England: Trips for lords and ladies

By Sarah Marshall

Whether it's the flamboyant characters or the grand backdrops, period dramas never cease to please audiences - and in the UK, you can stay at some of the properties where these dramas are set.

Ickworth House, home to the Hervey family for five centuries. Photo / Supplied
Ickworth House, home to the Hervey family for five centuries. Photo / Supplied

If you've ever wondered how the "other half" once lived, a visit to Ickworth House could be enlightening.

Home to the Hervey family for five centuries, the majestic property beautifully combines the atmosphere of a grand country house with all the trappings of a contemporary luxury hotel.

Situated just outside the market town of Bury St Edmunds, the Ickworth estate is nestled among 728 hectares of National Trust parkland. Visitors can explore Italianate gardens, woodland trails and a Victorian stumpery.

The hotel's extensive grounds provide an easy place to unwind, whether guests choose to take afternoon tea in the Conservatory, enjoy a leisurely swim in the hotel's heated indoor pool, or book a pamper session in the basement spa.

History buffs will also be pleased to hear that the property's past has not been forgotten. Bedrooms are named after famous visitors to the house and include antique furnishings, such as four-poster beds and chaises longue, for that authentic lord of the manor experience.

Despite the impressive collection of art on display, this is a family-friendly hotel where children are a focus rather than an afterthought. Families can take advantage of the hotel's games room, cinema screenings and a creche which offers two hours of complimentary childcare. Other nice touches include teenage-friendly spa treatments, children's cutlery in the restaurant and baby monitors in rooms.

And once you've had enough of the hotel's rich pickings, there's ample opportunity to find out what went on below stairs. Twice a month, an historic re-enactment takes place in the servants' quarters of the National Trust's wing of Ickworth, where visitors are taken back in time with the sights and sounds of life in the 1930s.

The frantic clattering of pans and raised voices is definitely entertaining, but it's a world you'll be happy to leave behind. Then it's upstairs to bed, where you can sleep like a king.

STONEFIELD CASTLE, ARGYLL, SCOTLAND

For the filming of this year's Christmas Special the Downton clan headed north to Argyll in Scotland and the shores of Loch Fyne.

Castles and whisky distilleries abound in this region, making it the ideal option for an aristocratic weekend break. But for a taste of the high life without the high spend, a weekend at the welcoming Stonefield Castle hotel will propel you into the same league as the Crawley family.

A fine example of Scottish Baronial architecture, the hotel was originally built in 1837, and once belonged to the Campbell family. Its fairytale turrets are reflected in the still waters of the vast Loch Fyne.

Inside, marble fireplaces are lit all year round, and that warmth is echoed in the smiles of the genuinely friendly staff.

A focal point of the hotel is its excellent AA Rosette Loch Fyne restaurant. Commanding a panoramic view of the loch, where seals can sometimes be seen playing on the banks, a seasonal menu serves seafood caught by fishermen in the nearby village of Tarbert. The finishing touch is a nightcap in the hotel's gentleman's bar, serving drams from the nearby islands of Jura, Mull and Arran.

Granite-peaked Arran is within easy reach for a day trip, with highlights including wild and windswept walking trails, sightings of red squirrels and a visit to the eccentric Brodick Castle, now a National Trust property.

The building, which dates back to the 13th century, is packed to the rafters with oddities including a floor-to-ceiling collection of stag heads, the hunting trophies of former lords.

Other finds include an ornate gold clasp containing a bezoar stone and a coarse fur ball taken from a goat's stomach and used as an antidote to poisons (fans of Harry Potter will know what we're talking about).

Goats aside, wildlife is a big draw for visitors to Argyll, with the chance to see seals, dolphins, golden eagles and otters. Craignish Cruises offers trips into Loch Craignish where, if there is sufficient tidal movement, there's a chance to visit the whirlpool at Corryvreckan.

With waves occasionally leaping on deck, it's much rougher than the peaceful Loch Fyne. On a cold day, hands and toes will be numb to the bone, but that will only leave you yearning for the warmth and comfort of Stonefield even more.

HARTWELL HOUSE & SPA, AYLESBURY

Staying at the National Trust-owned Hartwell House, in the heart of Buckinghamshire, is like entering another world - one with an immaculate croquet lawn and waiters in tails.

Its royal connections are impeccable and would be the envy of Downton's Dowager Countess. Once owned by the son of William the Conqueror, King Louis XVIII of France lived here in exile for five years in the 1800s and it's easy to imagine him roaming around the vast grounds, with a romantic gothic tower, ruined church and a lake spanned by a old arch section of Kew Bridge.

For the ultimate in Downton-style fantasy indulgence, book one of the four antique-crammed Royal Four Poster Rooms once occupied by the King and his entourage.

Curling up in the window seat of the delicate Duchesse d'Angouleme room, it's easy to pretend you're the daughter of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, who also stayed here.

More modern but still elegant is the spa, where one can sunbathe in a secluded courtyard before taking a dip in the pool and heading for a massage.

Dinner is a white table-cloth and silver cutlery affair, served by butlers, with delicacies including local Aylesbury duck parfait and poached cherries, and Hartwell House honey pannacotta.

Like any good old country pile, ghost stories abound. As you take coffee in the old library, listening to the pianist, keep a wary eye out for the "grey man".

After a sumptuous buffet breakfast, grab your map and wellies to explore the 36 hectares of the estate.

The poet Lord Byron wrote of Louis XVIII's return to France to assume the throne in 1814: "Why wouldst thou leave calm Hartwell's green abode?" Why indeed...

- AAP

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