Looking for an intimate glimpse at the real lives of the landed gentry? Downton Abbey fans, take note: T+L goes behind the scenes at our favorite English country estates.
I am an Anglophile. I keep a supply of BBC series in my Netflix queue, pay $272 a year to subscribe to Country Life, and recently acquired my third boxed set—the 30th Anniversary Collection—of Brideshead Revisited. For nearly a year there was a hole in my Sunday evening where Downton Abbey should have been, a dull ache that has only just ended.
My biggest commitment to England is a private tour of country estates every June with David Brown, a former executive of the National Trust. Each trip involves a yearlong campaign of carefully worded letters and phone calls during which David reassures homeowners that “my Americans,” as he calls us, know how to behave. Our group of six visits three houses a day for a week, sleeping in one of them. We have tea in linenfold-paneled libraries and lunch at mile-long mahogany tables, sit on priceless Chippendale chairs, match wall colors to Farrow & Ball paint chips, use the wrong fork, fumble the fish, lust after gardeners and butlers, and listen attentively on downy sofas while earls and marquesses tell us about their not always arcadian lives. Thanks to these trips I now know that a marquess outranks an earl.
Most Americans visit only the showboat estates—Chatsworth House; Blenheim Palace; Castle Howard—which draw huge crowds all year long. But England is dotted with thousands of other distinguished houses, some never open to visitors, most open for only a few quietly publicized weeks a year. These are the ones we seek out. For every Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who became talk-show regulars and turned Chatsworth into an industry, there’s a young heir trying this and that to keep his handsome house going. No generation wants to be the one that loses the house that has been in the family for 900 years.
As David taught us on our very first day, “In England, the eldest cops the lot.” That is, the first son inherits everything, which is more than you can imagine. Along with the furniture, paintings, and leather-bound books come ermine-trimmed coronation robes, arsenals of guns, 14 generations of walking sticks, 300-year-old farm tools that nobody remembers how to use, cheese presses, suits of armor, rhinoceroses’ heads, and centuries of scrapbooks, genealogies, and ledgers accompanied by receipts for every bill every ancestor ever paid. One exhausted new heir told me, “Every time I open a drawer, I find some great-aunt’s knickers.”
Oh, what fun, you’re thinking. Not entirely.
Imagine an attractive young couple living in London. They have careers and a house in Kensington, and go out every night. And then the call comes: his father has died, and he’s inherited a title with a small universe in the middle of nowhere, and it’s their new full-time job forever, until it one day passes to their son, at least one of which they must be sure they have. Not every marriage survives this.
Life is a constant state of triage. Everything is old, in some degree of need, and requires expensive, specialized care. I may have the luxury of swooning over a pair of 18-foot-tall John Fowler curtains, in poetic shreds after 70 years rotting in the sunlight, but at some point someone has to find $100,000 to replace them. I was bluntly told at one house, “When we decorate a room, the assumption is that it will not be redone again for at least two generations.”
It never ends: the need to fumigate 1,900 rare books in a cyanide tent, or place the Reynolds portrait in a dehumidifier for 11 months, or send to Edinburgh for the “rot hound,” who will sniff for structural problems, which will require $25,000 worth of scaffolding so $500,000 worth of work can begin to shore up the dome that nobody knew was about to collapse. Your own struggles with contractors seem rather silly after hearing somebody say, “The painter was here for a year.”
A lthough in theory the English upper class never talks about money, in actuality they talk about it all the time. After the ritual “Have you come far?” inquiries, the conversation usually turns to the high cost of maintaining a historic house and quickly segues to England’s heavy estate taxes. Opening some rooms to the public, usually for 28 days a year, is a common way to reduce taxes, though it can mean having strangers wander around your house on Saturdays all summer. And still some house contents generally must be sold; we’ve witnessed many recent Chinese copies hanging in place of important paintings sacrificed to the tax man. Unthinkably bad luck is to have two heirs die in the space of a year and to owe taxes twice. That can spell the end.
Once the taxes are settled, each generation looks for new sources of income. We’ve seen it range from Desmond Guinness, the glamorous son of Diana Mitford, selling boxes of Mitford sisters coasters in his library at Leixlip Castle—“Does anybody have change for twenty pounds?” was the gist of my conversation with this legend of Swinging Mod London—to a highly entrepreneurial new generation educated in business, engineering, and estate management. Luck plays its part. Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, hit the jackpot when it was chosen as the location for Downton Abbey; now it’s a stop on the tourist trail. So is Lyme Park, in Cheshire, where Colin Firth emerged from a pond in a wet gauzy shirt in the seminal Pride and Prejudice miniseries; visitors are still coming to see the pond 17 years later. English country estates rich in game attract shooting parties from Texas, and fashionable houses make good backdrops for Saudi weddings, while the more lugubrious piles struggle. But every house finds its way. We’ve seen vast outdoor conventions of RV’s and model-airplane enthusiasts (very profitable, though they do destroy the grass). One estate we visited welcomes armies of Middle-Earth battle re-enactors each year. Our host showed us her collection of abandoned plastic swords, and recalled the highly placed hobbit who asked to have his ashes buried there, a request she felt she couldn’t refuse. It never occurred to her that they’d be shot out of a cannon.
After money, crime is often the topic these days. Guides get jumpy when questions are overly probing, since tours can help burglars make shopping lists; property is often “stolen to order.” Lately it has gotten a little too close to A Clockwork Orange: one gang recently took to bashing down front doors with a forklift. We’ve arrived just after the crooks on several occasions and have learned never to venture downstairs at night. The guest who sets off the alarm never lives it down.
Alternative energy is another big subject. The fur-covered hot-water bottles I saw in a Shropshire bedroom one cold, rainy June were a clue that the annual fuel bill there was running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. After hearing about the Gainsborough we often get a lesson in anaerobic digestion, biomass, hydroelectric, wind, or solar. Owners make no bones about it: “Who cares if wind turbines work if the government is willing to reduce my taxes for twenty years?”
I love all the talk, and never tire of hearing what the English do with words. It isn’t pelting rain, it’s a “lively shower.” I can now even recognize some of the finer points of Englishness. For example, I’ve begun to notice there’s a Lord Look, which usually involves some sort of red pants. But after so many trips, I also understand that the country house is more than a look; it’s a highly evolved way of life. My favorite memory from any visit is of the owner who saw me off at the front door at 6 a.m. with a plate of hot buttered toast, as if I were going on a hunt, not to the Manchester airport. I always seem to be focused on the possessions, while they’re thinking about land, riding, shooting, long walks, and their sheep. On how many library chairs have I seen the needlepoint pillow that said, “We interrupt this marriage to bring you the shooting season”? Suburbanized Americans can’t quite grasp their world and their priorities, and the reminders are brutal. This summer we met an elegant year-old blue whippet, all kisses and cuddles and a wet black nose. When we moved to the library for tea, it ran off to play outside our window. It killed a rabbit and swallowed it whole, head first. “Oh, sorry,” the owner said, and took a sip.
We live for these Maggie Smith moments, and we have many of them. At a lunch on our last trip, one of our group made the mistake of showing off an “insight” into our host’s life.
“Do you have sheep to keep the grass clipped?” she asked.
Pause. Head turns slowly. Eyelashes flutter.
“No. We eat them.”
These five historic English country estates are popular tourist attractions, with regular visiting hours and activities that range from afternoon tea to Easter-egg hunts.
Blenheim Palace Woodstock, Oxfordshire; blenheimpalace.com.
Castle Howard York, North Yorkshire; castlehoward.co.uk.
Chatsworth House Bakewell, Derbyshire; chatsworth.org.
Highclere Castle Newbury, West Berkshire; highclerecastle.co.uk.
Lyme Park House & Garden Disley, Cheshire; nationaltrust.org.uk.
The tours mentioned in this story were arranged privately, but for individual visits, guide David Brown recommends the following lesser-known English country houses. Visiting hours vary widely, and some are extremely limited; check websites before planning a trip.
Brynkinalt Estate Oswestry, Shropshire; brynkinalt.co.uk.
Catton Hall & Gardens Walton upon Trent, South Derbyshire; catton-hall.com.
Chillington Hall Wolverhampton, Staffordshire; chillingtonhall.co.uk.
Gorhambury House St. Albans, Hertfordshire; hha.org.uk.
Mawley Hall Cleobury Mortimer, Worcestershire; mawley.com.
Renishaw Hall & Gardens Sheffield, Derbyshire; renishaw-hall.co.uk.
Scampston Hall Malton, North Yorkshire; scampston.co.uk.
Sutton Park York, North Yorkshire; statelyhome.co.uk.