The high class English soap has infected a certain population of Americans (mainly gals and geighs) faster than an epidemic of Spanish Flu — with its fantastically elaborate frocks, absurdly sumptuous table settings, tales of forbidden love with landed gentry and the permanently sour lipped look of Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. “Where,” you wonder aloud on this lazy Tuesday morning after the holiday,”is my valet for my morning dressing and that freshly ironed newspaper?”
Turns out living out that fantasy life of an Earl (or Countess!) is totally feasible vacation because the English are still, to paraphrase comedian Eddie Izzard, “up to their armpits in bloody castles.”
First of there’s the visit the grounds and rooms of Highclere Castle, the Southampton estate featured in the exterior shots of our favorite dose of Sunday night snobbery (mind you, the show takes place in Yorkshire, but that’s a whole other story). The estate opens to the public in April, so the time is nigh to plan a Downton-themed spring break getaway.
Best of all, there are other fabulous, four-star hotels and estates less than an hour away from Highclere where you can wander around in a tuxedo, waiting for those five to seven-course meals to be served.
Tynley Hall is a nearby English country estate with a history that extends back to the early 18th century. Before being converted to a luxury hotel, it was a school and World War I hospital — how much more authentically Downton-ish can you ask for? Set on 66 obsessively groomed acres — originally designed by English gardening genius Gertrude Jekyll — the massive manse has 112 rooms, including “Duke” and “Duchess” suites and a spa with a specialty “male grooming” option. There are two lounges for taking your afternoon tea, and overlooking the grounds is The Oak Room, a luxurious in-house restaurant well known in Southampton for its innovative food with a “distinctly British twist.”
Tynley is about an west of London, conveniently on the way to Highclere Castle, about twenty miles further by car in the same direction.
Also not too far, is the National Trust’s Hartwell House, has a history that stretches back almost one thousand years to the reign of Edward the Confessor. It’s been the seat of William Peveral the natural son of William the Conqueror; of John Earl of Mortaigne who succeeded his brother Richard the Lion Heart as King of England in 1199; and of Louis XVIII, the exiled King of France who held court there from 1809 to 1814. Louis was joined at Hartwell by his Queen, Marie-Josephine de Savoie, his niece the Duchesse D’Angoulême, daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, his brother the Comte d’Artois, later Charles X, and Gustavus IV the exiled King of Sweden. During the residence of the French Court the roof was converted into a miniature farm, where birds and rabbits were reared in cages, while vegetables and herbs were cultivated in densely planted tubs.
Now Hartwell is one of the three Historic House Hotels the UK’s National Trust maintains, and if you hurry, they are having a 40% sale on all rooms booked before the end of March. (Related: National Trust’s list of houses you can visit that have been featured in films from Harry Potter to Pride & Prejudice.)
For those interested in an equally opulent experience but closer to the main attraction, The Vinyard at Stockcross is a five-star spa and “wine hotel” specializing in fancy foods and drinking copious amounts of our favorite, upper class liquid pastime. Located right by the town of Newbury, they have 49 rooms ranging from “hunting lodge” to contemporary and conveniently perched only about 15 minutes to Highclere.
The Vinyard’s great location includes Newbury itself, an adorable country town with some tantalizing local culture. There are art galleries and some classic regional theaters, horse shows, and the Newbury Spring Festival, which starts the second week in May. So dust off your riding boots and work on your Received Pronunciation — you’ll be spring breaking in Downton this year.
If you haven’t already seen it, you have to check out Sh*t the Dowager Countess Says.
Also amusing, seeing just how posh the cast is in real life. (Hint: not very…but they only have one of the characters playing a Grantham in there.)