The Biltmore Estate and Downton Abbey Exhibit

My husband and I have visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, a handful of times. I believe the last time we went was for our 25th anniversary fifteen years ago. I had pretty much decided there was probably no need to return—once you’ve seen it in different seasons, there’s nothing new to see, I thought.

And then I heard they were going to have an exhibition of the Downton Abbey television show at the Biltmore!

Then the question was—how should I go about seeing it? My daughter-in-law and I loved the show, but my husband and youngest son had never seen it. I think Jason, Mittu’s husband had seen at least some episodes, but I don’t know if he was as into it as I was. So should I go by myself? Should I see if Mittu wanted to take a day trip with me? Should I ask a friend? Should I ask my husband even though he wasn’t familiar with the show?

The dilemma was solved when Mittu asked if we could go to the exhibition in lieu of presents for her birthday this year. We went last Saturday.

We got into Asheville around 11 and ate lunch at Farm Burger, as its online menu showed it had gluten free options for Mittu and Timothy. I didn’t want anything heavy or greasy, so I tried the build-your-own chicken burger. It was pretty good. I also snagged a few of Jason’s garlic parmesan fries, and they were great.

Unfortunately, the DA exhibits were in two different buildings and not in the Biltmore house itself. You have to choose a time when you buy tickets, so we needed to go in to see the house when we first arrived.

If you’re not familiar with the Biltmore, it’s the largest home in America, built by George Washington Vanderbilt. He had visited the Asheville area in 1887 and liked it so well, he began buying up land to build a home. Construction began in 1889. He was a bachelor at the time and planned to being his mother to live at the house and to host family and friends. He didn’t marry until 1898, when he was 35. The estate wasn’t even entirely finished then, but it was livable.

I’m reading The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan about the Biltmore House. I had hoped to finish it before visiting, but was only halfway done. Still, what I read enhanced the visit, and and I am sure that the visit will enhance the remaining reading.

One of the things that impressed me the most was that the land had been fairly depleted before building began. Frederick Olmsted, a landscape architect whose long list of credits includes Central Park, was asked to do the landscaping at Biltmore. He had to take into account not only what the land would like like at the time, but how things would grow over time.

The second impressive thing about the estate, besides the sheer size, is the detail in every single aspect. This is the right half of the house as we’re coming from from where the shuttle dropped us off:

Biltmore estateI have many more pictures that one post will hold, but this is what is called the Winter Garden, just inside the front doors and to the right:

Biltmore Winter GardenOne of my favorite rooms is the library. Vanderbilt was known for being well-read, even buying unbound manuscripts so he could have them bound the way he liked them.

Biltmore Library

You can see a bit of the painted ceiling. One of my favorite moments occurred when we were all exclaiming. “Look at the painting! Look at all the books! Look at the spiral staircase in the corner!” And Timothy (almost age 6) said, “Look at the security camera!” 🙂

My second favorite room was Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom. I didn’t like the black bedcoverings so much, but I loved the ceiling. We didn’t get a picture, but you can see a glimpse here.

We got to go up an elevator that was original to the building. Unfortunately it only went between the first and second floors. The design was all wrought iron, but at some point they put plexiglass behind it for safety purposes. We didn’t get pictures of it, but someone else’s video is here.

One room I didn’t remember seeing before was called the Halloween room, painted by George’s daughter Cornelia. There they offered a photo opportunity with George and Edith. 🙂

The tour includes the downstairs area, where the bowling lanes, kitchen, laundry, and servant’s rooms are. Another funny moment here: we tried to explain to Timothy what the chamber pots were for. When he heard someone else commenting on them, he called them “Thunder pots.”

Just outside the house is a group of little shops and eateries. We enjoyed a snack before heading down to the DA exhibit. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the little shops if we wanted to catch the DA exhibits before they closed.

The first part of the exhibit was in a new building called Amherst at Deerpark. While waiting to get in, we asked what the building was normally used for. The attendant said that once the exhibit was over, the building could be rented for special events, wedding receptions, etc.

This part of the exhibit was called interactive, but that’s probably because there are life-sized videos of Carson speaking to the guests as if he can see them. There are also some artifacts behind glass or in drawers covered with glass. When you first walk in the hallway, there is a massive picture of the DA cast in costume. Then there is a stop to watch a video. Then we stepped into a room where we saw larger than life-sized pictures of half the faces of the cast (not half the cast—half the face of each cast member).

Just to show you a couple of representative displays, pictures and text like this were on walls and tables discussing all the characters and different aspects of the times.

Downton Abbey exhibitOther displays held letters, props, jewelry, etc.

This is where I have a wee bit of complaint. This area was extremely crowded, and there was not a direct flow of traffic. It was very hard to get around to look at anything, much less take time to read the displays. I got around the whole room and glanced at almost everything, but was so claustrophobic, I just wanted to get out as soon as possible. This would have been better in a larger area, or even scattered around in some of Biltmore’s more open areas.

The next section was a lot more fun. It included sets from the show. I didn’t see any information which specified, but I am assuming these were the actual sets (if not, they were very good recreations).

Mr. Carson’s office:

Downton Abbey butler officeThe kitchen:

The bells:

They also had the formal dining room and Lady Mary’s bedroom.

Then we had to take another shuttle to Antler Hill Village to see the costumes. I enjoyed this quite a lot. Even without remembering who wore which clothes, we found ourselves guessing which dress went with which character just by its style. I have multitudes of pictures but will just share a couple.

Downton Abbey costumes

I had mentioned at the beginning feeling like there was no need to go back to Biltmore and see the same things again. What i didn’t know was that the Antler Hill Village area was all fairly recent, plus a few new rooms had been opened up. Plus, in all the times we’ve been there, we’ve never seen the greenhouse or Biltmore Village. The latter was built by Vanderbilt for workmen and employees. I’ve been reading in the book I mentioned about All Souls Cathedral, also built by Vanderbilt, and its stained glass windows dedicated to George’s mother and close friends and other family who passed away. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of it, but by the time we were done, we were tired and needed to get back on the road. So some day I’d be up for another visit to see some of these areas.

Jason and Mittu did stay overnight and went back the next day to see the greenhouse and some other areas. Timothy was a little trooper and seemed to enjoy himself. We were glad there were some grassy areas in-between buildings where they allowed people to walk and kids to run. He was looking forward to the pool at the hotel. 🙂

All in all, it was a fun visit. I enjoyed seeing the Biltmore again and loved seeing the Downton Abbey sets and costumes. If you’re a fan of the show, I hope you get a chance to see the exhibit. It’s at the Biltmore until April 7. I’m assuming the house and exhibit would be a lot less crowded on weekdays: I’d recommend going then if you can.

Have you visited the Biltmore or see the Downton Abbey exhibit?

A Visit to Cades Cove

Friday evening, my husband asked if I would be interested in going out to Cades Cove on Saturday. He texted my son and daughter-in-law to see if they’d like to go, and they said yes.

Cades Cove is a valley in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. A one-way road forms an eleven-mile loop around the valley, and several historic buildings are placed at intervals around the loop.

The drive up was gorgeous as we got closer to Cades Cove, with the beauitful fall foliage and a stream rippling over rocks alongside the road.

Jim and I drove up separately from Jason and Mittu, and there was some misunderstanding about where we were to meet. There’s no cell phone service in the area, so we had no way to contact each other. We knew they were behind us a bit, so we weren’t worried when they didn’t show up right away. As more time passed, however, we became concerned that either something happened, or we were in two different places. Jim took off on foot to check a couple of places he thought they might be (walking because he didn’t think he’d be able to get out of one area without following the 11-mile loop). I stayed put in case they came to where we had parked and prayed much that we’d all find each other. Finally Jason and Mittu spotted Jim walking as they were driving around trying to find us.

So we were delayed setting off by about an hour. We drove to the picnic area to eat the lunch we had packed. The picnic area was very nice, with flat walkways between tables and easy access to restrooms. There was a little stream on both sides of the picnic area.

Watching Timothy brought back memories of camping when the kids were younger. There’s something about a stick, rocks, and running water that can keep a little boy fascinated for hours.

At one point Timothy asked, “Are we camping?” He was excited at the prospect, because Granddad has often talked about things we’ll do when we go camping. We told him it was kind of like camping, except the sleeping in a tent part.

Jim has been collecting lot of camping equipment over several birthdays, Christmases, etc. He brought stuff to make coffee on the grills at the park. As it was a very chilly day, that cup of coffee was one of the best I’d had! It really helped take the chill off.

Then we all piled in our van and set off on the loop, following a string of other cars.

Fall is one of the most popular times to go. And we soon saw why: the scenery was gorgeous. We took scores of photos. Here are just a few:

One of the first buildings we stopped at was a Primitive Baptist Church, which had a cemetery in the back.

Some of the headstones in the cemetery are so old and worn you can hardly read them, but there are a few recent ones. This one was distinctive . . .

We didn’t stop at the next church, but we saw a random family there taking wedding photos. We wondered if they got married there, or came up afterwards, or if they just wanted a bridal shoot there.

About halfway through the loop is a collection of buildings, including a still-working 150-year old grist mill, a blacksmith shop (closed when we were there),a smokehouse, corn crib, barn, and house (and restrooms!)

Timothy thought the water wheel on the mill was “cool” and “awesome.”

In this area, there’s also a little store where Tim tried out ranger gear.

There are eighteen places one can stop. Some of them are trails that lead to waterfalls and such. Other building were log cabins, with a couple of other churches. We ended up only stopping at those two I mentioned, because it was getting late.

It’s possible to see wildlife in the area, from chipmunks, foxes, raccoons, deer, and bears. We only saw one crow, besides the horses that are available to ride. Probably the time of day we were there (afternoon), the cold, and the busyness all contributed to wildlife keeping their distance. There were strict warnings everywhere to stay at least 50 feet away from wildlife and not to feed them and to clean up any scraps of food so they wouldn’t be attracted.

Over and over through the afternoon, Timothy kept saying it “was such a good day” and “the best day ever.” And I’d have to agree.

I don’t travel well, for a number of reasons, so even short road trips can be problematic. When Jim asked me about going, and I found out it was about an hour away, and it could take 2-4 hours to go around the loop—I was sort of dreading it. But I knew if I asked him to go somewhere I wanted to go, he likely would, even if he wasn’t all that interested. So I wanted to be able to go because he wanted to and for the family outing. I was a bit panicky the night before, but that day God gave me a great calm and helped everything to go well. We’re already talking about trying going back some time. On the drive up and back we also saw other places we’d like to come back and visit some time.

I looked through the booklet about the area while we were there, and I’ve enjoyed reading more about the history of it since.

I’m only sorry it took us so long to go out there! A friend had told me about it a few years ago, but I don’t think I quite understood what it was. I’d highly recommend it if you are in the area and have a few hours. You could spend all day there if you wanted to stop at several of the buildings. But you could probably drive through in a couple of hours if you made no stops. There are also a couple of exits if you don’t want to go through the whole loop. And it’s free!

Have you ever been to Cade’s Cove?

(Sharing with Global Blogging, Senior Salon, Literary Musing Monday, Hearth and Soul, Happy Now)