The life of a British lord is enviable. There is, for starters, the real estate – vast swathes of countryside dotted with enormous mansions. There are also the old Aston Martins and Caterhams and the aged scotch that provides a bit of punctuation at the end of a long day of tweedy privilege. It's as enviable as it is unattainable, but a few programs are now giving foreigners a taste of that Masterpiece Theater-style opulence, allowing crass Americans onto jolly old Englands finest private estates.
The Corinthia Hotel London is leading the pack with its country day packages at Petworth Estate. The 14,000-acres of woods, rolling hills, and green fields in West Sussex is owned by the National Trust but still occupied by Lord and Lady Egremont. A car and driver whisk bleary-eyed visitors from the hotel to a rustic cottage containing a table lavishly set with breakfast – fruit, porridge, meats, and pastries – prepared by the hotel's executive chef, Garry Hollihead. He and Petworth Head Keeper David Whitby then offer a variety of activities, customized (within reason) to your tastes, from simulated game drives to fishing for brown and rainbow trout in one of the property's eight ponds or River Rother. Fishing includes lessons if necessary and the solicitous services of ghillies, who are basically caddies for casters.
The average day on the Petworth Estate proceeds something like this: Post-breakfast, travel by Land Rover or horse and carriage to a pond and find a comfy spot on the bank from which to cast; after a few hours, ride back to the cottage for elevensies, a sort of bacon-heavy second breakfast; after that, take a brisk walk across rolling green fields to Petworth House, to look at a gallery of paintings by Turner, Van Dyck, Reynolds and Blak then enjoy a picnic (ask for the venison) and some more fishing. It's enough to make Bertie Wooster swoon.
Running an estate like Petworth isn't cheap, and neither is pretending that you do: A country day experience starts at 3,600 pounds per couple, but that includes two nights at the Corinthia and everything from your first cup of coffee through the last scone and glass of wine, as well as rods, reels and all other sorts of equipment.
If you prefer a smaller taste of estate life, dozens of historic homes throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland open their doors to the public for free on Heritage Open Days, held by the Historic Houses Association. Stroll regally through rooms dripping with paintings and tapestries and furnished with antiques, any one of which is worth more than your entire 401(k), and wander gardens and lawns right out of Downtown Abbey. If you decide to take this approach, be sure to head for Highclere Castle, home of the 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his family's collection of Egyptian antiquities. It's hard to understand why the 5th Earl left home for the Valley of the Kings, but the decision can likely be chocked up to good old English eccentricity. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that.
More information: Petworth House is also open for public tours on Thursdays and Fridays, March through October, and there is public access to the 700-acre Park around it, plus a restaurant and a shop selling gifts, plants, and garden products.