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.
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 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).
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.
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, 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]