For 'Downton' fans, trips to Nashville, Biltmore offer insight into upper-class life

Contributing Garden WriterJanuary 22, 2014 

When the fourth season of the period drama Downton Abbey premiered early this month on PBS stations, more than 10 million viewers tuned in to watch the splendid period drama set in early 20th-century England. Some upcoming regional events offer the chance to take a trek and discover more about the background and lifestyle Downton portrays.

Antiques & Garden Show of Nashville: Lady Fiona Carnarvon, the 8th Countess of Carnarvon and mistress of Highclere Castle, where Downton is filmed, will be the keynote speaker at the show, which runs Feb. 7-9.

Her presentation, at 11:30 a.m. Central time Feb. 7, begins Carnavon's American tour to introduce her most recent book, Lady Catherine, The Earl and the Real Downton Abbey (Crown, $15.99), which tells the true story of Catherine Wendell, who lived at Highclere from 1923 to 1945.

Carnavon will speak about the gardens and history of, and renovations to, the castle, which is the ancestral home of her husband, George Henry, the 8th Earl of Carnavon. A book signing will follow.

Advance tickets to the lecture are $50 and include admission to the entire three-day show at the Music City Center in downtown Nashville.

Tickets are available at Antiquesandgardenshow.com, which also includes a listing and information about the many other lecturers, interior and landscape designers and more than 150 extraordinary home and garden exhibitors and vendors.

The show, now in its 24th year, supports Cheekwood Botanical Garden in Nashville and other non-profit organizations. Nashville is about a 31/2-hour drive from Lexington.

Biltmore Estate's special winter tours: Downton fans have noted similarities with life at the historic Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., once home to the Vanderbilt family. Story lines and the era of the show overlap with the time when George and Edith Vanderbilt lived in the 250-room mansion. Parallels are brought to light in two specialty tours at the estate.

During the "Butler's Tour," visitors discover how Biltmore functioned and learn about the work of the Vanderbilts' domestic servants. The tour includes unrestored rooms and mechanical areas not open to the public on the regular house visit.

The "Vanderbilt Family and Friends Tour" delves into the opulence upstairs, with guests learning what it would have been like to stay at Biltmore from about 1895 to the early 1930s. Included are bedrooms not on the regular house visit and living spaces outfitted with clothing and accessories from the 1900s.

Both tours are offered daily, and advance registration is required. Each tour is $17 per person in addition to estate admission, which begins at $39 through March 19.

As part of a regular visit to Biltmore, guests can go inside the cozy Conservatory, filled with thousands of tropical plants, including an expansive orchid display at its showiest peak in March.

Orchids and Biltmore have a long history. Some 800 orchids were on the Vanderbilts' purchase listing for the Conservatory in 1894. Through the efforts of Biltmore's orchid expert, Jim Rogers, the estate has procured heritage varieties found on the original list.

Conservatory talks are offered at 11 a.m. weekdays and are included in the price of estate admission.

Asheville is about a 41/2-hour drive from Lexington. The four-star Inn on Biltmore Estate has special winter room rates starting at $149 per night.

For more information, visit Biltmore.com or call 1-800-411-3812.

Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: durisek@aol.com. Blog: gardening.bloginky.com.

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