The popularity of TV series like ‘The Tudors’, ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ have provided audiences worldwide with an insight into the social history of some of the United Kingdom’s great country estates.
The castles and houses built on them, many by the ancestors of today’s current owners, contain collections of art and furniture purchased by successive generations that provide a time capsule of changing fashions over the centuries.
One constant over the years has been the social divide between those living ‘upstairs’ enjoying the privileges of their accumulated wealth and those working ‘downstairs’ to ensure all the rooms are cleaned and warm, that great food arrives at the table on time and is expertly served, and cleared away with almost military precision.
A recent search through my family tree revealed many references to ancestors who laboured ‘in service’ as gardeners, house servants or grooms.
Unfortunately, to date, I have found no references to any who owned even a modest country house. A great grand father did own his own business and employed a housemaid in his Victorian semi detached and a great, great grandfather kept a few cows and started his own dairy.
Nevertheless, I continue to live in hope that one day I will discover that, back in the realms of time, a great country estate was taken from one of my forebears and that I will be able to claim it as rightfully mine.
A few years ago, I discovered that the family ancestral home was a 600 year old moated castle in rural England. Intent on claiming my birthright, I drove down to look it over. Imagine my disappointment when the owners, a very, very distant branch of my family, turned out to be direct descendents of the person who had commissioned it to be built all those years before. Another dream dashed!
Luckily, my involvement in cultural and heritage tourism has enabled me to visit and experience the opulence of some of the finest country estates in the United Kingdom.
Some are now run under the auspices of organisations such as The National Trust and English Heritage. Others are maintained through private family trusts or have been converted into luxurious country house hotels. Others are still privately owned family homes that are open to the public.
Over the past year, I have visited many great houses and experienced a taste of the lifestyle that past occupants have enjoyed.
In many cases, this has simply involved a tour of the property with an expert guide, who, through the use of anecdotal evidence, has been able to weave a story of the people who lived and worked there in times gone by.
There have been other ways that I have been able to enjoy country house hospitality that has been much closer to a real house party experience.
Several of country house hotels that I have visited have gone out of their way to indulged me and my partner from the moment that they greeted us beside our car and spirited our luggage away to our superbly appointed room. A butler service was available to us and five star attention to detail was provided by all the staff that we came into contact with. Nothing was too much trouble!
On another occasion, we attended a celebratory party in a privately owned country house where we were treated like guests of the family with a footman collecting our luggage from our car and taking it to our room that was full of original features and antique furniture. The butler and under butler ensured that the staff throughout the house made our visit really memorable. The food, service and ambience gave us a genuine country house experience.
If you too want to experience country house living, there are several ways that this can be achieved.
Some country house hotels have a limited number of rooms, so a party of 20 to 30 people can be take over the whole property on an exclusive basis.
For a more authentic experience, you might consider hiring a country house on an exclusive basis complete with all the ‘downstairs’ staff needed to cater for all your needs.
Alternatively, some of the smaller country estates run special events enabling guests to sample the cuisine and service along with an overnight house stay. These events can sometimes be hosted by the current owners of the property.
New for 2014, Ambient Tours is offering country house packages enabling groups of all sizes the opportunity to experience for yourselves ‘a taste of fine living’.