Downtown Downton, London’s Great Houses
Want to visit Downton Abbey on a quick trip to London? It’s not hard.
Okay, Highclere Castle — the “real” Downton — is a bit far outside the city, but there are plenty of Downton-esque houses in or near central London.
The queen of London’s great houses is undoubtedly Buckingham Palace. After all, this is home to Britain’s royal family, vastly outranking fictitious Earls and Countesses of Grantham. Buckingham Palace is open to the public during much of the summer when Queen Elizabeth II is away on holiday, and there are occasional openings at other times. Schedules for the opening of Buckingham Palace are posted on the Royal Collection website. The website also includes information on visiting London’s Clarence House — current residence of Prince Charles.
Buckingham Palace © VisitLondon
To see where the younger generation of Royals lives, visit Kensington Palace. A handful of Kensington’s official rooms are open year-round. You’re unlikely to see William, Kate, or the royal baby(s) at Kensington since their private apartments are not on the tour. A visit to Kensington Palace currently includes Fashion Rules, a display of dresses worn by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Kensington Palace © David Stewart White
Not all Downtown Downton tour stops are grand royal palaces. Victorian artist Frederic Leighton built a combination studio and home in the leafy Holland Park neighborhood just west of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Leighton’s masterpiece has been called a private palace of art, with intricate Middle Eastern mosaics and a gold-domed Arab Hall. Leighton built a huge, airy, and light-filled studio as part of his palace. Despite its size, Leighton House has only one bedroom, where the artist lived alone.
Leighton House © David Stewart White
Kenwood is a London great house instantly familiar to fans of the 1999 romance film Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Kenwood House sits at the top of rolling Hampstead Heath, just north of downtown London. In the film, Kenwood was the movie set-within-a-set used by Roberts’ character in a film based upon the writings of Henry James. Kenwood reprised its film presence in the 2014 movie Belle based upon the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race illegitimate daughter of a British admiral. Belle lived at Kenwood in the late 1700s.
Kenwood House © David Stewart White
Kenwood has recently been refurbished by English Heritage and is open to the public. The house displays a stellar art collection and period furnishings. The views from hilltop Kenwood are reason enough to visit this majestic villa. During the summer months there are concerts on the grounds and the area is a favorite for Londoners escaping the city to bucolic Hampstead Heath.
Kenwood House Library © David Stewart White
Apsley House sits adjacent to Marble Arch at one of downtown London’s busiest corners. Despite the distinctly urban setting, it’s easy to escape the city once inside this historic house. Maintained by English Heritage, Apsley’s dazzling interiors are magnificent examples of the Regency style, furnished with over-the-top art and a 1,000-piece Portuguese silver service presented to the Duke of Wellington to commemorate his victories over Napoleon. Apsley’s Waterloo Gallery was the setting for Wellington’s annual Waterloo Dinners — attended by survivors of the Battle and Royal guests.
Apsley House has an interesting American connection. During her first visit to London in 1816, Marianne Caton Patterson (granddaughter of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll) met the Duke of Wellington. Both were already married, but they “took a fancy” to one another. After her husband died, Marianne married the Duke’s older brother who was 30 years her senior. Popular speculation of the time was that the marriage allowed Marianne Caton to maintain a close relationship with the Duke. Marianne’s story is part of the 2011 historical biography Sisters of Fortune by Jehanne Wake.
Apsley House © Visit London