“Look down there,” my daughter said, pointing to a window beside us. We were walking alongside Cliveden House, an English country estate that for more than 300 years has been the home of dukes, earls, viscounts and, for a short period in the 1700s, Frederick, the Prince of Wales.
I turned and caught the quick flash of a knife in the basement kitchen and watched as a young man wearing a navy apron and white uniform expertly peeled shells off langoustines.
Through a window above we saw a waiter seating an elegantly dressed couple in a very formal dining room. Crystal, china and silver sparkled, as did the elaborate chandeliers.
“It’s like a real-life upstairs-downstairs scene from ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” said my daughter Harriet as we looked out over acres of trimmed hedges and an endless horizon of green countryside. “All that is missing is Maggie Smith.”
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“And our own personal Carson,” I joked, referring to the butler in charge of the household staff on “Downton Abbey,” the wildly popular PBS British drama set in the post-Edwardian period.
We had come to Cliveden, a Buckinghamshire estate run by the National Trust, a British conservation group, for exactly this: an old-fashioned “Downton Abbey” type of vacation, complete with grand architecture and brisk parkland walks.
Given that Highclere Castle (the real-life setting of “Downton Abbey”) is open only on certain days in the spring and summer, and does not have a residential option, Cliveden — 46 miles away — was the next best thing.
Had we actually been staying at the stately Cliveden House, which is now a luxury five-star hotel leased out by the National Trust, we would have indeed been met by a butler, just as three generations of Astors, who resided there from 1893 to 1966, were greeted when pulling up to the Italianate mansion.
But instead of paying a minimum of 252 pounds ($410) a night for one of the rooms overlooking the walled courtyard, we had decided instead on the more spacious and relatively more economical “downstairs” option of the Ferry Cottage, one of two National Trust rental properties on the Cliveden estate.
Thanks to Waldorf and Nancy Astor, who gave Cliveden to the National Trust in 1942 (though the Trust didn’t actually take possession of it until the death of the third Viscount Astor in 1966), the 376-acre property has been lovingly preserved.
The Ferry Cottage and neighboring New Cottage at Cliveden, which each sleep four people, are both situated on the banks of the Thames. Both are available, like most National Trust properties, for short- and long-term rentals. Once the home of a boatman who ran a ferry service from there, the two-bedroom Ferry Cottage cost us 658 pounds ($1,070) for three nights.
Upon our arrival at the cottage, we were greeted warmly, not just by a welcome note and a tea tray complete with chocolate cookies (we immediately pictured a Mrs. Hughes-type of housekeeper delivering both), but also a coal fire, in need of nothing more than a match.
We were only a 10-minute walk from Cliveden House. There we could easily take advantage of the hotel’s afternoon tea service, as well as the day spa, with both an indoor and outdoor swimming pool. Additionally, the National Trust runs a cafe on the estate that offers hearty lunch dishes (pork sausage and mashed potatoes with onion gravy), along with tempting desserts (apple tart and walnut cake).
Apparently, our desire to re-create an era we had seen on “Masterpiece Theater” was not as original as I thought.
“In the last couple of years, bookings for our holiday cottages from the U.S. have gone up and up,” said Laura Gibbs, product manager for National Trust Holidays. “And our places which offer the chance to stay within a historic house or in the grounds of a stately home are proving popular with ‘Downton’ fans.”