Exquisite English manors, palaces and castles

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

When planning a trip to England, it’s easy to stay within the confines of London. And why not? London is full of amazing things — plenty of history, award-winning theater, shopping, and of course, fantastic food. However, if you venture out of the city (and conquer the fear of driving on the opposite side of the road), you’ll find a vast countryside full of palatial manors, houses and stunning castles waiting to be explored. Here are a few that are worth the jaunt outside of the bustling metropolis.

Alnwick Castle

Situated along the northeast coast of England, Alnwick Castle is second only to Windsor Castle as one of Britain’s largest inhabited castles. Home to the Duke of Northumberland, the first rendition of the fortress was built in 1096. Because of its proximity to the border, during the 12th and 13th centuries, the castle was conquered several times by the Scots. Although still a residence, visitors can explore the vast halls and breathtaking gardens between late spring and late fall. Much of the interior and exterior of the castle was used as a stand-in for Hogwarts during the filming of the “Harry Potter” series. www.alnwickcastle.com

Althorp Estate

Tucked away among the rolling hills northwest of London is a relatively smaller estate. Dating back to the 1300s, Althorp Estate has been home to the Spencer family for more than 500 years. While the current Earl of Spencer still currently resides at Althorp, visitors often come to pay respects to his older sister — Diana, Princess of Wales. This beautiful estate is the childhood home of the late princess, and guests can marvel at the grand staircases and walk through the library, which has a warm, familial feel to it. Once outside, wander down the path through the elaborate gardens. There you’ll see a small island in a quiet and serene setting — the final resting place of Princess Diana. www.spencerofalthorp.com

Blenheim Palace

Known as the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, the drama and scandal behind the construction of this palace dates back to 1705. Gifted from Queen Anne to John Churchill (1st Duke of Marlborough), the estate became a massive money pit. A feud between the Queen and the Duchess resulted in the Marlborough’s exile until the death of the Queen. Once they returned, the architect was fired and the family was left in financial ruin. Centuries later, Charles Spencer-Churchill married American railroad heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt solely for her fortune.

The massive palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Visitors can stroll through the halls and partake in an interactive walking tour of one of the upper floors. History buffs won’t want to miss the section dedicated to Sir Winston Churchill. With open-air concerts during the warm summer months, the well-manicured gardens and house are impeccably decorated during the Christmas season. www.blenheimpalace.com

Castle Howard

Situated approximately 15 miles north of the charming city of York, Castle Howard is one of the largest castles in England with 145 rooms. Construction began in 1699 and took more than 100 years to complete. Designed by the same architect as Blenheim Palace, this castle features a domed great hall more than 80 feet tall and once had its own rail station. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in 1940 and destroyed a large part of the castle. Restoration took place in the 1960s; however, there are still places in which only a façade remains. Visitors can gaze up at the recreation of Pelligrini’s “Fall of Phaeton” on the domed ceiling, or enjoy an afternoon tea overlooking the beautiful gardens. www.castlehoward.co.uk

Chatsworth House

Set in the idyllic countryside of the Peak District, Chatsworth was built in the mid-1500s by Sir William Cavendish and Bess of Hardwick, the second-most powerful woman of her time behind Queen Elizabeth I. With more than 126 rooms, the house has seen its fair share of notable visitors, including the infamous Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1569, Elizabeth considered Mary’s eye on the English throne as a formidable threat and entrusted her to the Earl of Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick’s fourth husband) for imprisonment. Mary spent a vast amount of time confined to Chatsworth. Don’t feel bad — she still had her staff with her and was given her own wing of the manor.

Nowadays, visitors can explore 30 different rooms and marvel at one of Europe’s more impressive art collections, with pieces dating from the ancient Egyptians to forward thinking pieces of the modern era. In December, the house is transformed into a winter wonderland of festive decorations and a Christmas market that runs Nov. 16 through Dec. 4. www.chatsworth.org

Dover Castle

One of the largest castles in Europe, Dover Castle is definitely worth a visit. Located along the famed White Cliffs of Dover, there has been some sort of fortification at this site since before the Roman invasion in 43 AD. Because of its location, the castle has been used as a defensive fortress for much of its existence. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, engineers dug tunnels deep below the grounds, which housed more than 2,000 men. During World War II, the tunnels were converted into air raid shelters, a communications command center and a makeshift hospital. It was also from this castle that Operation Dynamo — the rescue of British and French forces from Dunkirk — was carried out.

Today, visitors can learn about the medieval history by touring the Great Tower, or discover what life was like during the 1940s wartime in the secret tunnels. Reenactments of the World War I military artillery drills can also be viewed. www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle.

Highclere Castle

I would be remiss if I didn’t include this iconic manor. Tucked away on England’s southern shores, fans of “Downton Abbey” will recognize Highclere Castle as the filming location for the much-loved series. In existence since the eighth century, the current version of the castle was constructed in 1679 and renovated in the mid-1800s. In 1867, the British North America Act was drafted at Highclere, which led to the creation and establishment of present-day Canada.

Due to the popularity of the castle, Highclere is only open to the public during special ticketed events. To see when the next opening is, be sure to visit www.highclerecastle.co.uk for more information.

Whether you’re looking for stunning castle ruins or impeccably decorated country estates, there are plenty to visit in England. Take a break from Buckingham and head out to the beautiful countryside and discover exquisite English manors and palaces.

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