Stately Homes

A day at Highclere Castle on a windy day in May.

A day at Highclere Castle on a windy day in May.

Why do we have a fascination for how people lived a century or more ago? We’ve all grown up with television shows like Upstairs/downstairs that explored the relationships between servants and their peers. The success of Downton Abbey reinforced this fascination. We tuned in season after season to see if Lady Mary would marry Matthew and raise her eyebrow at the dinner table. Would Daisy get the sauce up to the dining room or would Mrs. Hughes marry the butler Mr Carson?

But before Downton, this fascination goes even further back. Over 200 years ago Jane Austen wrote stories where people visited stately homes and wanted to have a glimpse inside.

Waddesdon Manor and all its chimneys on a sunny day.

Waddesdon Manor and all its chimneys on a sunny day.

Is it to see how other people live as we aspire to that? Or to make us realize we are quite happy living in a manageable space?

I can’t get enough of these houses. One of my earliest memories was visiting my Aunt Marie as a child in England. She lived out in the Cheshire countryside in a large house called Broome Manor. As a child I remember asking in the car as we got closer if we were approaching a village? There were SO many chimneys above the lush green trees! My mother answered, “No. That’s the house.”

Someone's ancestors on the grand staircase at Tatton Park.

Someone’s ancestors on the grand staircase at Tatton Park.

As I got older and went back for several visits, I had appreciation for the history of big old houses. In my 20s, as I drove from the airport to visit Broome Manor, I was again struck by its size as I rounded the bend in the country road and it rose up beyond the trees.

I visited other great stately homes in my 20s, like Chatsworth, the home of the Duke of Devonshire, that are so huge and beautiful you are speechless. Sweeping vistas that have taken 300 years to create. All of this was done before the age of machines. I’m amazed at their passion to create these magical places. But I also cringe at how poorly these buildings are maintained now. How do you prioritize what needs doing first?

In the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of going to Britain with my husband and dragging him around these wonderful places. We’ve spent days at Waddesdon Manor, Blenheim Palace, Arley Hall, Tatton Park, Windsor Castle, and of course, our pilgrimage to Highclere Castle!

High tea at Blenheim Palace in the Orangery.

High tea at Blenheim Palace in the Orangery.

We will return again as my list of houses to visit is as big as my appetite to see them. We will have high tea at as many as we can and visit as many of their gift shops as are open. There are so many amazing treasures and gardens to explore. Some are even available to stay in! I look forward to experiencing staying in one and for one moment waking up in a great bedroom and pretending my valet is preparing my clothes for the day. Perhaps we will dress for dinner in a great dining room? In that moment, we can live out that Downton fantasy.

It’s a chance to pretend to go back in time. Maybe it’s an escape from this modern age? We might stay a couple of days or over a weekend. After all, “what IS a weekend?”