Upon arrival in Windsor, our tour group will be checking in to the Mercure Windsor Castle Hotel, where Hubby and I stayed two years ago. The hotel looks out upon Windsor Castle, the rooms are gorgeous, the bar is lined with windows and is supremely atmospheric and there’s a portrait of the Duke of Wellington just off the lobby. What could be more perfect? As regular readers of this blog will know, Windsor will always mean our dear friend Hester Davenport for myself and Victoria. Windsor is a wonderful town – just the right size, full of history – even Hubby loved it during our tour to England two Decembers ago. Here is a lovely, four minute video featuring highlights in Windsor.

Windsor is filled with great sights, including the Guildhall and Crooked House above, Peascod Street, the playing fields of Eton and the River Thames, upon which we’ll be ending our tour of Windsor with a boat cruise on the River.

We shall also be touring Frogmore House, above, which has been used a royal retreat for three hundred years. You can watch a short video of the Prince of Wales and the royal librarian discussing artistic contributions to Frogmore House made by the daughters of King George III here. You can visit the official website for Frogmore House here and read about it’s history and collections.
And finally, you can watch a short video of the sort of pomp and circumstance Windsor does so well. This is the procession for the Irish State Visit, but there’s a regular changing of the guard that we may be fortunate enough to see whilst we’re there.
Find Complete Details for the Duke of Wellington Tour here. 



Basildon Park

After leaving Stratfield Saye, our group will travel to nearby Basildon Park for a private tour of this stately home.
From their website:

Basildon Park, a Georgian mansion surrounded by parkland, was loving rescued by Lord and Lady Iliffe in the mid 1950s. The house you see today is a re-creation and restoration of the 18th-century mansion. They restored the elegant interior and scoured the country salvaging 18th-century architectural fixtures and fittings. Lord and Lady Iliffe filled their comfortable new home with fine paintings, fabrics and furniture, which can still be enjoyed by you today. Make the most of your visit by treating yourself to a cream tea, experience the nostalgia of our 1950s kitchen, or stretch your legs following one of our waymarked trails through the 400 acres of historic parkland.

Basildon Park was originally built for Sir Francis Sykes and you can read the entire history of Sykes, his waning fortunes and the history of the house here. The Regency history of Basildon Park is interesting and I quote from Wikipedia as follows:
“On Sir Francis Sykes’ death, Basildon was inherited by his son, Sir Francis Sykes (2nd Baronet) who died a few weeks later. The house then passed to his grandson, the five-year old Sir Francis (3rd Baronet). By this time, the Sykes fortune was almost spent and Basildon was already mortgaged. The family finances suffered further as a result of the 3rd Baronet’s association with the extravagant Prince Regent. Aged just 14, he entertained the Prince at Basildon. As a result of the Prince’s occupation of the North side of the second floor, where the best bedrooms are located, for many years afterwards this range of rooms were known as `The Regent’s Side’ as opposed to the family’s less formal rooms on the South side of the floor. From the late 1820s, Sykes was suffering serious financial problems, and in 1829, the estate was placed on the market. The house was not quickly sold, as Sykes refused to accept any price less than £100,000. During this period, the house was often let. However, Sykes and his family were in residence between 1834 and 1835 when the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was a house-guest at Basildon. Disraeli, who was the lover of Sykes’ wife Henrietta, immortalised her along with some descriptions of Basildon and its rooms in his novel, Henrietta Temple: A Love Story. Another romantic attachment of Lady Sykes was to result in her husband being immortalised in a novel, this time in a less flattering light. Lady Sykes had been conducting an affair with the painter Daniel Maclise. Her husband publicly denounced Maclise, causing an unacceptable high society scandal. As a result, Charles Dickens, a friend of Maclise, then writing Oliver Twist, based his villainous and cruel character Bill Sikes on Sir Francis.”
Basildon Park’s literary connections did not end with Disraeli and Dickens – the house was used as the setting for Netherfield Park during the filming of  the 2005 version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. You can watch a short video about the filming at Basildon Park here. The house was used as a set for another Keira Knightley film, The Duchess, in 2008. 
Downton Abbey Basildon Park
The interiors of Basildon Park were most recently used as the Crawley family’s London residence, Grantham House, and the elegant Georgian mansion was at the heart of the unfolding story as the family prepared for Rose’s coming out ball in the capital. Basildon Park played host to all of the much loved regular characters from the show as well as Shirley MacLaine who reprises her role as Martha Levinson and Paul Giamatti who joins the cast as Cora’s playboy brother, Harold. The episode was part of Downton Abbey’s 2013 Christmas special. You can watch a video of which rooms were used in the filming and short clips from the Special here. 
You can take a half hour video tour of Basildon Park, it’s interiors and learn about it’s history and occupants here. 



When we visit Highclere Castle on Thursday, September 11, 2014, we will probably be thinking more of  Downton Abbey, the PBS Masterpiece series, than of the sumptuous home of the Earls of Carnarvon.  Victoria here, as eager to see the Castle/Abbey as anyone.  I truly believe that a large part of the credit for DA’s success in America is due to the setting at Highclere Castle:  The grounds, the enormous house designed in the most extravagant of Victorian neo-Gothic style, the magnificent interiors of the family’s drawing rooms and bedchambers, the stark simplicity and dullness of the servants’ world below stairs. The contrasts could not be more vivid.

Downton Abbey, PBS Masterpiece

The Crawley family, headed by Robert, Earl of Grantham (High Bonneville), live at the fictional Downton Abbey, filmed at Highclere Castle, the home of the Earls of Carnarvon.  Most of the  upstairs scenes are filmed in the rooms of the Abbey or on the grounds.  The servants quarters have been recreated as they would have been in 1900 to 1930 at studies on nearby Ealing,  West London.  In this 4-minute video, creator and writer Julian Fellowes takes you through Highclere. Click here.

Another look at Highclere as Downton Abbey is an 8-minute fragment of the program Countrywise visit.  Click here

As almost every one knows, Downton Abbey has been a phenomenal success with audiences in Britain and North America, and elsewhere.  The four years of the series have won numerous awards for its creator, Julian Fellowes, for its costumes and settings, and for the actors, some of whom have become “household names.”  Probably taking first place would be Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, whose pithy comments delight audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.  Click here to see some favorite moments.

The Inimitable Maggie Smith As Violet, Dowager Lady Grantham

   We’ve seen four seasons of Downton Abbey now, and all the episodes are available on DVD and from PBS and other sources. The fifth season is in production and will be seen in the U.K. in the autumn and on PBS Masterpiece in early 2015.
Downton Abbey cast
 ©Nick Briggs/Carnival Film and Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE

Click here for a 13-minute video on the making of Downton Abbey, featuring many of the actors as well as the executive producer, writer, and historical advisor among others.

Although we’ve all seen the fourth season, you might enjoy the preview, a tease of just 90 seconds, put out before it played. Click here.

 So to stand in Highclere Castle yourself, come along with us on The Duke of Wellington Tour. September 4-14, 2014.  All the details are here.

See you in London!



Highclere Castle Victorian

One of the stops along the route of The Duke of Wellington Tour that we’re looking forward to visiting is Highclere Castle, home of the Earls of Carnarvon. In addition to the fabulous interiors, we’ll also be viewing the Egyptian collection, comprised of artifacts from King Tut’s tomb, the discovery of which was funded by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. I’m particularly interested in walking the grounds and seeing the park, designed by Capability Brown. Here are a few video highlights of what we’ll be seeing at Highclere –
The 8th Countess of Carnarvon discusses The Real Downton Abbey and offers a tour of the Castle here.
Follow the Countess through more rooms in the Castle here.
Footage of the exteriors, grounds and secret garden here.
If you were invited to spend the weekend at Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle a hundred years ago,
would you know what to wear, how to act, which fork to use? Michael Bertolini, Curator and President of the Warwick (NY) Historical Society gives an informative Talk on Downton Abbey-style living.  (1 hour)
For absolutely stunning scenery of the countryside surrounding Highclere Castle, you can watch this five minute video – The Wayfarers Walking Vacations “Downton Abbey” walk .
Victoria will be writing next weeks “Video Highlights” post, in which she’ll bring you clips of the flip side of Highclere Castle – Downton Abbey. Until then, here’s a very funny bit of silliness put together for Red Nose Day 2011 called “Uptown Downstairs Abbey.





 Stratfield Saye

To understand why the Duke of Wellington’s country house is the relatively modest Stratfield Saye, it is necessary to travel back to the victory of the Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim in August 1704 over the forces of French King Louis XIV (and others)..  England’s Queen Anne and her ministers were so delighted with the Duke’s victory that they decided to build him a great palace, a rival to their defeated enemy’s Palace of Versailles.

Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
If you visit Blenheim, you will see what the first Duke of Wellington learned from the magnificent but very costly house.  For two centuries, the Marlborough family had struggled to complete and maintain the enormous palace. So when offered a great Waterloo Palace as a gift from the nation after his victory over Napoleon, Wellington proceeded cautiously. The Iron Duke knew what a burden Blenheim had been to its owners.

Stratfield Saye

Always the clever strategist, the first Duke of Wellington chose a house he and his descendants could afford, perhaps sacrificing magnificence for comfort.  
 This pleasant 90-second video shows several views of the house.
The Hall, showing captured battle flags
The present ducal family lives at Stratfield Saye and  access to the house is very limited.  We could find no videos of the interior, so to see the rooms in which the Dukes and Duchesses lived, you will have to sign up and come along on The Duke of Wellington Tour.
For more exterior views plus the Duke’s Funeral Car, on display in the stables, here is another video.  Sadly, the cameraman kept moving — so don’t get seasick while you watch it!
Did you know that the cavalry charge scene from the Spielberg film War Horse was filmed at Stratfield Saye? Actor Tom Hiddleston explains how the Duke’s estate came to substitute for a French Battlefield in this video.
You can watch the cavalry charge film sequence here. How ironic that a scene of British military defeat should be filmed on the grounds of the home of Britain’s greatest military hero.