Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Manor House Lust

Sandra Parshall
No, the title of this blog entry doesn’t refer to Lady Mary’s unfortunate interlude at Downton Abbey with the handsome foreign diplomat. What I lust for is the house where the encounter took place.

Other viewers may devour Downton Abbey for its upstairs/downstairs intrigue. I just want to see the house where the series is filmed. I love every part of the upstairs (the downstairs, not so much), from the extraordinary library to the lavish saloon (below) to the cozy morning room and bedrooms. The real name of the house is Highclere Castle, and it is infinitely larger than the TV program makes it seem. The fictional Earl and Countess have fewer than a dozen servants, and some of those are personal maids, footmen, drivers, and the like, who have little to do with the running of the household. They seem to leave all the cleaning to a couple of young maids. Yet everything always looks gorgeously spic ‘n’ span.

The real house, Highclere, has roughly 60 bedrooms, plus all the general use rooms, such as a state dining room, a men’s smoking room, a morning room, a drawing room, that fabulous library, and so on. It’s kind of a big place. Although the Downton Abbey program frequently shows exterior shots, the story never acknowledges the sheer size of the house. When the Countess of Carnarvon turned Highclere into a hospital for wounded soldiers in 1914, I doubt she had the conflicts over allotment of space that we see in the TV drama. The whole family could have moved into one wing and carried on their lives quite comfortably without ever tripping over a soldier's crutch.

Highclere has a website with an array of pictures and a history of the house and its owners. If you love it as much as I do, you’ll want to peruse

I have books filled with photos of the chateaux of France and the manor houses and castles and palaces of Great Britain. I love almost all of them, whatever the architectural style or the era in which they were built. My favorite, though, outranking even Highclere, is the Chateau de Thoiry en Yvelines, 40 km west of Paris. 

The chateau, with its 370 acres of land, is remarkable in two ways: the architectural style of the house is Renaissance, with a lavishly decorated exterior on a solid foundation of symmetry and proportion; and 240 acres of the grounds are given over to a wildlife reserve. Many animals, from the big cats to elephants to little red pandas, roam the wildlife park, and visitors can ride 
through to observe them from the safety of vehicles. 

Thoiry’s website is at

Why do I swoon over places like these? I love their elegance and the echoes of history in their rooms. Imagine the labor and talent that went into creating so much beauty, the number of people required to make the wallpaper, the draperies, the carpets and furniture, as well as the ornate stone ornaments and woodwork. Unless I were fabulously wealthy, I wouldn’t care to live in such a house, although I might be happy in one little section with visiting privileges (but no responsibility) for the rest. I watch all British costume dramas eagerly in the hope of seeing a magnificent house. Films of Jane Austen books leave me cranky. Who wants to look at a vicarage? I’m a total snob when it comes to my vicarious house-hunting.

How do you feel about the house that subs as Downton Abbey? Would you like to live in it?


Sheila Connolly said...

I've seen my fair share of stately mansions and castles (intact or ruined), and I'll admit that no matter how magnificent the place, I always find myself wondering, who keeps this place clean?

I think my all-time favorite is Chenonceaux in France--you know, the one that straddles a river? If I recall correctly, the part over the river (tell the truth--wouldn't that have been damp?) is a later addition, to accommodate a ballroom, but the original part seems the perfect size for a small royal family--I could actually visualize living in it. Don't know where they put the servants, though--it's hard to have a "downstairs" when you're on a river.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I have the same reaction. I love the stately homes and chateaux I've seen and can fantasize about living in one, but the song that sprang to my mind was "Bread and Roses": "No more the drudge and idler/Ten that toil where one reposes/But a sharing of life's glories/Bread and roses, bread and roses." I wish! BTW, that was written in America, at the time of the Lawrence, MA mill strike exactly one hundred years ago.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sheila, I didn't know Chenenceaux -- but I'm putting it on the itinerary for our next trip! Meanwhile, I humbly offer for your entertainment The Daly Mansion in Hamilton, Montana, summer home of Copper King Marcus Daly:

Eloise Hill said...

Sandra, great post:) I share your estate lust, but I understand, from info gleaned from the PBS site, that much of Highclere's uppper floors are headed toward rack and ruin...too expensive to keep in good repair. So glad we are getting to peek at what remains, tho'.

Julia Buckley said...

It is a gorgeous castle, and I notice that they show off its beauty with lots of outdoor shots from different angles. I'm jealous of the actors who get to play there every day; even the grounds are beautiful, and birds area always singing (in fact, I sometimes wonder if that sound is inserted).

Sandra Parshall said...

Eloise, the upper floors of Highclere have about 50 bedrooms(!), and I've read that the owners have been gradually restoring them for years. They're unused, but I doubt they'll be allowed to fall apart. :-) Maybe they'll turn the place into a luxury hotel at some point.

The chateau at Thoiry is built in line with east and west, so when the sun rises and sets it shines straight through the middle of the house. The original owner -- the builder -- was very much into symmetry and keeping man-made structures in tune with nature. The house looks different from every angle and doesn't really have a front and back -- both are proper entrances. It is simply gorgeous. That architectural style was daringly modern at the time.

About Bobbi C. said...

I wouldn't want to live in it (or keep it clean), but do appreciate you posting the information about it. Ever since Downton Abbey started, I've wondered about that house.