When we watch period dramas such as British TV hit Downton Abbey, it’s easy to get lost in the story lines and forget that these extraordinary properties were once home to real people. In some cases, in fact, they still are — the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, for example, live at Highclere Castle, the stately home that audiences around the world recognize as Downton Abbey today.
Highclere is only open to the public for a few weeks a year because of the show’s busy production schedule, but there are plenty of other magnificent castles and estates you can visit. Take a step back in time with these three.
Before there was Downton, there was Brideshead Revisited, the iconic BBC adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel of the same name. Castle Howard, the grand country house and estate where the 1980s TV drama was filmed, is a short drive from York, and is open to the public year-round (the house itself is closed December 23 through March 21). Work began on Castle Howard in 1699, but it took more than 100 years to complete. The Howard family, descendants of the earl who built the house, lives there today, but you can take a tour to see architectural and antique gems, including the elaborate chapel; the 70-foot-high dome, with its colorful paintings and intricate carvings; and the Long Gallery, which extends 160 feet along the length of the castle. Paintings by Canaletto, Gainsborough and many other great English, Italian and Flemish artists line the walls throughout. Even if the house is closed at the time of your visit, there are more than 1,000 acres of estate to explore: Rose and vegetable gardens, ornamental water features and grand neo-classical structures make this one of the most beautiful large estates in the country.
For a visit to a stately home that’s somewhat of an adventure, you can’t do better than Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland. The primary attraction of this 16th-century castle is its extraordinary location on Holy Island, a wind-swept spit of land connected to the mainland only when the tide is low. The road is perfectly safe, but those driving to the island must check the tide timetable or risk getting washed away — visitors have had to abandon their vehicles on a number of occasions in the past. Once safely across, the castle is a joy to explore: Originally built as a fort in Tudor times, it was refurbished in the Arts and Crafts style at the start of the 20th century by renowned British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. His designs work beautifully with the older structure beneath, seen most charmingly in the elegant dining room, where an ancient bread oven has been left untouched in the fireplace. Standing on a rocky promontory 100 feet above sea level, the castle offers spectacular views from its quirky, vaulted-ceilinged rooms. You can also see the pretty walled vegetable and flower garden, which is curiously positioned several hundred yards away from the castle. Please note that the castle reopens February 8.
On a smaller scale, but offering a no less fascinating glimpse into the past is Erddig, an 18th-century house in North Wales that was home to the Yorke family for 240 years. Stroll through the “upstairs” areas of the house and you’ll see fine antique furniture collected by the heads of the family — all of whom were named either Simon or Philip — in addition to charting the architectural developments that took place over the years. What makes Erddig most special, however, is what happens “downstairs.” There you’ll find interpretation volunteers enacting what life was like for the servants who lived and worked in the house, as well as a unique collection of servants’ portraits, each of which is accompanied by a poem about the person written by the owner of the house at that time. The most intriguing of the 10 paintings is the portrait of a “coach boy” from the late 18th century, which shows a young black man with the words, “However here he was a dweller, And blew the horn for Master Meller.” This and other fascinating hidden “below stairs” stories are told. There are also 13.5 acres of walled gardens on the property to tour (in the company of the head gardener, if you so choose) or you can take a 20-minute horse and carriage ride around the grounds.
Photos Courtesy of Mike Kipling, National Trust Images and Andreas von Einsiedel