Whether it’s the hum of a Rolls Royce gliding into a country estate or the genteel clink of bone china at afternoon tea, if there’s one image Great Britain sells well it’s that of aristocratic luxury. While owning vintage cars and stately homes may be beyond most of us, for travellers keen to live like a lord or lady and to experience some of England’s finest dining, drinking and travelling, there are options aplenty.
Since 2010, the complex and expensive codes of upper-class behaviour (if you’re having tea at the Ritz then it should be stirred back and forth, never in a circular motion), have been brought to life for millions around the world by stories of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey.
If you’re set on emulating the Edwardians then Highclere Castle in Hampshire is the place to start. The main filming location of the series, Highclere is Downton Abbey, home of the Crawleys, and a tour of the estate has become a must for visitors wishing to reconstruct an age when an Englishman’s home was, quite literally, his castle. Highclere sits like the pupil in the green iris of the North Wessex Downs, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which has woods laden with wild flowers and dramatic chalk engravings at White Horse Hill. From roaring 1920’s themed parties and Christmas fairs to afternoon teas and art walks, a visit to the 19th-century mansion is sure to take you back in time. It is not possible to stay in Highclere Castle, but the idyllic English countryside around has luxury accommodations to make the Crawley family seethe with jealousy, and offer bases for a trip which includes everything you might need to enjoy a holiday of high glamour and luxury living (www.highclerecastle.co.uk).
About 10 minutes from Highclere, The Vineyard at Stockcross offers 49 elegant rooms and a spa. Along with multiple awards it can also lay claim to being one of the U.K.’s foremost centres for wine lovers. Why not splash out on a grand suite. And when you’ve had enough fine wine and food, pamper yourself silly before retiring to your four poster bed (www.the-vineyard.co.uk).
Take a trip 45 minutes north towards Oxford and consider taking a room at a 15th-century manor house in Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, originally founded by two-Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc in 1984. If the exquisite haute cuisine, cooking and gardening schools don’t excite you then perhaps the plush bedrooms will keep you occupied as you stare out at the verdant Oxfordshire countryside (www.highclerecastle.co.uk; doubles from £600/Rs54,550).
If the thought of holidaying with other people is too much to bear, you could always sequester yourself away in a country mansion like Felicity Park in Hampshire, about 30 kilometres from Stonehenge. Here the swimming pool, tennis court and six bedrooms are yours alone, and for an extra fee the in-house caterers will assure that you dine like royalty too (www.highclerecastle.co.uk; from £4,000/Rs3,63,700 per week).
For those seeking luxury dining, Bray in Berkshire is home not just to a stretch of houses known locally as “millionaire’s row” but to two pillars of dining history. Since 1972, The Waterside Inn has been the country outpost of the Roux brothers, two of the world’s most lauded chefs. What Michel and Albert Roux founded at the Waterside is a restaurant which still serves refined French dishes in a charming English setting. The three Michelin stars it has held for 33 years—the only place in the U.K. to have achieved this—is an unflagging commitment to perfection from the grand dame (or the dowager countess) of English restaurants (www.waterside-inn.co.uk; 6-course tasting menu £170/Rs15,440 per person).
A relative upstart in comparison to the Roux brothers is Heston Blumenthal, patron of The Fat Duck since 1995. Housed in a 17th-century cottage, it is known—in classic Blumenthal style—for taking its patrons on a journey through food, one that engages all their senses. Famous for its pioneering of molecular gastronomy and unusual dishes like snail porridge or egg and bacon ice cream, The Fat Duck also holds three Michelin stars and has been number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (www.waterside-inn.co.uk; £325/Rs29,500 per person).
For those in need of similarly rarefied food but in a more convivial atmosphere, Tom Kerridge’s The Hand and Flowers in nearby Marlow is the only pub in England to hold two Michelin stars. Spend your Sunday in its 17th-century dining room where you can feast heartily on an indulgent version of classic English roast beef (www.waterside-inn.co.uk; set lunch £25/Rs2,270 per person).
If taking it easy becomes tiresome, then explore the area around Eversley, Hampshire, in a chauffeur-driven 1930’s Daimler, identical to those used by the Royal Family until the 1950’s (www.waterside-inn.co.uk).
If your plans involve alternative forms of movement, however, less than an hour from Highclere Castle is the town of Ascot where there’s been a racecourse since it was founded by Queen Anne in 1711. It’s a legacy which is celebrated each year at the Royal Ascot festival. For five days in June the patrons quaff champagne while wearing obscenely priced, elaborate hats. If you’re not around in summer, don’t fret, there are other events year round (www.ascot.co.uk).
Active pursuits can be found with the Royal Berkshire Shooting Club, which offers clay pigeon shooting that emulates the traditional sport of game hunting. Even if you’re unable to hit the target, simply dine at one of their mansions before a stroll through the lawns of their country estate (www.rbss.co.uk).
You could also watch the exertions of others at the Henley Royal Regatta, an annual rowing event which has been part of the aristocratic calendar since the 1830’s. Live a true Edwardian experience with a chauffeured vintage boat and enjoy a sumptuous picnic on the water, soaking up the atmosphere (www.hrr.co.ukfor boat rentals www.hobbsofhenley.com).
Finally, don’t miss the heritage town of Windsor, just about 35 kilometres west of London. Here, you can enjoy a bespoke horse and carriage tour in a vintage wood-and-leather carriage, around the stunning Windsor Castle, a still functional royal residence. Step out of your carriage for a picnic in the lawns and indulge in a glass of champagne—you’re not driving after all (www.windsorcarriages.co.uk).
Stephen Connolly is a freelance writer based in the UK. As a former historian he travels to witness first-hand everything he's read about in books; as an ongoing glutton he roams the world looking for the best things to eat.