Finding your own ‘Downton Abbey’ experience

04/20/2014 12:00 AM

04/16/2014 8:25 PM

“Look down there,” my 22-year-old daughter, Harriet, said to me pointing to a window beside us. We were approaching the south terrace of Cliveden House, an estate in Buckinghamshire, England, that for more than 300 years has been the home of dukes, earls, viscounts and, for a short period in the 1700s, Frederick, the Prince of Wales. I turned and caught the quick flash of a knife in the basement kitchen and watched as a young man wearing a navy apron and white uniform expertly peeled shells off langoustines.

Through a terrace window we next saw a waiter seating an elegantly dressed couple in a very formal dining room. Crystal, china and silver sparkled, as did the elaborate chandeliers.

“It’s like a real-life upstairs-downstairs scene from ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” Harriet said as we looked out over acres of trimmed hedges and an endless horizon of green countryside. “All that is missing is Maggie Smith,” she said, adjusting her wool scarf against the February wind.

“And our own personal Carson,” I joked, referring to the butler in charge of the household staff on “Downton Abbey,” PBS’ British drama set in the post-Edwardian period. We had come to Cliveden, an estate run by the National Trust, a British conservation charity, for exactly this: an old-fashioned “Downton Abbey”-type of vacation, complete with grandiose architecture and brisk parkland walks. Given that Highclere Castle (the real-life setting of “Downton Abbey”) is open only on certain days in the spring and summer, and does not have a residential option, Cliveden – 46 miles away – was the next best thing.

Had we actually been staying at the stately Cliveden House, which is now a luxury five-star hotel leased out by the National Trust, we would have indeed been met by a butler, just as three generations of Astors, who resided there from 1893 to 1966, were greeted when pulling up to the Italianate mansion. But instead of paying a minimum of 252 pounds ($410) a night for one of the double rooms overlooking the walled courtyard (some of which had been servants’ rooms), we had decided instead on the more economical “downstairs” option of the Ferry Cottage, one of two National Trust rental properties on the Cliveden estate.

Thanks to Waldorf and Nancy Astor, who gave Cliveden to the National Trust in 1942 (though the Trust didn’t actually take possession of it until the death of the third Viscount Astor in 1966), the 376-acre property has been lovingly preserved.

The Ferry Cottage and neighboring New Cottage at Cliveden, which each sleeps four people, are both situated on the banks of the Thames. Both are available, like most National Trust properties, for short- and long-term rentals. Once the home of a boatman who ran a ferry service from there, the two-bedroom Ferry Cottage cost us just 658 pounds ($1,070) for three nights.

Upon our arrival at the cottage, we were greeted warmly, not just by a welcome note and a tea tray complete with chocolate cookies (we immediately pictured a Mrs. Hughes-type of housekeeper delivering both), but also a coal fire, in need of nothing more than a match.

We were only a 10-minute walk from Cliveden House. There we could easily take advantage of the hotel’s afternoon tea service, as well as the day spa, with both an indoor and outdoor swimming pool. Additionally, the National Trust runs a cafe on the estate that offers hearty lunch dishes (pork sausage and mash with onion gravy), along with tempting desserts (apple tart, coffee and walnut cake and the requisite scones).

Apparently, Harriet’s and my desire to recreate an era we had seen on “Masterpiece Theater” was not as original as I thought. “In the last couple of years, bookings for our holiday cottages from the U.S. have gone up and up,” said Laura Gibbs, product manager for National Trust Holidays. “The notion of the ‘set-jetting’ tourists visiting places they have seen on the big and small screen has definitely boosted numbers. And our places which offer the chance to stay within a historic house or in the grounds of a stately home are proving popular with ‘Downton’ fans.”

To that end, I tracked down some fellow Americans who, like us, had recently stayed at a National Trust vacation home.

It was my conversation with John Struthers, a doctor living in Sacramento, Calif., that most resonated. Like us, he and his family stayed at the Ferry Cottage at Cliveden, though in his case, multiple times. For Struthers, Cliveden is part of his own personal legacy. He first saw his future wife, Jean, coming down the grand staircase at Cliveden House in the summer of 1980 when they were both attending a Stanford summer program (between 1969 and 1983 the National Trust, in accordance with the Astors’ wishes, leased the home to the university). They have returned many times since.

“I think we love the Cliveden cottages because it just feels more authentically British than anything else we could ever do – the heritage, the countryside walks, the sitting in the garden and hanging out on the patio by the riverbank,” he said. “It just captures our heart, again and again.”

For my daughter and me, most memorable was a distinctly “upstairs” scene. Sitting in the Great Hall of Cliveden House, we took in the ornate oak paneling, Belgian wall tapestries and the 16th-century stone chimney piece, sheltering a roaring fire. Staring down at us was a portrait of Nancy Astor, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1908. “It doesn’t get much more ‘Downton’ than this,” said Harriet, as a butler poured tea into porcelain cups and refreshed our tiered tray with delicate finger sandwiches, fruit tarts and cream cakes. “No, it doesn’t,” I said.

Mission accomplished.

Other Options

To find your very own “Downton Abbey” experience, log on to nationaltrustcottages.co.uk. The site, with a database of some 400 properties, pulls up images and details on each, once you have keyed in dates and desired location.

Rentals cannot start on Sunday and most properties require a minimum stay of three nights, though some are available for two nights. Many have start dates on particular days of the week to accommodate cleaning staff. A list of properties with Wi-Fi is also available.

Prices vary depending on the time of year. Rates can range from about 140 pounds ($230, at $1.63 to the pound) for two nights in a one-bedroom cottage to group deals that can be as low as 160 pounds total for two nights in a bunkhouse with dormitories that sleep up to eight.

One tip for “Downton” fans: Look for a cottage situated within a larger estate, such as the Bothy, an Edwardian cottage, on the grounds of Powis Castle in Wales. The half-timbered property sleeps seven with a starting price of 434 pounds for three nights.

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