Dinner is served: Living it up in aristocratic style

Five gardeners, seven housekeepers, two chefs, six kitchen staff, five banqueting staff and 52 close friends. Katy Guest discovers exclusive-hire holidays
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The Independent Travel

As lifestyles go, the upstairs-downstairs, lord-of-the-manor existence is not an option for most people. It was all right for Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry to ponce around a stately home for a long weekend in Peter's Friends. But we mortals have never had to worry about how to address the under butler, or agonise over whether the Great Hall or the banqueting area is better for a four-course supper for 52.

As lifestyles go, the upstairs-downstairs, lord-of-the-manor existence is not an option for most people. It was all right for Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry to ponce around a stately home for a long weekend in Peter's Friends. But we mortals have never had to worry about how to address the under butler, or agonise over whether the Great Hall or the banqueting area is better for a four-course supper for 52.

Things are changing, however. Because while plenty of British holidaymakers will be beating their partners with tent pegs this summer or practising the ancient English b&b sport of trying to swallow tinned tomatoes quietly, those in the know are packing their ballgowns and sending final instructions to their chef.

According to VisitBritain, the national tourism authority, 17 per cent of those who took holidays in the UK in 2003 had more than 11 people in their party. The number of holidays involving groups of adults from different households has steadily risen to 24 per cent by 2003. We now want holidays for 22 and we want them to be classy. The British stately home has become the place to go.

At Castle Ashby, the ancestral home of the 7th Marquess of Northampton, you'll have to book early. To rent the entire castle for the weekend costs from £27,000 plus VAT. But the castle, built between 1574 and 1635, sleeps up to 52 guests in a mannerthat once suited King George II; with five gardeners, seven housekeepers, two full-time chefs, six kitchen staff, and five banqueting staff. The price includes gourmet meals and a full cream tea, but archery, falconry, deerstalking, coarse fishing and hot-air ballooning cost extra.

All those activities are available within the 10,000 acre estate, which includes 250 acres of grounds landscaped by Capability Brown. "It's a home from home," a spokesman said. "You stand in front of the castle on Friday night and welcome your guests. It's also licensed for weddings and has a church on the grounds."

The proliferation of "exclusive hire" websites and stately home databases is not only due to weddings. Fiftieth birthday parties are common at Castle Ashby. "We have lots of family reunions, birthday parties and anniversaries," said Sarah Stanley, who runs the Unique Home Stays website ( www.uniquehomestays.com). "Overseas customers often want the owner to stay as host. Several owners do it for charity. But the UK market tends to want to take over the entire house. Judging by the number of inquiries we're getting, the market is really growing."

It's not only British historic houses that are opening their drawbridges to tourists - although you may have to sacrifice the butler in more exotic locations. Nkwali, a safari camp in Zambia's South Luangwa National Park, sleeps up to 16 and is available through www.thebigdomain.com. It does not have a Michelin-starred chef but it does offer moonlit showers and a traditional "wake-up drum". Sited on a bend in the Luangwa River, it has opportunities to see giraffes and leopards, and elephants can be viewed in the evening from the bar as they visit their own watering hole nearby.

To lord it over the plebs a little closer to home, groups of up to nine can book the four-star Can Tahuet, a restored finca in Ibiza ( www.meonvillas.co.uk). Here you can have not only your own four-star accommodation, but also your own terrace and pool. The nearby beaches and markets you'll have to share.

Those with a touch of the talented Mr Ripley can find an appropriate getaway through Book Club Villas. The service just launched by A&K Chapters (0845 0700 618; www.akchapters.com) offers devoted book lovers the chance to rent a villa in a location that inspired a famous novel. Fans of E M Forster's A Room with a View will love Castello dei Renai. It's a 30-minute drive from Florence and sleeps up to 12 from £5,810 per week. Its elevated position, with a tower dating back to the 13th century, gives it fantastic views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside.

So rapidly is the stately home experience catching on that two travel journalists, Liz Bird and Jane Knight, have written a guidebook, The Big House Party, to be published this summer. "People have a lot more disposable income now," said Bird. "Research shows we're taking more short breaks in the UK and making much more of an event of birthdays, anniversaries and stag and hen weekends."

It's easy to see why holidaymakers want to play the lord of the manor for a week. Even prices for the top-end properties, when split between 52 people are not so outlandish. But why would the real lord agree? Richard Bridgeman, the 7th Earl of Bradford, explained. "When my father died, everyone said that Weston Park [built by an ancestor in 1671] was a millstone around his neck all his life, and don't let it be the same for you. So I looked at it and thought, what a great opportunity."

Americans loved it and the house was so popular that the Earl set up the Stately Homes Guide website ( www.stately-homes.com), four years ago. In the first year it had 280,000 visits. Last year, that rose to 475,000. This year, the number of hits on the site could be between three and four million.

"It's going like an absolute bomb," the Earl said. However, stately tourism is not for everyone. "People think it's an easy way to make money. It's not. I was never going to live in the big house. Anybody who lives in a place like that and tries to commercialise it is torn in two directions. You want it to be a success but you don't want it to interfere in your life. Yet it has to.

"I don't feel jealous about my family home. I sit back and count the proceeds."

TAKE THE GANG AWAY ON HOLIDAY

Trevor Hall, Llangollen, North Wales, 01638 674756 www.statelyholidayhomes.co.uk

Owned by a music agent, this Grade I listed, red-brick building, set in 85 acres, is filled with intriguing pop memorabilia, including the Dalek used in The Prodigy video and antique arcade games such as an original Space Invaders. Sleeps 14.

A three-night weekend or a four-night midweek break costs from £2,250.

The Riverside at Helford, Helford, Cornwall, 01326 240028 www.thebigdomain.com

A whitewashed cottage-style property on the water's edge, with terraced lawns. A large bright sitting room looks out over the creek and features an open fire for cosy nights in. A 19ft motorboat and two sailing dinghies are at your disposal as well as a chef to cook your breakfast and evening meal. Sleeps 17.

Three-night breaks cost £170 per adult, £85 per child.

Eilean Shona House Argyll, Scotland, 01967 431249 www.eileanshona.com

Hire an island? Now that's exclusive. Vanessa Branson, the sister of Sir Richard, owns this drop in the ocean off the west coast of Scotland. It's a favourite for active house parties, with plenty to do outdoors, from boating and fishing to painting and bird watching, with crabbing, treasure hunts and sandcastle making for the kids. Sleeps 19.

Seven nights' rental from £6,000.

Butlerstown House Country Cork, Ireland, 00 353 234 0137, www.butlerstownhouse.com

This Georgian manor house sits in 12 acres of grounds on top of a hill deep in the West Cork countryside. It's a beautiful property with wonderful historic detail - look out for the maritime references in the coving and door frames, designed to celebrate Nelson's victory at Trafalgar. Guests can enjoy lots of space, with two drawing rooms, a grand dining room, vast kitchen and well-stocked games/playroom. Sleeps 10.

From €40 (£27) per person per night, based on 10 sharing.

Château Robert Gascony, France, 01284 827253 www.gascony-secret.com

This 18th-century property sits in 75 acres and features a swimming pool, tennis court and lake. Highlights include the master bedroom, which has an antique mahogany bed, the four-posters in four other bedrooms and a roof garden accessed through the tower. The services of a chef and chauffeur can be requested. Sleeps 19.

A seven-day stay costs from £3,975.

The French House Trizonia island, Greece, 01653 617959, www.filoxenia.co.uk

Just a five-minute water-taxi ride from the mainland, this stone manor house and two independent cottages comes with Jim and Sue (their vehicle is one of only two allowed on the island). Jim takes guests on varied water-sports excursions while Sue is the full-time cook and housekeeper. Sleeps 14.

A seven-day stay costs from £535 per person, including return flights from Gatwick to Athens, transfers accommodation and services.

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