BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (MainStreet) -- Few international shows, even English-speaking ones, make it on U.S. networks without being reworked with an American cast along the likes of The Office, Shameless and Ugly Betty. But then there's Downton Abbey, the incredibly popular British TV show that chronicles the upstairs/downstairs world of butlers, countesses and chambermaids within the aristocratic Crawleys and their family seat at Downton Abbey.
Now there's also a tourism component to Downton Abbey to satisfy American fans flying off in search of that quintessential English countryside lifestyle. Those in search of Downton can actually find the iconic family home of the actual Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, Highclere Castle, on which the award-winning series is based.
With a fan base of more than 11 million viewers in more than 100 countries worldwide, the show has made Highclere a cult tourist destination in its own right, and it's a surprisingly accessible property open to the public at select times throughout the year.
Part of a 1,000-acre property of rolling highlands and impressive gardens, Highclere Castle has been the family seat of the Carnarvon family since 1679, but almost two centuries later was redesigned by Victorian architect Sir Charles Barry to its modern-day silhouette. The estate includes an elaborate complex of horse stables, farms and forest and is still the official home of the current earl and countess, who open it to organized castle tours during Easter season (April 1-15), bank holidays and throughout the summer (Sundays through Thursdays) from July 1 through Sept. 13.
Visitors to the real-world Downton get remarkable access, especially since it still operates as a proper home. With admission from about $22, visitors enter the actual castle and see the recognizable drawing rooms, grand foyer and famous oak stairway above the main center saloon where Downton's most dramatic scenes are filmed. Available for private events including destination weddings, Highclere is also home to an Egyptian artifacts museum from the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who along with archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. While much of his collection was sold off to the Metropolitan Museum of New York after his death in 1923, antiquities rediscovered within the castle in 1987 join other offerings gathered back from museum loans throughout the U.K.
Highclere is not a hotel, and visitors will mostly likely want to book a room in Newbury about nine miles from the castle for the most convenient access. A bit farther away, though, and they can relish a stay in a castle just as grand as Downton at Tylney Hall Hotel. A grand arrival comes along a promenade where, just past a lane of majestic oaks, the main mansion comes into view with its gabled roofline and sprawling lawns, living up to even the grandest of expectations. While not as imposing in stature as towering Highclere Castle, Tylney Hall dazzles with its regal wood-paneled reception and staircase illuminated by leaded windows and peering gaze of a 19th century portrait.
Nearby another, more modern hotel palace holds court under the moniker of Four Seasons Hampshire. Part of the renowned Four Season hotels brand, this restored Georgian replaces the sometimes cutesy and cheerful eccentricities of country living with modern grandeur that satisfies even the pickiest of urbanites. A modest gatehouse leads to a long drive and countryside resort estate that remains unmatched within the international chain. White plaster cornices and a coffer ceiling surround a serene lobby of contemporary wingback chairs for London weekenders wearing their designer best for clay pigeon shooting and lavish equestrian outings.
But for those that simply can't pull themselves away from Downton and Highclere Castle, there's always the option of subletting one of the cottages on the estate. Rental options include an array of two- to four-bedroom homes on Highclere Estate and the surrounding area available for longer "Assured Shorthold Tenancies" based strictly on availability. Most recently that included the owners' Maple Farmhouse, a single-family farmhouse with a charming two-story brick facade and modern amenities including heating and deep soaking tubs fit for a Downton countess in the making -- even if just for pretend.
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