When Downton Abbey finally ended after six glorious seasons, I don’t think I was alone in feeling an acute sense of loss. Even my husband was maudlin for about three days after the finale.
On the whole, it was a satisfying ending, where all the storylines—both upstairs and down—were tied up neatly. Even poor Lady Edith found happiness, at last, with her Bertie.
But what became of Downton Abbey? What became of the house itself?
Much of the filming was shot at Highclere Castle in North Hampshire. Highclere’s origins can be traced back to an Anglo-Saxon charter dated in 749 AD. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Highclere grew into a medieval palace, before morphing into a red-brick Tudor house, followed by some major rebuilding in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As the decades passed and architectural styles evolved, the soul of the house evolved, too.
Charles Ryder, in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited says, he “loved buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each generation.” I would add that just as modern day technologies leave imprints on the ether, so do emotions release energies that are absorbed into the very walls and fabrics of a house or place.
This is why I find these beautiful old homes and their stories of love, ambition, greed, betrayal and sometimes murder—utterly fascinating. No house, hall, abbey, or castle that has stood for centuries can fail to have some kind of scandalous past.
But not that long ago, it was very different.
It’s a tragic fact that since 1945, nearly 2,000 distinguished country houses have been demolished, destroyed, or today, stand in ruins. In 1955, it was recorded that a staggering 1,000 houses alone were pulled down. Their destruction has been compared to the shocking dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century under the reign of King Henry VIII.
The First World War wiped out an entire generation of young men. This was followed by the Great Depression, mass unemployment, a rise in the middle classes, a reduction in domestic service, and women getting the vote—an endless list of social and economic change. And yet, it was the Second World War that marked the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of the Country House (1850-1939) captured in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, E.M. Forster and W. Somerset Maugham.
Although few country estates were destroyed as a direct result of enemy action, countless stately homes were requisitioned by the government or lent by owners for use as barracks, military command centers, and listening and monitory centers. They were used to house the nation’s art collections—keeping them out of range of the German bombers—and to provide homes for evacuees, schools and hospitals. Some were even used as prisoner of war camps.
After 1945, many stately homes never recovered. Horror stories abound of staircases being chopped up for firewood, paintings and paneling used as dart boards, jeeps and armored vehicles driven into lakes and up staircases, statues beheaded—the list is distressing.
Fire was a particular hazard because everyone smoked. Dozens of buildings were burned to the ground. Without proper maintenance, pipes burst, ceilings collapsed and dry rot rampaged everywhere.
It wasn’t just war damage however. Wentworth Woodhouse had its estate grounds opencast-mined, while others were sold off to pay the crippling inheritance tax laws. Many houses were just too big and too expensive to be maintained. Many interiors were dismantled and sold off. American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s estate still has warehouses full of antiquities bought from such sales.
It wasn’t until 1968, when the Town and Country Planning Act was passed, that English country houses began to be saved and there was a passionate revival in preserving our British heritage. This is supported by numerous societies—the National Trust, Historic Houses Associations and The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to name just a few. Today, it is legally impossible to demolish a country house of any significance.
The Downton Abbey TV series spans the years from 1912 to 1925. It started with the sinking of the Titanic, covered the First World War, and then scratched the surface of social and economic change that would eventually lead to the end of upstairs/downstairs life in England. But, with even bigger obstacles on the horizon, 1925 was a “Happy Ever After” place to leave the Crawleys and their entourage. Who wants to see the dowager countess on her deathbed? Certainly not me!
So what did happen to Downton Abbey?
I like to imagine that Lady Mary and her ancestors would have protected it fiercely; that—like Highclere Castle—it is finally turning a hefty profit in the twenty-first century, and will stand for another thousand years.
As you can probably guess, I am passionate about English country estates and their histories, and that’s why I created the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries about a fictional 600-year-old house and its inhabitants—both living and dead. Luckily, the future of Honeychurch Hall is in my hands…at least, for now!
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Hannah Dennison began her writing career as a trainee reporter for a small West Country newspaper in Devon, England. Hannah is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, the Willamette Writers, British Crime Writers' Association and Toastmasters International. Hannah Dennison is an especially big hit with librarians. Coincidentally her mother is a docent at Greenway, Agatha Christie's summer home, which has been turned into a museum.