Monday, 30 November -0001

MY DEVILISH DAY AS AN ARISTOCRAT

Fancy sampling life as a REAL Downton bigwig? Well, now you can, says Nicola Venning. And it’s a right blast from the past

Written by Nicola Venning

It could be a scene from Downton Abbey. Crossing the drawbridge over the pike-  lled moat, I am greeted by a huge hound, which bounds out of the doorway of the grand stately home – and threatens to lick me to death. But then this IS Downton Abbey – or at least something very similar. I am visiting Tudorera Helmingham Hall, one of several private stately homes in Britain, where it is possible to experience upper-class English life. The trips are arranged by Veronica Joly de Lotbinière's company, called More Than Good Manners.

From an old landed gentry family herself, Veronica can trace her line back to Henry II. 'We have had the opportunity to buy titles – kings used to sell them when they needed money – but we have never bothered,' she says of her family.

Sampling the life of the British aristocracy and meeting 'a real earl or duke,' is, says Veronica, 'phenomenally popular with country lovers, historians and foreign visitors, particularly Americans in search of their ancestral roots.'

Some recent tourists to Helmingham Hall 'just died and thought they had gone to heaven,' says Lady Tollemache. She and her husband, Lord Tollemache, own the house, which, apart from the gardens, is out of bounds to the public. 'It's taking the assets from here and sharing them with people who would not otherwise see them,' she says. 'Once, we had a sundowner in the park and 600 deer galloped past.' Lord Timothy and Lady Alexandra – 'Tim' and 'Xa' to their friends – Tollemache have the sort of pedigree that would make fans of Britain's blue bloods, swoon.

The Tollemaches (the name comes from the French for 'purse bearer') arrived from France just after the Norman Conquest and have been hobnobbing with the rulers of the realm ever since. Lord Timothy and Lady Alexandra's son, Edward, was a Page of Honour to HM The Queen from 1988 to 1990, and the couple attended Catherine and William's wedding. Their house is equally impressive.

Helmingham's panelled Great Hall is the oldest part and dates from 1490. Oil paintings of ancestral Tollemaches go back almost 600 years. The   replace is large enough to roast a hog, and Robin Hood and his merry men could   t around the oak table. 'Some of this furniture is 15th century and all the drawers still work,' says Lady Tollemache. At one point, the family owned over 35,000 acres – more than the Duke of Westminster. Such large estates were necessary to maintain their huge homes, which cost £150,000 a year to run. 'They used to say you needed 1,000 acres per bedroom, but now you need more,' says Veronica, which explains why they are happy to have guests. A one-day stately home experience for a group of 10 with More Than Good Manners starts from £340 per person. Visits to high-profile stately homes, such as Althorp, would cost twice that.

For an additional fee, More Than Good Manners can arrange country pursuits. Hunting and shooting are popular in the autumn and winter. In the summer, there are race meetings, clay-pigeon shooting, polo and   shing. 'It's quite casual – like a private house party, with an emphasis on quality,' says Hugh Crossley, son and heir of Lord and Lady Somerleyton, who lives in magnificent Tudor-Jacobean Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk. Guests here can enjoy the use of two grand dining rooms, a ballroom and a sumptuous drawing room. 'Tea is served in the library,' says Hugh. Elegant dining, often including game from the estate, as well as tours of the garden, and croquet, are part of the experience. A chef, maids and a butler ensure things run smoothly: shoes can be left out to be cleaned, a morning paper is delivered to your bedroom. 'We are in the servants' quarters and the guests are in the glamorous bits,' says Hugh. 'That's what they are buying.'

Contact More Than Good Manners on: 020-7118 0145, www.morethangoodmanners.com

Five of the best stately escapes

BELVOIR CASTLE Leicestershire

This has been the ancestral home of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland since 1509. Stay in the Wellington Room used by the Duke of Wellington in the 1850s. A private tour of the castle can be arranged.

POWDERHAM CASTLE Devon

Built in the 1390s and the home of the Earl and Countess of Devon, Powderham Castle has been in the same family for more than 600 years. Enjoy the State Bedroom(which featured in the

Oscar-winning film, Remains Of The Day), the State Dining Room, the libraries and the Music Room are designed by James Wyatt.

ALTHORP HOUSE Northamptonshire

Although it is renowned as the childhood home of Lady Diana Spencer, Althorp has been the residence of the Spencer family for more than 500 years. This is your chance to stay in the guest suites where kings, queens and statesmen have also rested.

SENNOWE PARK Norfolk

Recently renovated Sennowe in Norwich was built in the 1900s by the heirs of Thomas Cook, who founded the travel agency. Guests can ride and use the swimming pool.

INVERARAY CASTLE Western Scotland

This is the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll. Situated on the banks of Loch Fyne, the turreted castle offers a warm welcome, together with wonderful trout and salmon fishing.




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