Last month, LDB and I enjoyed ten days in Merry Old England with our choir at St. James’s Episcopal Church in RVA. As the choir-in-residence at Worcester Cathedral
for a week, we sang Evensong nightly and Mass on Sunday. Despite our tether to Worcester, we took full advantage of our free time between morning rehearsals and afternoon call to visit some of the nearby (sort of) sites.
Located in the Midlands of England,
Worcester (pronounced wʊstə) offered a lovely home base for touring. Naturally, three of my favorites sites are quite grand, and I couldn’t wait to share them with the posse. Gorgeous and fascinating, these two castles and a ruin provide living proof of the effort, time and vast sums of money required to maintain them – or not.
click the arrow and enjoy theme music
Yes, that Highclere Castle – the inspiration and setting for Downton Abbey. Somehow kTm made the trip happen. Securing tickets less than a year in advance required supreme tenacity, and I was blessed to be one of the beneficiaries of her persistence. At The Gracious Posse, we get misty-eyed thinking of Bates, Carson, Mrs. Padmore, Lady Mary and Matthew and have written numerous times about the beloved show.
Four of us departed Worcester in an English Rover driven by a most interesting man who entertained us with bits and bobs of his past. He grew up in Liverpool, knew the man Paul who became a Beatle, was a percussionist with the London Symphony Orchestra, and played with Paul and his second band in the Wings Over America tour. Listening to his post-worthy story made the two-hour trip to Highclere fly by, and before we knew it we were approaching the famed castle, expecting to see the yellow labrador retriever wagging his tail in front of us.
So what was it like compared to the television show?
First, we thought the structure smaller relative to how big it seems on television and thus in our memories. Small is not accurate, but perhaps not as HUGE as imagined. Sadly, a uniformed staff prepared to settle us in for a weekend house party did not greet our traveling party.
The park-like grounds of Highclere span 1000 well-maintained acres. As we wandered through the interior’s well-appointed state rooms, we kept expecting to run into Lord or Lady Grantham at the turn of each corridor. Interior photography was not permitted, so click this link to view the State Rooms and Bedrooms.
The most noticeable contrast from the television show to real life is the second floor balcony – its gallery encompasses the entire floor, not just one side, and all bedrooms on that floor open to it. More breathtaking in person, the gallery’s ornate vaulted ceiling soared overhead, fifty feet above the Salon.
Highclere was used for all of the interior filming of Downton Abbey except for the downstairs kitchen and staff scenes, which were filmed in a London studio. Indeed it didn’t seem like the show’s set artists had to lift a finger for staging any interior scene.
With full access to the grounds, we visited the formal gardens,
and the Secret Garden.
The 250-year-old Cedars of Lebanon stopped us in our tracks.
kTm shown here to give reference to the size of the cedar of Lebanon
Many heart-to-hearts on Downton Abbey occured at this site.
The 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon share their treasured blessing with the world via public tours (open 60 to 70 days a year), private tours, weddings, fund-raisers and corporate events. The timely magic of Downton Abbey propelled the cachet of the historic home for those events and funded the £12 million required to save it from ruin. Click here for the story. We can all thank Julian Fellowes for that!
Located two hours from Worcester and just southeast of Bath, Longleat House has been home to the Thynne Family for nearly 450 years.
It exudes grandeur and ingenuity; grand describes its scale and history, and ingenious characterizes the efforts employed to keep the estate in the family. Unbeknownst to us prior to arrival, a visit to Longleat can include a drive-through safari park, the only one of its kind outside of Africa. The day we visited we encountered more families with small children visiting the safari park than patrons touring the formal house.
The entrance to the safari park is on the left, and Longleat House is on the right.
Henry Frederick Thynne 6th Marquess of Bath opened Longleat to the public in 1949 and introduced the Safari Park in 1966. Today Alexander Thynne 7th, Marquess of Bath, lives at Longleat, while his son, Viscount Weymouth, oversees its operations. Twelve Thynnes preceeded them at Longleat, including Sir John Thynne, the builder.
Through the successive descendants’ efforts, Longleat remains a fine example of Elizabethan architecture enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Like Highclere, I couldn’t take interior photos, but I hope you enjoy my snapshots of the exquisite grounds.
LDB and I discovered Witley Court while searching our immediate area for a place to visit in a short period of time. Though located just a few miles away from our home base, our schedules didn’t allow us to spend as much time here as I would have preferred.
Beginning as a medieval manor house, Witley changed hands several times, with each owner enhancing and enlarging it until achieving its peak as a palatial Victorian country house hosting lavish parties and entertaining royalty. An accidental fire in 1937 destroyed one wing of the home and left the owner, Sir Herbert Smith, unable to recover insurance funds for restoration. He sold the estate by parcels, and it was subsequently stripped of salvageable goods and left in a ruined state.
Steps lead from the grand ballroom to the east parterre. Can’t you just hear the music and sounds of gaiety wafting through the air?
The remains of the once-grand conservatory
brought tears to my eyes. At least the lush planting of lavender enlivened the present-day setting.
Thankfully the Witley parish church on the grounds of Witley
escaped damage by fire and remains an active parish today. Its ornate Baroque interior
caused us to linger to absorb the fine details.
Today English Heritage maintains Witley Court, having restored its fountain and parterre gardens.
As I walked the grounds and the ruins, I felt as if I could hear the laughter, music and clinking of glasses at a grand soirée from a bygone era.
English Heritage and the National Trust maintain countless historic and culturally significant sites across the United Kingdom. How remarkable when families like those who own Highclere Castle and Longleat House are able to maintain their ancestral homes themselves. They have figured out how to keep the estates in the family while capitalizing on their significance to fund the staggering upkeep. The next time I grumble about calling the plumber I’ll remember what it must take to maintain these estates, and be happy with my lot.
August 4, 2016