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Dating back thousands of years and dozens of generations, the castles and country homes of England’s elite represent a lifestyle that seems to intrigue us all. Filled with priceless works of art and historical relics, many of these homes are now open to the public for tours. Bolstered by the popularity of the PBS series “Downton Abbey,” the interest in country homes and castle tours has risen recently as visitors want to see for themselves what life is like “above stairs” and below.
St. Michael’s Mount
Through the centuries, St. Michaels’ Mount in Marazion, Cornwall, has been a spiritual center, military stronghold, prosperous port and family home. This fascinating site attracts archeologists, historians, artists and, of course, tourists. Though gifted to the National Trust in 1954, the St. Aubyn family still lives in the castle as holders of a 999-year lease. Separated from the mainland by a cobbled causeway completely covered by water at high tide, St. Michael’s Mount is ruled by weather and the sea. Because of this, the causeway opens and closes each day based on the season; however, there are also frequent boat crossings from landing points along the shore at Marazion to the ancient harbor at the Mount during spring, summer and fall. One-way fares are approximately $3 for adults and $1.50 for children. Once on the island, visitors can explore the gardens and grounds before hiking to the castle above. Agents should note that the walk is steep and uneven, so guests should be fit and wear good walking shoes before attempting the climb. Once at the top, clients will marvel at the expansive view of Marazion below and across the sea to Penzance.
The castle itself is a spectacular example of 12th century architecture as well as the home to many extraordinary works of art and fascinating historical artifacts. In fact, Queen Victoria herself took afternoon tea on the blue sofa in the Mount’s Blue Drawing Room in 1846.
The Castle is open for tours from March to November, Monday to Sunday (but closed every Saturday) from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (5:30 p.m. in July and August). The Gardens are open for visitors from April to September; days and time vary depending on the month. Admission tickets can be purchased for the garden only, the castle only or a combined ticket ranging from approximately $5 to $14 for adults and $1.50 to $6 for children. There are also family tickets and group rates available.
Located in Padstow, Cornwall, Prideaux Place has been home to the Prideaux family for 14 generations, since the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. However, the family has been prominent in Cornwall for nearly 1,000 years, dating back to the Norman Conquest in 1066. Now home to Peter Prideaux-Brune and his wife Elizabeth, Prideaux Place has changed very little in the last 200 years. Built in 1592, the house contains fascinating art and artifacts collected over the generations by members of the Prideaux family including one particularly unusual miniature from the Civil War which bears a portrait of Charles I on one side and Cromwell on the other; it is said this is so that the miniature could be positioned according to the politics of one’s dinner guests. Other interesting objects in the house include an astronomical clock made in 1800 that shows the exact position of the stars as seen from Prideaux Place and a mother of pearl inlaid chest that was salvaged from an Armada ship in 1588. Tours of the house and grounds are offered Sundays to Thursdays, April to October. Group bookings are available year round. There is also a tea room offering light lunches and Cornish cream teas.
Currently home to the 10th Earl of St. Germans, Peregrine Eliot and his wife Catherine, Port Eliot in is the oldest continually inhabited dwelling in the U.K., at 1,081 years and counting (though the Eliot family has been there for “only” 443 years). Stepping into Port Eliot is like stepping back in time because the Earl and his wife have changed very little since the home’s last renovation in 1826. The entire house is filled with art and artifacts dating back generations including a number of original paintings by Joshua Reynolds and 10 portraits by Anthony van Dyck from the series known as the Iconography (the Queen owns most of the others). Also of interest is the wallpaper in the lobby, which was dyed green using arsenic, a common practice in the 18th century.
The most notable room in the house, the round room, features a very unusual mural by Robert Lenkiewicz that took the artist 20 years to complete. Perhaps of most interest to many visitors are the areas “below stairs” where the servants of the house lived and worked for centuries. Here, you can see the rooms that served as the hub of the household as well as the many service rooms such as the electric shop, the gun room and the locksmith shop. Tours of Port Eliot are offered March through July every day, except Fridays, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Admission to the house and gardens is approximately $12 for adults and $6 for children ages 16 years and under. Large group visits are welcome by appointment. There is also a tea room on the property that offers delicious homemade lunches and cream teas.
Pentillie Castle and Estate
Located on the banks of the Tamar River near Plymouth, Cornwall, Pentillie Castle and Estate has been welcoming guests since May 2009. Recently awarded a Gold Award at the Visit England Awards for Excellence as the Best B&B in England, Pentillie offers modern and luxurious accommodations in a beautiful country estate overlooking the scenic Tamar River valley.
Pentillie was built in 1698 by James Tillie who was the land agent to the nearby estate of Sir John Coryton. When Sir John died, Tillie married his widow and joined the two estates. Today, the estate is still managed by the Coryton family who has transformed this private home into a stylish bed and breakfast. Accommodations in nine beautifully appointed bedrooms are available on weekdays and on those weekends when no group bookings or special events are taking place. A full breakfast is included in the room rates that range from approximately $205 to $331. A three-course dinner featuring local products is also available when there are more than six guests in the Castle for an additional fee of approximately $50 per person. x`
Pentillie Castle & Estatewww.pentillie.co.uk
St. Michael’s Mountwww.stmichaelsmount.co.uk