half-hour drive south of London or just over one hour by train from London Waterloo.
Llangoed Hall is one of the last Edwardian country houses to be built in its imposing Arts & Craft style. In the late 1980s, despite its illustrious history, the hall was in a parlous state and could easily have been demolished had it not been for the timely intervention of Sir Bernard Ashley, who rescued the property with the clear vision of reviving the ambience of the Edwardian country house party. As well as falconry and archery, you can also enjoy clay-pigeon shooting, croquet on the lawn and fly fishing with its 17 acres (seven hectares) of lovingly landscaped gardens. Meanwhile, if you’re an art lover, you can admire works by Edwardian artists such as Walter Sickert, Augustus John and Rex Whistler as well Herman Dudley Murphy and James Cowie.
Getting there: Llangoed Hall is around a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Cardiff, south Wales.
In medieval times, feasting was a regular event for wealthy landowners and 19th century Ruthin castle, built on the site of a 12th-century wooden fortress, is a spectacular location for a real banquet. Legend has it that Ruthin once hosted King Arthur and, in the early 20th century, became a hot-bed of scandal when the wife of the owner, Patsy Cornwallis-West, had a high-profile affair with the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VII). For a true taste of history, attend one of the medieval feasts, a re-creation of the legendary banquets hosted by the Earl of Warwick (son of Henry VIII) in the 16th century, with fully-costumed Ladies of the Court who will sing, entertain and lead the evening’s feasting.
Getting there: Ruthin is around a one-and-a-half-hour drive west of Manchester, or 40 minutes by taxi from Chester station, which itself is one hour from Manchester Piccadilly station.
Falconry is often said to be the oldest and most aristocratic field sport in the world, involving handling impressive birds of prey such as falcons, hawks and owls. At Stapleford Park, a country estate with 1,000 years of history that is now a luxury hotel, the School of Falconry offers an introduction to falconry. Under expert guidance, you can even handle the birds. The house itself has welcomed many royal guests over the centuries and the Capability Brown-designed Park is a wonderful place to stroll, complete with restored walled garden and magnificent historic woodland.
Getting there: Stapleford Park is an hour-and-a-half drive north of London. Trains to the nearby station of Grantham take around one hour from London King’s Cross.