Why you should care

Because doesn’t spending the night in a massive manor sound a whole lot better than kipping on someone’s musty sofa?

When Lord Grantham frets that Downton Abbey is teetering toward extinction, his huffing and puffing is not so much scripted melodrama as art imitating life. British aristos, like those who have inherited or bagged European chateaux, schlossen and castelli, have been pushed to the edge by crippling maintenance costs. And for most, the only way out is to let in the hoi polloi.

Set Downton Abbey a century later, and we would doubtless have seen the Granthams swallowing their pride and taking in paying guests, like Lady Macdonald of Skye at Kinloch Lodge. The modern-day chatelaine not only started renting out bedrooms in the ancestral manor 40 years ago, but also became her own Mrs. Patmore, cooking for overnight visitors.

Letting down the drawbridge to the castle has proven the only way to preserve it for many — and no one knows that better than Lord Carnarvon, real-life owner of Downton, aka Highclere Castle. Just five years ago he confessed the moldering property needed $18 million worth of repairs. Were it not for the Downton crew and their location fees, Lord and Lady Carnarvon might have found salvation in restoring 50 bedrooms, uninhabitable in 2009, to create a hotel.

These properties offer a dramatic backdrop for significant events, especially if they have a moat or are perched on a cliff top …

— Roger Masterson, owner of Celtic Castles

The Château de Chenonceau is the most visited in the Loire Valley, thanks to gorgeous fairytale turrets and galleried arches over the River Cher. With nearly 1 million romantics a year paying entrance fees, its future ought to be assured — yet its owners are turning innkeepers in order to raise awareness.

The Menier chocolate family, who acquired Chenonceau in 1913, are testing the waters via a competition for a one-night stay staged by Airbnb, which is better-known for renting spare rooms to budget travelers. Yet the site has several castles on its permanent register and reports strong interest in these romantic but pricey options.

Is the experience worth it? Roger Masterson, who runs Celtic Castles, a business that arranges castle experiences — weddings, overnights, corporate events — has slept in at least 150 historical piles and explains the appeal: “Every girl wants to be a princess for a day, and my daughter still remembers her 10th birthday at Ashford Castle. These properties offer a dramatic backdrop for significant events, especially if they have a moat or are perched on a cliff top above crashing waves. They offer a step back in time; you can stay in rooms once slept in by kings and queens.”

A castle with big turrets

Bonneval Castle in Coussac-Bonneval, Limousin, France

Source C. Sappa/Getty

But while some properties have been updated with with power showers and flat-screen TVs, Masterson admits many are not for those expecting elevators and Wi-Fi as standard comforts. And renters are critical: “Our huge bedroom with fireplace and four-poster at Thornbury Castle were great,” says Andy Mossack who reports on his travels for Tripreporter.co.uk. “But it was an Olympic trek getting up the narrow stone spiral staircase, and the huge iron door key didn’t quite fit in our pockets.”

Another renter, Cassie Thompson, who booked Ireland’s Ballygally Castle, felt its grandeur was not reflected on the inside. But she welcomed the wind whistling around as she slept, feeling it added to the atmosphere of an ancient building with its own ghost.

As millions are expected to apply for the chance to sleep over at Chenonceau next week, the thrill of getting up close and personal with medieval suits of armor clearly compensates for draughts, steps and spirits. And for owners, putting up with the public is a small price to pay for keeping an expensive roof over their heads and remaining lord of the manor.

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