Live A Day In The Life Of ‘Downton Abbey’ At These English Castles

The British TV series “Downton Abbey” has taken America by storm with millions of viewers tuning in each week to watch the lives of the wealthy Crawley family unfold. The glamorous outfits, the decadent dinners, the lavish estate – it’s a splendorous life most of us can only dream of.

But take a trip to England and you’ll see that sprawling country estates like Downton Abbey are very real. In fact, some are still home to noble families. But that doesn’t mean you can only look at these castles from afar, because many of England’s grand estates have opened their doors to visitors. Not only can you tour the grounds, you can experience life as it was a hundred years ago. Step into the shoes of Mary or Matthew Crawley and be whisked back in time as you take part in Easter egg hunts, high tea, jousting tournaments, clay pigeon shooting and more.

Highclere Castle

Naturally, the first place that comes to mind if you want the true Downton experience is the very estate where the TV show is filmed – Highclere Castle (see image above). Located in Hampshire, England, Highclere is set on 1000 acres of parkland. The castle itself has around 300 rooms, some of which can be rented out for weddings or private dinners. Visitors here can take part in Highclere’s annual Easter egg hunt, stroll through fairs, listen to concerts or enjoy afternoon tea in the estate’s tea rooms or out on the perfectly manicured lawn.However, if you have a spare 8,000 GPB lying around, why settle for an Easter egg hunt when you can get the luxury package we told you about last year? Enjoy tea with the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, a private tour of the estate led by the Lord or Lady of the house, a grand luncheon and more.

Castle Howard

Castle Howard is an 18th century residence situated 15 miles north of York. It’s currently home to the Howard family, whose ancestors have lived in the sprawling estate for more than three centuries. Like Highclere, Castle Howard has also been immortalized on film – the movie and TV show based on the novel “Brideshead Revisited” was filmed on the grounds.

Visitors to Castle Howard are able to tour the residence, and explore the gardens, lakes, statues, and mausoleum on the grounds. The estate also hosts a range of events throughout the year, including an Easter fair, dog shows, craft fairs, Christmas celebrations, talks discussing the portraits and artwork in the home, and a range of outdoor theater performances (a rendition of “Pride and Prejudice” is among the shows scheduled this year).

Blenheim Palace

This 18th century palace located 8 miles from Oxford is the birthplace of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The estate, which is now home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Blenheim Palace runs dozens of events throughout the year ranging from sports to the arts. Among the more colorful events is a jousting tournament where visitors can watch knights dressed in medieval garb competing on horseback. Reenactments of historic battles also draw huge crowds to the estate. If you prefer something a little more sedate, there’s a flower show, literary festival, and an art and antique fair. You can also enjoy a picnic as you watch summer theater performances or take part in Blenheim’s annual Easter egg hunt.

Chatsworth House

Located in Derbyshire, Chatsworth House has been passed down through the same family for 16 generations. The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire now call the mansion home, but about 30 of the estate’s rooms remain open to the public.

Visitors can walk through the grand sculpture galleries and state rooms, meet an actor dressed as a Lady’s Maid, or dress in period costume. You can also tour the glasshouses and learn how the orchids and vines are looked after, or take a floral arrangement workshop. If you’re still thirsty for more, Chatsworth offers tours teaching visitors how beer was brewed at the estate during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Chatsworth House also hosts a traditional country fair featuring hot air balloons, military bands and vintage cars. Here, guests can try their hand at clay pigeon shooting or take part in an old-fashioned archery competition.

Lyme Park

Lyme Park, found in Cheshire, England, was once a great sporting estate, and today, visitors can stroll the vast grounds, which include several lakes, rose gardens and lots of deer. If the mansion looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because you recognize it from the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice,” which filmed several scenes here.

Visitors to Lyme Park are allowed to truly explore and enjoy the estate – this includes playing the piano or lounging with a book from the library. You can also dress up in old-timey costume and take photos to remember the experience.

Lyme Park also hosts several activities, including a Sunday luncheon for mothers, an Easter “eggstravaganza,” and the opportunity to make an Edwardian scrapbook. There is also a range of family activities to help visitors learn what life was like during the Edwardian period.

Note: Not all events at these estates are held on a regular basis. If you want to take part in a particular activity, check the estate’s website or call ahead to find out when events will be taking place. Some activities may also need to be pre-booked.

[Photo credits: Flickr users Richard Munckton; Paul Stevenson; Josh Friedman; Phillip Capper; and A Pillow of Winds]

Totnes: South Devon’s Alternative Village

Totnes

Totnes, an Elizabethan town in the South West English county of Devon, isn’t your average West Country village. Totnes is what is increasingly known as a Transition Town – in fact, it is a model Transition Town.

What is a Transition Town, you ask? A Transition Town is a municipality focused on sustainable local economic growth by encouraging the use of local resources and local businesses. One expression of this philosophy is the circulation of a superlocal currency, the Totnes Pound, which is accepted by scores of shops in Totnes. This currency is an impressive innovation for a town of just 8,000 residents.

totnesNot surprisingly, Totnes can be said to possess a definite crunchiness, especially in the form of new age shops and the Friday and Saturday markets at the town’s Civic Hall Square. But if visitors come expecting Santa Cruz in the English countryside, they’ll be terribly disappointed. Totnes feels like a typical English market town, albeit one with a particularly dynamic local retail environment.

There are many ways to gauge this retail dynamism. The sheer range of shops and relative lack of empty storefronts is one. Here’s another: Aromatika, a highly respected, organic, vegan-friendly skin care products company, is headquartered in Totnes. Clearly, the town is a good motor for at least some sorts of entrepreneurial activity.

It is the plethora of small shops selling crafts, niche products and home furnishings that really help the town make a claim to retail excitement. Several home furnishings shops sell a range of well-curated products, both new and vintage. My favorite of these is a place called Inspired Buys (see above), whimsically stocked with a number of beautifully upcycled items, including old maps, hand-painted posters and signage. During my visit last week I fell in love with an old vintage canvas school map of Britain on sale there, the chalk markings of a teacher still visible. At £40 ($64) the map might not have been cheap, but it is also easy to imagine the vast mark-up that the map would command at a big city hipster design den.

There are other reasons to visit Totnes: the magnificent East Gate Arch on Fore Street, which makes the town feel cozy and contained, its 16th-century wooden houses, Totnes Castle, its rambling lanes, its many cafes (of which the best is probably The Curator Cafe and Store), and the South Devon countryside all around. But the retail is a serious draw, and not just for people who like to shop. Totnes is trailblazing a kind of economic future for towns focused on nurturing small local businesses.

Totnes is three hours from London by train. The least expensive advance roundtrip fare found during recent research: £43.50 ($70).

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]

I Miss The ‘Crap’ English Weather

guardian english weather mapI’ve just returned from a five-day trip to England, in which we saw the sun for an aggregate of about 15 minutes, but I miss the English weather already. It’s supposed to be 102 today in Washington, D.C., and 104 tomorrow. Factoring in the heat index, it will feel like a place well within easy commuting distance of hell.

June went down as the wettest June in the U.K. since rainfall records began to be recorded in 1910, with over 5.7 inches of rain. The British newspaper The Independent also noted other “lousy” and “disappointing” characteristics of the June weather: it was also the second least sunny June, with only 119 hours of sunshine, and also the coolest since 1991.

Given Britain’s reputation for wet, cool weather, the fact that records were set is saying something. But at least the Brits have a good sense of humor about their miserable weather. Reuters reports that Belgium is considering taking legal action against a weather service that made a long term forecast for a rainy summer on the Belgian coast.rain at wimbledonI was at Wimbledon last Monday in the rain and I asked a security guard I was chatting with if June had seemed especially dismal to him.

“You can always count on crap weather here,” he said. “That’s why you find the English on holiday in Spain, Greece and anywhere else where the sun shines.”

The Brits are so accustomed to bad weather that the Guardian’s weather map for the U.K. (see above) included the following key icons last week: showers, heavy showers, light rain, rain, thundery rain, thundery showers, overcast/dull, mostly cloudy and sunny intervals. How’s that for crap weather? In the States, we just get showers, rain or thunderstorms on our weather maps.

Five years ago, on a mid summer retreat to Newfoundland, the coldest place I could find within 1,000 miles of my home, we encountered a similarly gloomy, yet very detailed forecast. We were driving up to a town called Twillingate and heard a weather forecast on the radio that had us in tears. The presenter used the words “patchy fog, patchy drizzle” and “patches of patchy fog and patchy drizzle,” over and over and over again to describe the forecast in every town in Newfoundland, which has a climate almost as bad as the U.K.

“Why doesn’t he just save time and say the weather sucks in the whole province?” my wife asked, quite sensibly.

With the Olympic Games set to begin in London on July 27, one can’t help but wonder how much Britain’s notoriously wet weather will impact the events. According to a story in the Associated Press, five weather forecasters will be “embedded with the games and working around the clock, providing long- and short-range forecasts for the event.” But they could have 100 forecasters and it isn’t going to change the gloomy reality that the athletes can probably expect wet weather.

And yet, I rather prefer the chilly gloom to baking in the heat and humidity we have here in Washington. For those of us who call this place home, we’re more or less stuck here, but I feel compelled to pose a polite, yet pointed question to the tourist hordes that come here every year in July and August: why? What the hell are you thinking? Washington is wonderful in the spring and fall and miserable in the middle of summer.

Call me crazy but I’ll take 62 degrees and drizzle over 104 with humidity any day.

Britain’s Heritage Cities are ready for visitors


Britain's Heritage Cities are ready for visitors


Thanks to the London Olympics, which will open on July 27, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, 2012 is expected to be a boom year for tourism in Great Britain. In the hopes of capitalizing on this trend, six historic cities have teamed up to get noticed by travelers intent on venturing beyond the English capital.

Bath, Carlisle, Chester, Oxford, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and York, Britain’s so-called Heritage Cities, are trying to lure tourists with eight itineraries that explore their shared history. The Literary, Visual and Performing Arts tour, for example, takes in Oxford, Bath, and Stratford with stops at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Bodleian Library, the model for Hogwarts Library in the ‘Harry Potter’ series. Meanwhile, travelers interested in England’s North Country may want to follow the Great Castles, Stately Homes, and Gardens tour, which visits three countries (England, Wales, and Scotland) and three Heritage Cities (Carlisle, Chester, and York), and includes stops at a 12th century castle, the homes of Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth, and sections of Hadrian’s Wall.

Beyond exploring these cities in a package tour, Britain’s Heritage Cities website offers a glimpse of the top 10 attractions in each town. Did you know that York is considered the most haunted city in Europe? Or, that the city of Chester still carries on the medieval tradition of town criers? The most oh-so-British traditions and folklore live on in these Heritage Cities, so it may be worth checking them out while the past is still present.

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Frommer’s reveals top destinations for 2012

What destination are you dreaming of for 2012? The staff at Frommer’s have just unveiled their list of top travel destinations for the coming year. Included in the list is a little something for everyone: large metropolises, secluded beach towns, colorful riverside villas, and more.

But Frommer’s didn’t just rely on their expert editors and author’s for this years list–they also polled readers to find out where they wanted to visit in 2012. Click through the gallery below to see Frommer’s (and their reader’s) picks–including one surprising midwestern city that is the only spot in the United States to make the cut.
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Other Winners:
Top Family Destination: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Top Cruise Destination: Tromso, Norway
Top Beach Destination: Hanalei Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Top Adventure Destination: Moab, Utah
Top Food & Drink Destination: Lima, Peru
Top City Break Destination: Chicago, Illinois
Top Endangered Destination: Aysen Region, Chile
Top Value Destination: Albanian Riviera
Top Destination to Get Lost: Whitsunday Islands, Australia