Belfast Telegraph

What would it really be like to live in a house like Downton Abbey?

As the hit ITV series, Downton Abbey, charting the lives of the aristocratic Crawleys continues, Kerry McKittrick and Laura McGarrity talk to four owners of grand houses here about what it’s like to be to the manor born.

Since last September Downton Abbey-fever has swept through living rooms, attracting audiences of up to 11m. The much-anticipated second series seems to be living up to the drama and aesthetics of its predecessor.

Now we see the aristocratic Crawleys coming to terms with war as the Battle of the Somme rages across the Channel.

Like previous classics such as Brideshead Revisited, Upstairs Downstairs, Little Dorrit, Tudors it seems we just can't get enough of the drama, class divides, costumes and romance that period dramas offer.

The escapism and excess of costume dramas can also be somewhat of an antidote to the economic dreariness of the austere Noughties, leading us to ask ‘What would it be really like to live in a house like Downton Abbey?'

Yet there are a select few who do, in fact, live in palatial manors with tens of bedrooms, servants quarters and a stable or two thrown in.

We spoke to local gentry see if they live like a Crawley. Is it all glamour or do the challenges of maintaining these expensive and often crumbling estates outweigh the positives?

Marion Russell (42) is a property developer and lives in Mourne Park near Kilkeel, Co Down, with her husband Alan and their children Ellie (3) and Annabel (19 months). She says:

I've lived in this house for my whole life — my siblings and I inherited it from my father in 2001 and my husband and I took it over.

The earliest parts of it date back to the 1550s and it's been in my family for generations. The house for us is a home — we don't use it as a venue for conferences or weddings or anything like that.

In saying that, over the years we've done extensive renovations to it and the upkeep has almost turned into a full-time job in itself.

No servants — just a lot of very hard workcontinued from Page 23Although the house has 17 bedrooms, we use as much of it as we can. We're only a family of four, but we have a live-in manager and a lot of the buildings in the estate are also rented out. It's important to us that all of the property is used — not least because unoccupied buildings can go downhill very quickly.

These days everyone who works on the estate eats lunch in the kitchen and I do the cooking. Even when I have friends over for dinner, we still eat in the kitchen. Bringing a heavy tray of glasses up to the first floor dining room can be a bit perilous.

The days of dressing for dinner and separation between the owners and servants have long since gone. They haven't really been around since my grandparents’ day.

Living in a house this size of course has its good points and bad points. The space is a real privilege, but it can make you a little eccentric too.

We have a rule that no matter what is going on, we sit together for dinner to have some family time. We still live as a family, we just live in a different way. When I'm cooking, my daughter will be watching TV and I keep checking on her — the TV room is upstairs though, so you can get quite fit running up and down.

The house is actually up for sale. We felt that the property was ripe for development into a hotel or a conference venue. Unfortunately the recession hit so it's been for sale for a few years now. I'm not worried about us moving to a normal-sized house. We rented one in Majorca a few years ago. If something went wrong, it was someone else's problem and one phone call later it was fixed.

Saying that, there's definitely a community feel about this house — the family and staff have been here for years and we've become a team.”

‘Growing up here we were taught how everyone is equal’

Sammy Leslie (45), owner of Castle Leslie Estate in Co Monaghan. Sammy lives there with her uncle John Leslie (95). She says:

The estate came into our family in 1664 when Bishop Leslie was granted £2,000 by the British Government for his services in battle. My family have lived here ever since.

I took over the estate in 1991 when my parents passed away. I initially offered two rooms for people to come stay in and I was working by myself.

Now we have 20 rooms in the castle as well as lodges, cottages and stables on offer as accommodation, along with a cookery school, an equestrian centre and an organic spa. We now employ around 150 people.

When I was younger the castle really was crumbling around us, but now it is restored and there’s a real buzz about the place.

My brothers and sisters have different jobs and live all over the world, but as far back as I can remember I always wanted to restore the castle. It was built for entertainment and so I suppose I wanted to keep up the tradition.

All the money made from people coming to stay goes back into the restoration and protecting the heritage of the castle.

I don't think my life now is like how they live in Downton Abbey at all, I work constantly, which would have been unheard of for women in the early 19th century. Just a generation ago my mum's role was to look beautiful and produce offspring, it's great the freedom and opportunities women have now.

I recently went through treatment for breast cancer, but I worked throughout because I love my job and running the estate.

One of the reasons I love Downton Abbey is because it shows the closeness there is between the staff and residents of large estates.

Growing up in the castle we sat around the kitchen table with visitors and staff.

We were taught how everyone is equal and there was such great affection and loyalty between my family and our staff.

Our housekeeper Bridget Curry, or ‘our guardian angel' as we called her, joined us in 1936. Mrs Curry is an amazing woman and will always be looked after by the estate.

Watching Downton Abbey, it’s funny because there's actually a lot of similarities with my own family and the Crawleys.

Like Cora, my grandmother Marjorie Clay-Ike was American and brought a lot of liberalism and an open-mindedness to the household.

At one point my grandmother was actually invited to go stay in Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is set, but sadly couldn't attend.

Over the years we have had loads of famous people stay with us — we even hosted Paul McCartney's wedding to Heather Mills, but the reason so many famous people stay here is because we don't like to share their secrets.”

‘Once home to landed gentry, but it became a B&B through the years’

Alan Gamble (59) lives in Mount Pleasant with his wife Margaret. They have two sons, Christopher (31), and Matthew (24). Alan says:

We bought the house in 2002 because we had always wanted a property that would present us with a challenge. We weren't looking for a total wreck but a property that we could do something to.

It was built around 1760 by a linen baron and has had a few different guises. It once belonged to a brother of the Duke of Wellington and some of the buildings were at one point used as a bleach factory. It features seven bedrooms and stables as well as other original outbuildings and a clock-tower.

We did refurbish the house — we created a gym and snooker room in the basement — but left a lot of the original features where they were.

We live at the back of the house. The main building is used as a B&B, as it was when we first bought the house, and I use one of the outbuildings as offices for my building business.

It's just the two of us who look after the house. We used to have someone come in once a month but we can't really cover the cost of that any more as the B&B side of things has been very quiet.

There used to be a very big linen industry around here and when that closed many people emigrated. A month ago a woman came to the house. She was trying to trace a bit of family history and all she had to go on was a brass plaque from her great grandfather's desk.

It said Mount Pleasant, Co Down, Ireland. I took her out to the building where the bleach factory used to be. The family had written their names in the plaster so she could see everyone right there.

When we bought the house our boys were still in school but now we're approaching retirement and want to relax and downsize.”

‘I spend a lot of my time up ladders fixing things’

Donkey work: Larchfield Estate and (below) Gavin and Sarah MackieGavin (38), and Sarah Mackie, (36), share the Larchfield Estate in Hillsborough with their 20-month-old baby Sasha. The grand house was built in 1750 by the Mussenden family. Gavin says:

My dad bought the estate in 1968 from the Ogilvie Graham family, and it was previously owned by the Mussendens.

And just over four years ago my wife, Sarah, and I moved back to Northern Ireland from Edinburgh to run the estate.

Running a 600-acre estate is a huge undertaking but we had spent the previous two years working out a plan which would make the estate pay.

We diversified the estate into wedding and corporate entertaining — thankfully it has been very successful.

The house was built in 1750 then remodelled in a Georgian style in the 1850s by George Lanyon, with a large Victorian wing added on in 1870.

We had to modernise the house when we moved in. We have tried to make the rooms as usable as possible and use them as much as we can.

We keep the house private for ourselves, we don’t use it for weddings, which take place elsewhere on the estate.

Living here is work 24/7. We have someone to help with childcare and she helps clean when Sasha is asleep, but we are all very much hands on here. We don’t have the 20 staff that would have been here previously, and I do spend a lot of my time up ladders fixing things.

It is a great life, though, and the pros outweigh the cons.”

Interview by Helen Carson

Why Downton’s a real winner

  • The final episode of Downton Abbey series one attracted 11m viewers.
  • Local costume designer |Christine McCall won an Emmy in September for Costume Design for the first series.
  • The ITV series won a further four Emmys for Best Directing, Best Mini-series, Best Drama and Best Supporting Actress.
  • It also won two BAFTA Craft Awards in 2010 for Best Fiction Director and Sounds and was nominated for two BAFTAs for Best Actor and Audience Award.

... and, do you remember

  • The 1980s ITV Brideshead Revisited series was an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel.
  • Upstairs Downstairs, the 1970s drama of staff and masters, reappeared on our screens in 2010 for a three-night special.
  • Tudors, the BBC’s raunchy depiction of the life of Henry VIII starred Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
  • Pride and Prejudice, ITV’s series staring Colin Firth, sparked the film adaptation of Austin’s period romance in 2005.

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