IT's been dubbed the "Downton Effect". The lavish, period drama, now back on television screens for a third series, sparked a six per cent increase in visits to historic British houses and castles – a year-on-year rise since its first screening.
Now, with the promise of even more drama, romance and intrigue, the programme is set to draw more visitors to key, period destinations across Britain with those keen to get closer to Lady Mary or Mathew Crawley and a number of aristocrat-inspired activities.
Set on the fictional estate of Downton Abbey in North Yorkshire, the series follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants during the reign of King George V. The latest series is set during the early 1920s, as the world was about to enter a new decade of flapper dresses and dances imported from America, while in Britain there were strikes, poverty for the returning soldiers, and a recession as the UK tried to manage its debt.
Most of the outdoor shoots and indoor filming for this, and the previous series, take place at Highclere Castle (www.highclerecastle.co.uk) near Newbury in Hampshire, about a three-hour drive from Torquay. Often described as the finest occupied mansion in England, the castle has been the home of the Earls of Carnarvon for more than 300 years and sits in its own 1,000 acres of 18th century parkland making it well worth a day trip or reason enough to drive off the M5 if heading to or from London.
The castle was the seat of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. They also currently have a new Egyptian Exhibition in the cellars of the castle, to celebrate the 5th Earl's achievements. Admission to the castle costs £16 for adults and £9.50 for children.
If you want to make a weekend of it, you can stay in the same hotel as the Downton Abbey all-star cast at the Carnarvon Arms (www.thecarnarvonarmshotel.com) in Newbury where the likes of Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, Jim Carter and Elizabeth McGovern are said to stay while filming.
The Grade II former coach house of neighbouring Highclere Castle, the "Arms" has recently undergone restoration by celebrity chef and television personality, Marco Pierre White and his team. It is now promoted as a "luxury inn hideaway" on the doorstep of the Berkshire countryside. Rooms are sophisticated in decor and the restaurant boasts "fine" cuisine, making it perfect for a short break to explore Downton country. Rooms cost from £89 on a bed and breakfast basis.
If you want to make more than a day or short stay of Downton tracking, pay a visit to the picturesque Cotswolds village of Bampton, where the Downton characters come to post telegrams at the Post Office. Again, this pretty, picturesque village of thatch cottages sits about a three-hour drive from Torquay, in between Swindon and Oxford, or a 50 minute drive from Highclere Castle if you're doing the whole Downton loop.
Bampton is also rumoured to be the setting for the highly-anticipated wedding which will feature in the third series. Seek out the shingle-roofed Bampton Coffee House in Market Square (01993 850929) for a quintessentially English tea and scones experience or stop for a spot of lunch at the Vineyard at Stockcross (www.the-vineyard.co.uk), an elegant hotel with a great restaurant and an impressive wine cellar. Maggie Smith, Downton's resident Dame, is rumoured to have stayed here during filming.
While in the area, vintage fashionistas can nab Lady Mary's sultry siren look at one of BVintage Bazaar Vintage Fairs (www.bvintagebazaar.co.uk) in the nearby typically English town of Henley-on-Thames, run by Sadie Boon and Berni Bailes. To add to their quintessentially British accolade, the pair were chosen by Windsor Royal to host a two-day vintage market to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.
For those who favour vintage cars over vintage clothes, head to Beaulieu Motor Museum (www.beaulieu.co.uk) in the New Forest to drool over vehicles like the ones featured in Downton Abbey when Lady Cybill runs off with the chauffeur and Lady Edith learns to drive.
For avid fans eager to go out of their way or if you find yourself "up North" this year, head to Harewood House (www.harewood.org), just a few miles from Leeds. This 18th century stately home designed by Charles Barry, the same architect who designed Highclere Castle, has extensive servant quarters still fully intact where you can discover how the service staff lived and ensured that everything upstairs ran like clockwork. Above, you'll find decadent state rooms splashed with gold fixtures and sumptuous scarlet and duck-egg coloured walls. Admission costs £14 for adults or £7 for children.
Admirers of the gorgeous lacy gowns and elegant Edwardian furniture seen on screen shouldn't miss a chance to indulge in the Edwardian aesthetics in this part of the country, which is home to the V&A Museum (www.vam.ac.uk), Manchester Art Gallery (www.manchestergalleries.org) and Geffrye Museum (www.geffrye-museum.org.uk) which all house collections of costumes, décor and artefacts from the period.
To satiate the hankering for the Downton series, era and drama, you could also pay a visit to Brighton's Royal Pavilion (www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk/RoyalPavilion ) which, just like Downton Abbey, was used as a hospital during World War I, housing and recuperating troops from the Indian Corps wounded on the Western Front in France and Flanders.
Today, the pavilion houses a permanent exhibition containing paintings, archive photographs, contemporary accounts and film footage detailing a "remarkable and often forgotten" story. Admission costs £10 for adults and £5.70 for children.
Or there's the impressive, period estate that is Bovey Castle (www.boveycastle.com) for those who'd rather stay closer to home. Perfectly positioned in Dartmoor National Park, it makes for an ideal, local escape for an indulgent get-away in historical surroundings.
News that all Downton Fans will be happy to hear is, from next year, Brit Movie Tours (www.britmovietours.com) will be offering a new Downton Abbey Experience, allowing fans to experience life above and below stairs. These small group tours will take in all of the main locations featured in the show and give visitors the chance to experience aspects of Edwardian life in a Downton style setting.
Guests will get to hear anecdotes about the cast, filming and the production and also step back in time and live life as an Edwardian aristocrat. Tour costs £747 per person for a shared room and £897 per person for a single room.
So, if sitting on your sofa every Sunday to watch the weekly instalment of Downton Abbey simply isn't enough, there's a wealth of opportunity out there to fulfil your enthusiasm further and to forge your own path in the latest travel trend which has been dubbed "The Downton Effect".