The real Downton Abbeys

There are places across Britain where you can feel like you're inside an episode of the hit series, writes David Whitley.

The Seven Network's hit show Downton Abbey has done more than make period costume dramas hip again – it has also sparked something of a tourism revival for Britain's stately homes.

There are hundreds of impressive old piles across the country, many of which have been in the hands of the same family for hundreds of years.

More importantly – many of them are open to the public. That means you can follow the trails of the TV and film cameras that have put these homes in the limelight, whilst tracking down stories about real life Dowager Countesses. A full list can be found at the Historic Houses Association website (www.hha.org.uk), but here are eight of the best:

Swinton Park

Where? North Yorkshire

The (entirely fictional) Earl of Grantham's estate in Downton Abbey is supposedly located in an unspecified part of North Yorkshire. Judging by other places referenced in the series, however, the exact spot won't be far away from Swinton Park. Long the home of the Cunliffe-Lister family, this is one of the few great stately homes you can stay at. It has been converted into a luxury hotel, with many of the rooms in the purely decorative turret at the front. The whole country pile vibe has been retained, and guests can take part in a variety of upper class activities such as shooting, horse riding, falconry and croquet.

www.swintonpark.com

Highclere Castle

Where? Berkshire

If you want the actual Downton Abbey from the TV series, however, you have to head south to Highclere Castle. It's owned by the Earl of Carnarvon rather than the Earl of Grantham, and he still lives there. This – coupled with it being closed off for filming – means that it's only open to visitors on certain dates. Visit, and the exterior will prove to be more familiar than the interiors – many of the indoor scenes are shot in studios. One quirk you'll perhaps not expect is the Egyptology exhibition – the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was an ancient Egypt obsessive – and he was the joint head of the party that rediscovered Tutankhamun's tomb.

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www.highclerecastle.co.uk

Wollaton Hall

Where? Nottingham

If Highclere Castle was the stately home hotspot of 2011, then Wollaton Hall is 2012's blue eyed boy. The attached Deer Park and natural history museum inside offer something a little different from the usual traipsing around, looking at tapestries and antique furniture. But it's Wollaton Hall's alter ego that should get film fans excited this year – The Dark Knight Rises crew spent a couple of months filming there, and it will double as Wayne Manor when Christopher Nolan's final Batman film is released in July.

www.wollatonhall.org.uk

Castle Howard

Where? North Yorkshire

Stately homes don't get much more impressive than Castle Howard, which has been in the Howard family for well over 300 years. Part of this is due to the sprawling grounds – all landscaped gardens, fountains and pointlessly silly monuments – but the interiors have a genuine wow factor. Many of these posh houses can be surprisingly subdued once inside, but Castle Howard doesn't really plump for subtlety. It's largely done up in the baroque style – which means bold pillars and archways, a show-stopping central dome and decoration on top of more decoration.

If it seems familiar, then you've probably watched either the TV or film version of Brideshead Revisited – both were shot here.

www.castlehoward.co.uk

Lyme Park

Where? Cheshire

Perhaps even more recognisable than Castle Howard due to TV fame, Lyme Park was where Colin Firth catapulted himself to the top of many women's fantasy lists by soggily emerging from the lake. But there's more to it than doubling as Mr Darcy's Pemberley home in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

The estate was owned by the Legh family for 558 years before passing into the control of the National Trust in 1946. That's a fair amount of time for some upstairs-downstairs skulduggery, and some of the, ahem, 'colourful' family history is covered by the displays within the house. If time is limited, then the dining rooms and library are the highlights once inside.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-lymepark

Chatsworth House

Where? Derbyshire

Chatsworth also benefitted from the Pemberley effect – it doubled as Mr Darcy's home during the film version of Pride and Prejudice in the 2005 film version starring Keira Knightley. It hardly needed it, though – it was one of Britain's most popular attractions in terms of visitor numbers anyway.

The joy of Chatsworth is that you can take it whichever way you please – you can follow the tour buses full of grannies to ooh and aah at the faithfully restored rooms inside or go hiking through the extensive estate, past inquisitive sheep and deer.

The backstory is a winner too – it has long been the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, but this was threatened in the 1950s when the 11th Duke was hit with a giant inheritance tax bill. He sold off large parcels of land, decided to make the house inhabitable again and open it up properly to the public. His wife – now the Dowager Duchess, Downton fans – is responsible for many of the crowd-pleasing additions such as the maze and outdoor sculpture exhibitions.

www.chatsworth.org

Haddon Hall

Where? Derbyshire

Chatsworth is the popular one, but its neighbour is arguably more impressive inside. It dates back to the 12th century and has been in the Manners family since 1567. It has dodged disasters such as fire and war, whilst only periodic inhabitation has meant that changing fashions haven't damaged the overall middle ages feel all that much.

If you're coming to Haddon Hall as part of a set-jetting ticklist, however, it's the jackpot. Movies filmed here include Jane Eyre, Eliza-beth and, yes, Pride and Prejudice again. You may also recognise it as Prince Humperdinck's castle from The Princess Bride.

www.haddonhall.co.uk

Knebworth House

Where? Hertfordshire

Knebworth has been the home of the Lytton family* since 1490 – and the rooms inside provide something of a trawl through the ages. Most have the imprint of different family members and the fashionable styles from across the generations.

Knebworth is better known as a concert venue, however – massive outdoor gigs by the likes of The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Oasis and Robbie Williams have made it the least sedate of Britain's stately homes.

*Incidentally, it was Victorian-era resident Edward Bulwer Lytton who first said: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

www.knebworthhouse.com

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