For us, as for many Americans, the “Downton Abbey” world of the grand English country house is a source of enduring fascination. Many writers have speculated as to why this milieu should so appeal to a people who founded a nation in revolt against monarchy and aristocracy, but I’ve never heard a convincing explanation. It’s just a self-evident fact.
The film location of “Downton Abbey” is Highclere Castle in Berkshire, to the west of London, but in the story, the house is said to be in Yorkshire. This northern county has long been a place where England’s wellborn and well-to-do have come to relax on their country estates and shoot the game birds, notably grouse, that populate its hills and moors.
However, one Yorkshire country house exceeds all others in grandeur. Castle Howard lies 15 miles northeast of York and has been the home of the Howard family, the Earls of Carlisle, for more than 300 years. With 145 rooms, it is one of England’s largest stately homes. Castle Howard was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, who was also responsible for the colossal Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire (the birthplace of Winston Churchill). Work began in 1699 and took 100 years to complete.
Aside from its architectural splendor and one of the world’s finest private art collections, Castle Howard’s appeal also stems from its having been the fictional Brideshead, in both the television and movie versions of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.”