Three stately homes just a quick walk from London

Lady Mary Crawley, as is well known, saved the family home, Downton Abbey, by marrying Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin and heir to the sprawling estate. It is no coincidence that the very popular TV series is named after the house: Downton Abbey is filled with cliffhangers centered on the family maneuvering to keep the cash property afloat. The show, which made Britain’s stately home so familiar to millions of American viewers, also showed how difficult it was – and continues to be – to fund them.

It has been estimated that every sixth English mansion was demolished in the 20th century, especially after World War II, with steep inheritance taxes and fewer people working “downstairs” to keep massive houses buzzing. Now tourism is the ticket. In many state homes, trusts allow aristocratic owners to live in private parts of their castles, while tours and other public events cover the cost of maintenance. Recently, I traveled by train from London to three standouts. The experience of walking through each of the houses and visiting their grounds felt surprisingly authentic; the accumulated treasures that these ducal families have inherited are stronger in situ than they would be behind glass in a museum.

The real Downton, Highclere Castle, about 60 miles from London, has even tipped to the brink of ruin a few times since 1679. When filming of the series began in 2010, it brought welcome revenue to its owner, the Earl of Carnarvon. Today, tens of thousands of annual visitors still pay to visit the premises and grounds that appeared in the show.

One sunny afternoon in September, I took the 40-minute train ride to Highclere from London. From the moment I walked through the gates, past the low-hanging limb of a 200-year-old cedar that frames the first sight of the castle, the approach that any devotee Downton the tab knows so well that i felt like i was in a movie set.

I remembered the massive three-story oak staircase leading straight into the towering reception lounge, surrounded by Gothic stone arches and walls covered with embossed 17th-century Spanish leather; the long library where Lord Grantham’s desk sits and how many Crawley family conversations took place on the red sofas by the fireplace; and the dining room with dark panels, where the widow of Grantham famously asked, “What is a ‘weekend’?” under layers of huge ancestral portraits.

The upper class was not very careful about their sex lives. During the same period, while the British lost their American colonies, there was an equally infamous affair in Chatsworth

The Earl of Carnarvon sets a scene for paying visitors with easels carrying pictures of the film crews at work filming the series. And on tables and walls, his own family photos and framed news articles. I was particularly interested in those of his father, the 7th Earl, known as “Porchey,” an abbreviation of his honorable title, Lord Porchester. He was the race director for Queen Elizabeth’s horses and a very close friend, perhaps even a Platonic love interest, as suggested in the Netflix series Kronen.

Highclere hosts buses of tourists. Although tour guru Rick Steves has admitted that house trips like these put him in a “furniture-wax coma,” I did not notice a significant gender imbalance among visitors. I also mostly saw couples a few days later when I took a train north of London to one of the stately of stately homes and the most historic of the three I visited: Chatsworth House, seat of the Cavendish family, Dukes of Devonshire, since the mid-16th century.

Chatsworth is surrounded by pastures dotted with sheep, the narrow river Derwent winds its way in front of its huge expanse of yellow stones, with stables at one end and long terraces at the other. It is the panorama that some compare to Jane Austen’s description of the fictional Pemberley, home of Mr. Darcy i Pride and Prejudice. (The 2005 film used Chatsworth as a location.)

As the visitors approach, the grandeur of the place emerges: the gold leaf placed around the outside of the very tall windows, and the seemingly innumerable classical statues that characterize the terraces. Out on a distant hill lies the famous Cascade, completed in 1696 and subsequently enlarged, with its wide stone staircase carrying layers of water down about 200 feet. The side of the house has its own approach, as impressive as the view from the front seen from the winding road. To see this most iconic view of Chatsworth, go to the far end of the reflective canal, completed in 1703. The 1st Duke who had it built thought a canal would attract the new Dutch-born British king, William of Orange, who never visited. The Imperial Fountain, a firing stream of water driven nearly 300 feet straight up, is visible in the distance. An imitation of one at Peterhof in St. Petersburg, it was installed in 1844 by the 6th Duke to impress the Russian Tsar Nicholas, who also never arrived. He missed an incredible sight.

The dining room at Highclere Castle

(Highclere Castle)

On the sunny day I toured, visitors got the best out of its acres of gardens. The huge rock garden from 1842 is made of huge boulders, arranged almost like after a landslide, and giant redwoods mingle between the rocks. The super-sized boxwood maze and perennial garden are all within the extensive stone foundations left from Chatsworth’s famous glass conservatory, the inspiration for London’s Crystal Palace from 1851. Modern sculpture, a passion for the current Duke and his father, seems to be popping up all around about every corner.

Inside Chatsworth House, visitors see public spaces, mostly built in the time of the 1st Duke. The stately three-story entrance hall, for example, painted in brilliant colors on each side and overhead with scenes from Julius Caesar’s life, has a wide staircase to the first floor.

Visitors walk through large rooms designed for 18th-century state guests. These are the same premises that set the stage for the legendary Chatsworth house parties of the 19th century. The country’s leading political figures and aristocrats, often including the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII), would spend their days shooting and their nights “with easy access” to other visitors of the opposite sex, according to the PBS documentary Chatsworth’s secrets.

Sculptures in Chatsworth House


Like Highclere, Chatsworth was constantly under financial threat. In 1950, a crisis: the 10th Duke died suddenly at the age of 55, and the death penalty of 80 percent expired unexpectedly. Many of the most important Old Master paintings purchased by the 6th Duke were given to the British Treasury in exchange for cash, and thousands of acres were sold. The Chatsworth House Trust now operates the estate. Under the 11th Duke and Duchess, the former Deborah Mitford (one of the eccentric Mitford sisters), tourists began arriving in 1981. In the year before the pandemic, the house welcomed more than half a million visitors.

A few days later, I took a 25-minute train ride south of London to another historic mansion, Knole – all 365 rooms. It was built for an Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-15th century and purchased by Thomas Sackville in 1603. It was the first Sackville, ancestor of the present inhabitants of Knole, to model the house after palaces he had seen in Europe. , and turned it into a residence suitable for entertaining the royal court.

Almost the first thing a visitor sees in the entrance hall at Knole is a life-size sculpture of a lying naked, a famous Italian ballerina known as La Baccelli. She lived on the estate for years and had a son with the 3rd Duke of Dorset, the title given to Sackvilles. After setting a tremendous pace with affairs in London and Paris, where he is said to be a favorite of Marie Antoinette, the third Duke settled in Knole with an aristocratic wife, Arabella Cope. The sculpture of La Baccelli went to the ceiling but survived.

The upper class was not very careful about their sex lives. During the same period, while the British lost their American colonies, there was an equally infamous affair in Chatsworth. There lived the 5th Duke of Devonshire and his wife, Georgiana Spencer, an ancestor of Princess Diana, with her best friend, Elizabeth Foster, in a long-running menage a trois.

Spangled Bed on Knole

(Andreas von Einsiedel / National Trust)

The Sackville family gathered the country’s largest collection of royal furniture from the Stuart period. It is still there, cared for by the National Trust, which recently completed a multi-year restoration of Knole. The furniture was brought there by Charles Sackville, who as chamberlain in the king’s household under William III and Mary had the authority to remove furniture from royal estates such as Hampton Court, Whitehall and Kensington palaces. There are three covered state-of-the-art state-of-the-art beds, including King James II’s and, remarkably, original, artful bedspreads and pull-ups, as well as upholstered chairs and stools from the castle’s bedroom set. One of the rooms includes tables completely plated with embossed silver. I have seen royal bedrooms in palaces, including Versailles and Windsor Castle, and the state beds at Knole are the most lavish.

I was fascinated by the black andirons with the initials of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, now in Knole’s medieval great hall. And in one of the state rooms, the National Trust has the original Knole sofa, upholstered in crimson velvet, enclosed in a protective transparent case. The sofa is the model for modern sofas with high arms at the same height as the back, marketed as Knole sofas or sofas today. It is the size of a modern love seat because it was used as a common throne for monarch and spouse.

Vita Sackville-West, author and lover of the novelist Virginia Woolf, grew up in Knole and lived there with Woolf in the 1920s. She earnestly wished to keep Knole, as Lord Sackville’s only child. But when he died in 1928, there was no Matthew Crawley to save the day. She moved out – and her uncle moved in.

© The Washington Post

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