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The country houses of England are among its finest treasures. These top 10 are so wonderful they are worth a special trip.
Generations of families have maintained England's great country estates as storehouses of history, heritage, and culture, with magnificent grounds and parks, and fabulous art collections. Once the exclusive domain of rich landowners and aristocrats, today—whether owned and managed by the National Trust or in private hands, most are open to the public for at least part of the year.
If you are interested in history, art, interior decorating or landscape gardening you'll find them fascinating. And, if you are a fan of British drama—in film or on TV—you'll recognize many of your favorites here. They've starred in everything from period sagas and Jane Austen stories to Star Wars and James Bond thrillers.
Ever popular Chatsworth, in the Derbyshire Peak District, has been in the Cavendish family, the current Dukes of Devonshire, for more than 450 years. This is one stately home where there is no question that the contents outshine the 1,000-acre Capability Brown-landscaped park. A passion for art collecting, across five centuries, has resulted in one of Europe's finest private art collections. More than 4,000 years worth of art is represented—from classical sculptures to contemporary works.
Highlight: Don't miss the Lucian Freud paintings and Elisabeth Frink sculptures.
See more: Seven Best Things to See at Chatsworth
The only palace not in Royal hands in England, Blenheim Palace was a gift from Queen Anne to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough and ancestor of Winston Churchill—who was born there. The 18th-century house, built between 1705 and 1722, is set in a 2,100-acre park, designed by Capability Brown. Wander around the park and you might just spot the current Duke, who still occupies part of the house.
Highlight: Among the stunning rooms, the Long Library is a knockout.
With its Safari Park and other family attractions, there is so much going on at Longleat that it is easy to forget that this is one of the finest examples of high Elizabethan architecture in Britain. Finished in 1580, it is surrounded by landscaped parkland (by that omnipresent English landscape gardener Capability Brown), along with woods and farmland. It is currently the home of the 7th Marquess of Bath, a jolly and colorfully eccentric man who seems still to be living in the Age of Aquarius.
Highlight: Don't miss the lions.
Fans of both versions of Brideshead Revisited, the 1980 television classic and the 2008 film, will recognize the magnificent Yorkshire pile of Castle Howard. It was the backdrop used in filming the programs. Created as the home of the Dukes of Norfolk, it took more than 100 years to build and has been in the Howard family for more than 300 years. It is now held by a lesser but still aristocratic branch of the Howard family. The 10,000-acre estate includes several villages and farms as well as sculpture gardens, lakes, temples, and monuments.
Highlight: A full program of events, tastings, classes, and talks throughout the year.
Hatfield House, built in 1611, is considered one of England's best Jacobean houses. But the chief glory of this house on the northern edge of London is its history and in the remains of a 1485 Bishop's Palace, in the gardens. Here, Henry VIII housed his children, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward, when he seized the possessions of the Church. When her sister Mary was Queen, Elizabeth lived here under virtual house arrest. She was under a tree in the garden, in 1558, when she received news that Mary was dead and she was to be crowned Queen Elizabeth I.
Highlight: The red brick, Tudor Banqueting Hall in the Old Palace is where Elizabeth I held her first council of state. If you are keen to see it, check before you arrive because this building is sometimes used for filming and for events.
Bess of Hardwick married well and inherited even better. She became the second most powerful and wealthy woman in Elizabethan England, rivaling the Queen herself. Her home, Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, expresses that wealth and power, using so much glass—unusual in Tudor times—that the house is said to resemble a huge glass lantern. There are good collections of Elizabethan embroideries, furniture and paintings, and heritage breeds of cattle and sheep in the park.
Highlight: Little changed since it was built, the house offers a rare glimpse of Elizabethan courtly life.
A late 17th-century country mansion in the South Downs, in yet another Capability Brown landscape, Petworth also has a wonderful art collection—the largest in any house managed by the National Trust. There are works by Turner, Van Dyke, Reynolds, and Blake, as well as a carved room by English woodcarver Grinling Gibbons that is worth the price of admission alone. Lord and Lady Egremont, who live in the house, open additional rooms to the public on weekdays.
Highlight: If you are partial to copper kitchen utensils, the Victorian kitchen, with its 1,000-piece, polished copper batterie de cuisine is an absolute must.
Why on earth would anyone build a 16th-century French chateau in the Buckinghamshire countryside? Well, if you were a French billionaire Rothschild, why not? The 19th-century extravaganza of Waddesdon Manor is filled with museum quality Savonnerie carpets and Sèvres porcelain, paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds and 17th century Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, and a silver service made for George III. There is also a rococo aviary full of exotic birds and a wine cellar, naturellement.
Highlight: The full range of Rothschild wines is available in the shop. Special art exhibitions in the stables are often stunners.
Be still my heart. When Mr. Darcy (aka Colin Firth) emerged from a lake, soaked and sexy, in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, Lyme Park stood in for "Pemberley". This Tudor house in Cheshire converted into an 18th-century Italianate palazzo, has stunning gardens, tapestries, woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons, and a medieval deer park. The house is family-friendly too, with an adventure playground and a full schedule of events for children.
Highlight: Share Lizzie Bennet's view of "Pemberley" across the reflecting pool.
Set in a 1,000-acre medieval deer park, and designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, Knole is a Tudor house that has been in the Sackville family since 1566, when Elizabeth I gave it to her cousin, Thomas Sackville. The writer Vita Sackville-West was born here and her friend Virginia Woolf was said to have based her novel Orlando on the history of the Sackvilles in this house. Don't miss the amazing Jacobean staircase with its Sackville Leopards on the newel posts.
Highlights: A rare collection of Royal Stuart furniture and paintings by Gainsborough, Van Dyke and Reynolds. The beautiful, curious—but still wild—deer that watch you in the park.