The real ‘upstairs downstairs’

Elizabeth Yu / 18 March 2016

Discover what life really was like for the people who lived 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' at Blenheim Palace and other grand British houses.



Thanks to our love of a good period drama, our obsession with life ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ remains unabated. So if you’re having withdrawal symptoms from Downton Abbey, you’ll be delighted to hear about three new fascinating ‘upstairs downstairs’ tours at Blenheim Palace.

One of Britain’s finest stately homes, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire simply oozes grandeur. And this year you can find out more about life for those who lived ‘downstairs’ and for the privileged aristocrats and guests who lived ‘upstairs’.

Visitors to Blenheim Palace will have the opportunity to explore never-been-seen-before rooms and see the private bedrooms where the Marlborough family have lived and been served for centuries.

Upstairs Tour

Secret corridors, interlinking doors, spiral staircases and guest rooms that housed notable and notorious guests… the Upstairs Tour gives visitors an exclusive glimpse of ‘upstairs’ life.

Visit the palace’s Guest Rooms where guests such as Sir Winston Churchill, Queen Mary, and King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson stayed. These rooms have never been on public display before and so this tour is a rare chance to view them.

You can also see servants’ rooms such as the Linen room and the Tweenies’ room (a Tweenie is a ‘between maid’ who worked between or across general kitchen and house duties) along with family rooms such as the Blandford Bedroom, the Sunderland Dressing Room and Batchelors’ Row.

The tour also takes a look at the challenges of living in the ancient baroque palace, and how the Marlborough family has modernised Blenheim throughout the centuries. The severe lack of bathrooms proved troublesome for Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American first wife of the 9th Duke, who was not accustomed to hip baths and chamber pots!

Downstairs Tour

Blenheim’s ‘Downstairs’ tour gives an in-depth and fascinating insight into the running of this great house past and present; from servants’ duties to the seamless running of the family side of the Palace.

Wander around the labyrinth of corridors to see the bell system and visit rooms including the China Room, the Flower Room, Staff Room, Kitchen and Pantry. You can also see the Undercroft that includes the wine cellars and the Log Hole.

Hear about the gossip and perks of the job from the staff’s point of view, and learn about the hierarchy of staff, uniform and wages at Blenheim.

Private Apartment Tour

Discover how family life has changed over the centuries with this guided tour that takes you to the opulence of the Marlborough family’s private apartments. The Duke of Marlborough’s Dress Room and Master Bedroom has not been on public display for over 11 years but this tour gives you access.

There is also the beauty of the private Dining Room, Sitting Room and Smoking room to admire.  And a limited number of the daily tours also extend into the Grand Cabinet, a room which contains fascinating antiques, artefacts and art.  

www.blenheimpalace.com/attractions-and-events

More upstairs/downstairs tours

If you don’t live within visiting distance of Blenheim, don’t worry. Plenty of other great houses offer similar experiences. Try these:

Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) in Berkshire

Highclere Castle is the stately home that was used as the setting for Downton Abbey. Walk in the footsteps of the Earl of Grantham, Carson the Butler and all your favourite characters. Savour the house and grounds which will be incredibly familiar if you’ve been a Downton devotee.

For an experience of ‘upstairs’ life at Highclere, you can explore some of the 12 bedrooms off the first floor gallery, while ‘downstairs’ takes you the old staff dining rooms, the cellars, sitting rooms, utility areas and kitchens.

www.highclerecastle.co.uk/upstairs-downstairs

Shugborough in Staffordshire

Situated in a river valley in the heart of Staffordshire, Shugborough is the UK’s only Complete Working Historic Estate. It was also the seat of the Earls of Litchfield.

There are several tours at Shugborough that will give you a taste of life upstairs and downstairs.

Join the formidable housekeeper Mrs Bonham for a tour of the Servants’ Quarters and she will tell you about her role and life in 1871. Or under the watchful eye of two of Shugborough’s servants visit the state rooms in the mansion house and tour the working kitchen, brewhouse and servant’s hall. Enjoy the servant’s gossip and tales of hard work.

www.shugborough.org.uk/educationandgroupvisits/GroupVisitsEveningVisits.aspx

Weston Park in Shropshire

Set in 1,000 acres of Capability Brown landscaped grounds, Weston Park is a remarkable house with its classical architecture. The house was the beloved seat of the Earls of Bradford since the 17th century and gifted to the nation by the 7th and present Earl.

On their ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ tour, learn more about the Victorian 3rd Earl and his busy household. Explore hidden corridors and go up staircases not usually seen by the public. Wander around the Servants Hall, Stewards Room, Middle Drawing Room, Boudoir, Family Staircase and some of the 28 bedrooms.

www.weston-park.com/

Audley End House and Gardens in Essex

Explore life above and below stairs at decadent Audley End House and Gardens, once one of the largest and most opulent houses in Jacobean England.

For a taste of upstairs life, wander around its impressive great hall, magnificent state apartments, intimate dressing rooms, libraries and 18th century gothic-style chapel.

And discover what life below stairs was like by meeting the Victorian staff in the stables, service wing, nursery and coal gallery.

www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/audley-end-house-and-gardens/things-to-do

The Upstairs, Downstairs and Private Apartment tours are bookable via the Welcome Centre and in the Palace. www.blenheimpalace.com

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