Although Downton Abbey is filmed at Highclere Castle, way down south in Berkshire, with picturesque Bampton in Oxfordshire providing the village shots, the storylines were based around Ripon and Thirsk in North Yorkshire.
Crathorne Hall, just north of Thirsk near Yarm, is in some ways the “real” Downton Abbey. Built between 1903 and 1906, in North Yorkshire, the 115-room stately home was the largest country house constructed in Edwardian England. At times there were over one hundred craftsmen employed on the site: bricklayers were paid the generous sum of 10 old pence a day, comparing favourably with London rates. But stonemasons, able to spend some of the day indoors, received a penny less. The working day began at 6.30 am and ended at 6pm.
With 26 live-in staff including butler, scullery maids, still-room maid and odd-job man Crathorne represented the English Country House at its very best. Many rooms were devoted to specific purposes such as making biscuits, polishing the silver and ironing.
Time after time the house provided Downton-style plot-lines. With its new-fangled generator the house opened in a blaze of electrical glory celebrating second place in the Derby for the owner’s horse Picton. Echoing the Downtown episodes chronicling Matthew’s precarious war-time, young Tom Dugdale survived a remarkable 18 months in the trenches when life-expectancy was usually measured in just weeks.
One key difference was that Downton Abbey’s Crawleys were an established family in need of a fortune whilst the Dugdales had a fortune in need of a family name. It was rumoured that the Dugdales, who had made new money in the Lancashire cotton-trade, used Crathorne with its 15 acres of fishing and grouse-shooting for social climbing. It may have worked. Daughter Beryl married an Earl while Tom became a Cabinet Minister for Winston Churchill.
Crathorne Hall told the story of Britain in the Twentieth Century. In the First World War it was used as a hospital for wounded troops, in the Second World War its towering gates were donated to the war effort. Only after they had been melted down was it discovered that you couldn’t actually make bombers from iron.
Sat in the grandiose Leven Restaurant it’s easy to speculate that once upon a time a Prince or Princess may have looked out over those very same lawns. Prince Charles, with racing driver Graham Hill in tow, visited when it was a private house and Princess Anne stayed recently.
In true Downton style Mrs Davison was cook from 1910 to 1977 reputedly a dab hand at game dishes, home-made soups and cakes. Crathorne’s current chef, Alan Robinson, continues the tradition of high quality locally sourced produce: Yorkshire pigeon, Yorkshire asparagus, Doreen’s baked Black Pudding from Thirsk, Theakston’s Old Peculiar Ale infused cheese and herbs from the kitchen garden.
Crathorne continued to be a sampler of British History. The Queen Mother came for afternoon tea. Young James Dugdale brought some friends home from Cambridge University for a hilarious week: they included Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and John Cleese.
Finally, in 1977 the Crathorne family decided that the age of the English Country House as a family home was over and they sold the estate for use as a hotel. Yet the Crathorne family, who had hosted many events for the entire village over the last seven decades planned one last hurrah. They hosted a Grand Edwardian Ball. It was a farewell that Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes would have approved of.
Today Crathorne Hall, looking as good as it ever did, is in the loving care of Handpicked Hotels and provides an ideal base for walking on the North Yorkshire Moors, visiting the Whitby coastline and browsing amongst Yarm’s fascinating independent shops.
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Visit the Hotel’s website at https://www.handpickedhotels.co.uk/crathornehallLast modified: April 7, 2021