Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green
It’s the fourth day of my English countryside tour, and I’m finally becoming fluent in English Expressions. For example, I now know that the plug in my hotel room must be “earthed,” the reflector in the middle of the road is a “cat’s eye,” and that when the coach pulls off the motorway, I’ll have time to “nip to the loo” or—my personal favorite—”go for a tea and a wee.”
I’m also becoming more familiar with English Extremes—the grand castles and manor houses of the aristocracy and the small villages of the common folks. Their lifestyles are, as our guide from Insight Vacations would say, as different as “chalk and cheese.”
We spend eleven days in a comfortable coach weaving along two-lane roads bordered by fields of barley in the south and pastures of Blackface sheep in the north. While modern homes surround some of the mid-size cities, the small towns are filled with buildings that often date back hundreds of years. Some are made of hand-hewn brick, others of stacked stone. Some, especially in the Cotswolds, are tawny gold while those in the north are industrial gray. But all have narrow streets, roofs rippled with age and bright-hued flowers that scramble up the walls. In short, they’re all picture-postcard perfect.
We stop in several of the villages, especially those with literary connections. In Winchester we see the boarding house where Jane Austen died and the cemetery where she was buried. In Grasmere we visit Wordsworth’s home and gravesite; in Haworth, the Brontës’ parsonage; and in Stratford, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
But if these towns are small and unassuming, the castles and manor houses that surround them are large and overwhelming. Many of them fell on hard times after World War I as their aristocratic owners, whose families had owned the property for hundreds of years, realized they were land-rich but cash poor. In order to maintain and pay taxes on their historic homes, they opened them to tourists. This was undoubtedly sad for the aristocrats but wonderfully fortunate for the rest of us.
Our tour of the castles and manor houses amounts to a crash course in English history. We stop at Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, and I finally learn to keep straight the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives. “It’s easy,” says our guide. “Just remember the rhyme: Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” (Poor Anne was Wife #2, beheaded in 1536 after only three years as queen.)
Leaping forward four centuries, we visit Chartwell, the adult home of Sir Winston Churchill, who purchased the estate in 1922 and lived there until his death in 1965. In between we visit six other grand estates, glimpsing life as it was hundreds of years ago and, to a lesser extent, as it is today for England’s gentry.
Finally, after being immersed in such an aristocratic atmosphere and re-reading the passionate prose of Austen and the Brontës, our thoughts turn to Downton Abbey, the hit television show that traces the antics of a fictional upper-crust family and their servants from 1912 through World War I.
How closely, we wonder, do sites used for filming the series compare to those we’ve just seen on our grand Insight tour. To find out, we take a day trip to Highclere Castle, which is used for both the exterior and many of interior shots of Downton Abbey.
It is a properly proud edifice, with turreted towers, ornate ceilings and more than 1,000 acres of mostly-manicured lawn. As we walk through the house we recognize several of the rooms—most notably the library, salon, dining room, grand hall, and, especially, one of the bedrooms that was the site of a pivotal plot turn.
But for me the real treat is visiting Bampton, a small town that has existed in relative obscurity since the Iron Age but that now is familiar to millions of people across the world. Robin Shuckburgh, Chairman of the Bampton Community Archive and owner of the Coach House B&B, points out the buildings that were used to depict the fictional Downton Village.
Here, in one of the oldest and best-preserved villages in England, fact and fiction merge. It’s the perfect end to our countryside tour of, as the Brits would say, the land “across the pond.”
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