How to lord it inside the home of Downton Abbey

Monday 06 April 2020

The hit TV show Downton Abbey may have shut its regal doors for the last time, but for the lord and lady who live within in the real-life version of its hallowed walls, the aristocratic life is still evident in all its glory.

The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed, since 1679. Lady Fiona Carnarvon, wife of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, says although the TV series has ended, the show goes on at Highclere, which sits nobly in the rolling greenery of Berkshire, west of London.

“The world of Highclere still exists with its own community of chefs, gardeners and housekeepers,” she says. “The household has its own people who make the ‘Real Downton Abbey’ a welcoming place for visitors today, such as Colin the Butler and Jo the Groom.” 

Across Britain, an abundance of majestic mansions and stately homes (along with countless Colin and Jos) are open to the public, including Highclere, and homes featured in other period-drama favourites such as Brideshead Revisited (the gorgeous Castle Howard in Yorkshire). These enduring symbols of British life are often owned and run by the descendants of the storied families who originally inhabited them.

Stately homes across Britain have experienced a surge of tourists since 2010, increasing the tourism spend by £5 billion in five years – a figure attributed to the fascination sparked by Downton Abbey.

Not every grand home has the good fortune of being featured in a famous TV series, but there are literally hundreds boasting breathtaking architecture and gardens. To see them in person is to be whisked back in time to the halcyon days of British grandeur.
For many lords and ladies of the manor, tourism has become an essential source of income to safeguard the future of their estates. A survey published in 2013 by the Historic Houses Association (HHA), which represents estates, castles and gardens throughout Britain, found that “urgent repairs” required by its members had  doubled since 2009, standing at more than $1.5-billion. 

Within months of Downton Abbey launching, Highclere Castle was seeing upwards of 1,000 visitors a day, helping to pay for almost $24-million worth of upgrades. 

Events and attractions are added to the mix at many homes to boost tourist interest.  “Highclere runs a seasonal calendar featuring concerts, country fairs, charity days and general visiting days during the summer as well as quintessentially English cream teas and tours of the Castle,” Lady Carnarvon says.

Around 60 per cent of the UK’s historic houses are open to the public. One way to discover the vast network of stately homes is to pick up a National Trust Touring Pass Access, which provides entry to more than 300 of the properties. The pass includes access to locations as featured in Pride and Prejudice and the Harry Potter films, as well as estates such as the World Heritage Site of Fountains Abbey monastery in Yorkshire, Winston Churchill’s residence Chartwell in Kent, and the childhood home of poet William Wordsworth, Wordsworth House and Gardens, near the stunning Lake District in Cumbria.

Delving through the selection, it’s soon clear that each property has a unique selling point. From art, to charming period accommodations, to golf courses, spas, motor circuits or a private aerodrome for flying lessons, some amenities are more extravagant than other, but all exude serious period charm and deep family histories.

At Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, in north-east England – also a location in Downton Abbey's 2014 Christmas special, playing the role of Brancaster Castle – guests can enjoy a variety of food and drink options inside the castle walls, using locally-sourced produce. The Duke and Duchess of Northumberland still reside at one of Britain’s largest inhabited homes and the opulent State Rooms, filled with a stunning array of art and furniture collected over the years by the Percy family, are open for viewing. The estate also features a mammoth library, while the cellars are open for a spine-tingling tour.

In the heart of England’s Peak district, the 35,000-acre Chatsworth Estate features a range of holiday cottages and hotels in which to spend a night or two, including converted stone barns. The majestic main house is home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and has been passed down through 16 generations of the Cavendish family. There are 30 rooms to explore, including art that spans 4,000 years, from ancient Roman and Egyptian sculpture and masterpieces by Rembrandt, Reynolds and Veronese, to work by modern artists, including Lucian Freud and Edmund de Waal.

Just as striking about these exquisite homes and castles are the backdrops of the landscapes and communities that surround them.  
Many of the estates feature extensive gardens and parklands, and throughout Britain, historic houses and their gardens are key players in local economies, particularly in rural areas, where other opportunities for employment and business activity are often limited.  Almost 26,000 people are directly employed at historic houses and that the economies springing from them support in excess of 51,000 businesses.

At the Burghley Estate in Lincolnshire, access to a vast park, open year- round, is free. The gardens and parkland were designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the 18th century and their maintenance falls to a small team of foresters and gardeners who look after more than 2,000 acres of land. The house is considered to be one of England’s finest Elizabethan buildings and its family has strong Canadian ties.  Head of the household, Michael Exeter, the 8th Marquess of Exeter, was born in western Canada, and his son, Lord Burghley, currently lives in Victoria, B.C.

Needless to say, no matter which stately home you visit, there’s not only a charming history, but an equally important contemporary story of the preservation of Britain’s colourful past.

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