90 minutes from Waterloo Station to Salisbury
Wind along the sweeping drive toward Highclere Castle—the setting for Downton Abbey, the Emmy Award-winning period drama of upstairs-downstairs life at an English mansion, now filming its third season—and the world of the Crawleys and their servants slowly emerges. The pinnacled Victorian pile, atop a thousand acres of parkland, is an evocative place to start exploring historical fantasies and realities: “Let the building show you the way,” says current chatelaine Lady Carnarvon.
Built on the site of a medieval banqueting hall, the castle lies near Newbury, 60 miles west of London. It offers panoramic views across the wooded slopes and rolling downlands of North Hampshire. With 250-year-old cedars, wildflowers, and sheep dotting the grounds, it’s no surprise that a patient recovering there during the First World War proclaimed it “a paradise I thought I had lost.” Now, as then, Highclere is a lively community, “laughing and sharing life together,” says Lady Carnarvon.
From Highclere, head southwest to Salisbury, the cathedral city immortalized in John Constable’s 19th-century landscape paintings. Salisbury’s medieval cathedral inspired the fictional Kingsbridge cathedral in Ken Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth. It holds the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta—the 1215 charter of citizens’ rights familiar to every civics student. Climb Britain’s tallest spire to see Salisbury’s water meadows; the ditches and sluices once used for irrigation are now populated by wading birds and turquoise damselflies. Near the cathedral, stallholders selling hog roasts, honey, olives, and English wines gather for the Charter Market, held twice weekly since the 13th century.
At St. Thomas’s Church, where the cathedral builders worshipped, look out for the giant “Doom” painting: “The alewife giving the devil a jug of ale was modeled on a local brothel keeper,” says Michael Bowyer, a Chelsea Flower Show gold medalist who designs the cathedral’s floral displays.
Follow up with cream teas and croquet at Mompesson House, where some scenes from Sense and Sensibility (starring Kate Winslet) were filmed.
A few miles away stands Stonehenge, the “heathen temple” of stone slabs on Salisbury Plain where Thomas Hardy’s tragic heroine Tess of the d’Urbervilles was arrested. Farther south, lose yourself in the depths of the New Forest, one of Britain’s newest national parks, just as Tess did in Hardy’s novel. With wild ponies, snug pubs, and fine weather, the park is walkers’ and cyclists’ heaven. Outfitter Cyclexperience has tandems for hire.
Bed down in Brockenhurst at the Pig, an ivy-clad country house hotel with log fires, reclaimed oak floors, and a walled garden that furnishes the kitchen with fruit, vegetables, and herbs. You can join the hotel’s wild-food forager, Garry Eveleigh, to find New Forest delicacies such as rose hips, hazelnuts, and mushrooms for the Pig’s menus. “Everyone who walks with me is blown away by the sheer beauty of the forest, the wildlife, and the food you can find. It’s a magical place,” says Eveleigh. His ingredient hunts take him as far as the south coast for seaweed and shellfish.
Pick up the trail to Tess’s final destination, Wintoncester—or Winchester, as it’s known in real life. Gastronauts regularly make the pilgrimage to eat at the Chesil Rectory, which serves up classics including Sunday roasts and gooseberry fool in Winchester’s oldest house. Michelin-starred modern British cooking, strong on local produce, awaits at the Black Rat. Ginger Two combines tea and cakes with quirky home accessories in its boutique/café.
The Hat Fair, Britain’s longest running street theater festival, takes place in Winchester in July. Acrobats, puppeteers, and fire performers breathe fresh life into the town’s narrow lanes.
Beneath the streets, in Winchester Cathedral’s crypt, Antony Gormley’s “Sound II” sculpture depicts a solitary figure, head bent, around which the waters that flood the space ebb and flow. A black tombstone marks Jane Austen’s grave inside the cathedral—“a building she admired so much,” according to her sister, Cassandra.
In the nearby village of Chawton, the redbrick cottage where Austen wrote Emma is now an intimate museum. Jane’s small wooden writing table still stands by the window, overlooking thatched cottages and fields little changed since her time.
Afterward, it’s ten miles on to Alresford (pronounced alls-ford). Here you can hop on the Watercress Line steam railway for the 40-minute ride to Alton and a connecting train to London. Actor Colin Firth is reported to have a home in Alresford, a riverside market town with brightly painted Georgian houses, antiques shops, historic inns, and even a duck pond. It’s every inch the bucolic England of Hollywood imagination.