An Eco-Elegant English Hotel, “Downton Abbey” Style

Tylney Hall Hotel in Hampshire, England © Laurel Kallenbach

If you love the early-20th-century glamour depicted in the hit PBS television series Downton Abbey as much as I do, England’s Tylney Hall—an elegant country manor house turned hotel—might be your cup of tea.

Just an hour southwest of London, Tylney Hall Hotel and its 66 acres of Hampshire woodlands, lakes and gardens welcome you in aristocratic style—after all, the estate shares a similar history with the fictional home of Lord and Lady Grantham. Both were the extravagant homes of earls, and both served as soldiers’ convalescent hospitals during WWI.

In fact, the film location for Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, is just 21 miles away. Though you can tour Highclere Castle (read “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) you can’t spend the night: it’s privately owned. All the more reason to stay at Tylney Hall Hotel, which features luxurious old-fashioned bedrooms with contemporary bathrooms, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, and fine dining.

Living Like an Aristocrat at Tylney Hall Hotel

The grand staircase at Tylney Hall Hotel © Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I felt like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley—minus the elegant clothes and jewels—during our two-night stay at Tylney Hall.

Our room was upstairs, and every time I regally walked down the walnut-lined staircase with its carved banisters, I felt sure that Carson the Butler was going to offer me a glass of sherry.

Far less portly and stodgy than old Carson, the staff was congenial and ready to answer our questions or requests. They brought us canapés and pre-dinner drinks on silver platters in Tylney’s ornate Italian Lounge, which easily could have qualified as a Downton Abbey set.

Our large bedroom had a private balcony with views over a redwood-lined lawn and the green woodlands. Just below, was a croquet set all assembled and waiting; we didn’t play, as we were far too busy strolling through the formal Italian Gardens. Beyond that, we went rambling down to Boathouse Lake, where we could sit on a bench and gaze at the red-bricked mansion framed by foliage.

Ken and I walked through Tylney Hall’s entryway and felt like a lord and lady. © Laurel Kallenbach

The spa at Tylney Hall Hotel uses organic aromatherapy and Kirsten Florian products and features a full spa menu of massages, wraps, facials and more.

I enjoyed the Garden of Dreams treatment, which started with a gentle exfoliation followed by a lavender-oil massage with warm stones and finished with a relaxing scalp and facial massage. It was the perfect antidote to the stress of our first day of driving on the left side of the road!

Eating Like a King

In the Oak Room restaurant (open to the public with a reservation), we enjoyed a white-tablecloth, candlelit dinner accompanied by soft music played on the grand piano. I enjoyed a filet of sole with caper sauce and new potatoes with green beans. Another bonus was a selection of French wines from just across the Channel.

Both breakfast and dinner are served in Tylney Hall’s Oak Room restaurant © Laurel Kallenbach

The Oak Room’s menu emphasizes local fare, which was at its best on the cheese board that I chose for dessert. I selected a brie, a blue, a cow’s-milk cheddar, and goat cheeses—all from no more than 50 miles away.

Posh, Yet Green

Owned by Elite Hotels, Tylney Hall incorporates a number of sustainability efforts into its operation to ensure that this historic mansion will save this piece of the environment for centuries to come.

In summer, you can play croquet on the Tylney Hall Hotel lawn. © Laurel Kallenbach

  • Recycles glass, paper, batteries, light bulbs
  • Composts food waste
  • Encourages towel and sheet reuse in all guestrooms to save on laundry water.
  • Is investigating the conversion of cooking oil into bio-diesel (to run estate machinery and company cars).
  • Purchases sustainably grown food and locally produced consumables, including Fair Trade beverages.
  • Maintains a zero landfill-waste strategy.
  • Minimizes electricity and heating to unoccupied floors and wings during periods of low occupancy.

England’s Tylney Hall Hotel offers everything a Downton Abbey fan like me could ask for: a luxurious historic house, acres of lush woodlands to explore, and eco-sensibility. Now that’s style of the Downton Abbey kind.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more Downton Abbey posts:

I loved our stay at Tylney Hall Hotel. Our room was in the center above the right arch. © Laurel Kallenbach

Cottages in the Cotswolds

Thatched cottage in Old Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire Cotswolds © Laurel Kallenbach

Thatched cottage in Old Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire Cotswolds © Laurel Kallenbach

As it snows outdoors, I’m reminiscing about sweet, sunny August in western Oxfordshire.

The beautiful old cottages in this part of England’s Cotswolds are lovely beyond belief. A stroll through its villages takes you back in time to the 11th and 12th centuries.

I love half-timbered houses—especially when they have rose trellises. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I love half-timbered houses—especially when they have rose trellises. ©Laurel Kallenbach

My favorite for cottage-spotting in this area is Old Minster Lovell, a picturesque, one-road village along the River Windrush. (Could there be a more poetic name for a river?)

Half-timbers and thatched roofs greet you as soon as soon as you cross the one-way bridge. My husband and I found a parking space near the parish church on a sunny day and walked down the lane snapping photos of hollyhocks and roses.

We put in our name for a lunch reservation at the Old Swan Inn. With an hour to explore before we ate, we walked the footpath up to Minster Lovell Hall, a ruined, 15th-century manor house that’s right by the river.

Remnants of towers and arched windows made a pretty setting amid the lush grasses and trees. On this Sunday afternoon, families with young children picnicked on the lawns among the ruins.

Sunday at Minster Lovell Hall ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sunday at Minster Lovell Hall ©Laurel Kallenbach

Teens kicked soccer balls to one another. I just couldn’t imagine a better place for relaxing and drinking in the beauty of the Oxfordshire countryside.

After our exploration, we enjoyed a lunch of potato-leek soup and delicious goat-cheese salads. The Old Swan has been around for more than 500 years, but this gastro-pub has a 21st-century kitchen that serves seasonal, local ingredients creatively combined for full flavor.

We ate lunch in the Old Swan Inn, more than 500 years old. © Laurel Kallenbach

We ate lunch in the Old Swan Inn, more than 500 years old. © Laurel Kallenbach

The pub’s interior was as charming as its ivy-covered stone exterior: its Old-World half-timbers, cockeyed windows, and stone walls made me feel every century of its heritage.

Though the meal was fantastic, what I will always remember about Old Minster Lovell is its cottages—and dreaming of what it would be like to live in one of them.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about English villages:

A hollyhock in Old Minster Lovell, England. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A hollyhock in Old Minster Lovell, England. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sweet Dreams at “Downton Abbey”

Highclere Castle is the film location for the "Downton Abbey" television series. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Highclere Castle is the film location for the “Downton Abbey” television series. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If, like me, you’re addicted to British costume drama Downton Abbey, why moon around watching past episodes? Just go for a visit and live it for real! You can see Highclere Castle’s gorgeous rooms and experience its real-life history through the eyes of your favorite TV character. You can’t help but visualize Mr. Carson presiding over the dining room or Cora Grantham having tea in the library when you’re there.

(You can also live vicariously by reading about my own personal Downton Abbey pilgrimage a couple of years ago.)

If you really want an immersion into the estate where the Downton Abbey TV series is filmed, you can now also spend the night on the property—not at the big house, but in London Lodge, accommodations built into the imposing arched entryway to Highclere Park.

London Lodge, on the Highclere estate, is built around a grand, arched entryway. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle.

London Lodge, on the Highclere estate, is built around a grand, arched entryway. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle.

London Lodge is decorated like a casual, contemporary cottage—with a sitting room, bedroom and full kitchen on one side of the archway, and the comfortable double bedroom, bathroom and dressing area on the other. London Lodge just opened in early 2015—and it’s already booked for the year!

Simply elegant, a stay at London Lodge offers a chance to stay on the Highclere grounds where there are acres of forests to ramble and lovely, expansive views of the castle from a distance. Guests can meander to Dunsmere Lake, The Temple of Diana, and tour the house and King Tut exhibit (ticket required).

Built in 1793 by the first Earl of Carnarvon, the London Lodge arch is made with Coade stone with heavy iron gates, and it frames the grand entrance used by family and visitors Highclere Castlle. The individual lodge rooms to either side were added later, probably around 1840. Over the past two years they’ve been restored by the current earl and his wife to provide unique and luxurious accommodation for two.

I haven’t been to London Lodge, but it sounds just smashing!

Written by the Countess Carnarvon, "Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Read Downton Abbey" chronicles the history of Highclere Castle during the 1920s and '30s.

Written by the Countess Carnarvon, “Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Read Downton Abbey” chronicles the history of Highclere Castle during the 1920s and ’30s.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S.: If you can’t get reservations at London Lodge, you might enjoy Highclere’s 20th-century history in the books written by the Countess Carnarvon: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey.

The second book tells the story of one of Highclere Castle’s more famous inhabitants, Catherine Wendell, a glamorous American woman who married Lady Almina’s son, the 6th Earl of Carnarvon. Catherine presided over the grand estate during the tumultuous 1920s and ’30s, a period when many of England’s great houses faded as their owners’ fortunes declined. As WWII loomed, Highclere’s survival as the family home of the Carnarvons was in the balance.

Read more of my Downton Abbey posts:

A Welsh Castle Ghost Story

In 2007, Ken and I spent two nights at the haunted Gwydir Castle in the foothills of Snowdonia, North Wales. Even though the place is called a castle, the Tudor-era structure feels more like a manor house or mansion than the towering medieval fortress ruins that dot the region.

Gwydir Castle in north Wales is a lovely bed and breakfast—and home to several ghosts.

(If you’re a castle lover, northern Wales is your dream destination.) Gwydir is a private home, a museum, and a bed-and-breakfast (with two rooms)—all historically decorated in antiques.

Yet, this charming Tudor “castle” has a ruined past. Built around 1500, it was the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family, descended from the Kings and Princes of Gwynedd. It was rat-infested, crumbling and damp—and being used as a night club when Judy Corbett and her husband-to-be Peter Welford bought it in 1994.

There are 10 acres of gardens at the historic Gwydir Castle. Peacocks roam the grounds. At night, their haunting cries seem to call "help, help!"

(For a vividly written account of Judy and Peter’s process of bringing Gwydir Castle back to life, read Judy’s memoir, Castles in the Air.)

The couple had little money but a passion for history, so they spent years living in a construction zone doing much of the painstaking historical restoration themselves. In the process, they encountered a number of ghosts with hundreds of years worth of sitings.

Meet the Ghosts

There’s a female spirit who is reportedly a victim of her lover, one of the Wynn baronets, who stuffed her body behind the wall in a passageway—or possibly in a secret enclosure within the wall called a Priest’s Hole. (A Priest’s Hole was a hiding place for Roman Catholic priests during the turbulent Tudor years when Britain’s “official” religion vascillated between Protestantism and Catholicism, depending on the monarch.)

This behind-the-wall Priest's Hole was possibly the hiding place of a murdered mistress in the 1600s.

Many people report a foul smell in one of the house passageways—the centuries-old stench of the woman’s corpse. Ken and I smelled nothing, but the passageway certainly feels colder than the rest of the house.

There’s also a ghost of Sir John Wynn—possibly the murderer—who is often seen on the spiral staircase. Gwydir even has a ghost dog, a large one. Judy and Peter actually dug up the skeleton of a large dog years ago in the basement.

Ken and I didn’t do any actual “ghost hunting” at night. Instead, we slept cozily in our four-poster canopy bed in the Duke of Beaufort’s Chamber, a lovely large room furnished with antiques and a private bath in the hall.

Our castle room: The Duke of Beaufort's Chamber

Except for the bedrooms, the castle does not use electricity (to keep it authentic). And, at night, the alarm system is activated, so one doesn’t want to creep about and wake the whole house. Besides, why would ghosts appear only at night?

The closest I came to an apparition was when the castle’s two large lurchers (a British breed of dog I’d never heard of before) bounded through the breakfast room. A moment later, a third dog nosed through the breakfast room door and streaked across the room. But, there were only two dogs that I knew of! Could the third have been the ghost dog wanting to join the living pair in play?

Malevolent Lady Margaret

The wisteria-surrounded doorway into the B&B section of Gwydir Castle

There is (or at least was) one sinister spirit at Gwydir Castle, a woman who haunted Judy for months early during the renovation. Lady Margaret followed Judy everywhere and triggered a series of “accidents” apparently intended to harm Peter.

Fortunately, Lady Margaret Cave—whose good nature darkened radically after the birth of her son in the early 1600s—has not appeared since. She was married to the philanderer Sir John Wynn, so perhaps being married to him sent her into an eternal rage against the man of the house.

Dream Come True: Sleeping in a Castle

There’s nothing nightmarish about staying at Gwydir. In fact, spending two days among its archways, mullioned and wisteria-covered windows, and Tudor-style beams was a dream come true. It’s a little like sleeping in a museum—a fantasy of mine since I was 10 and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

The dining room is lavishly restored with its original wood panels, which were spirited off to America by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s.

The castle dining room has a story so long and fascinating I can’t even go into it here. Suffice it to say that its glorious Tudor panels were bought by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades. Now they’re magnificently back in the castle.

Gwydir Castle is three miles from the resort town of Betws-y-Coed and 12 miles from the medieval walled town of Conwy, so it’s a great B&B to stay at while exploring the North Wales castles. It’s also within walking distance of the market town of Llanrwst, which has train and bus connections plus several good restaurants and pubs.

Gwydir Castle is open to the public (admission fee) March through October. Check for times.

P.S. I highly recommend Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air: The Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion (Random House, UK, 2004). I bought a copy while staying at the castle, and I read it on train rides across Wales and on the plane home.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Spooky Postscript

In gathering photos for this blog entry, I noticed that a number of them have round, ghostly patches of light. At first I thought they were shiny flash spots or reflections, yet most of them are against backgrounds with no reflective surfaces. Then I thought they might be dust motes or raindrops on the camera lens.

But they appear in indoor photos and those taken on sunny days. Could they be blobs of ectoplasm? Were Gwydir’s spirits dancing around us?

You decide. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Here I am in the lovely breakfast room. Note the halo around the unlit candlestick behind me. For comparison, the candle on the table is lit—and has a simple glow. Methinks there's a spirit lurking.

Gwydir Gate, with some white, round lights. Are they ghost entities or merely raindrops on the camera lens?