"It's just like Downton Abbey!" I kept exclaiming as I explored the many lavish rooms of Hamilton's Dundurn Castle.
Having been completed just four years before construction started on the present-day incarnation of Highclere Castle -- the real-life English estate that houses the fictional Crawley family and their servants, in the hit ITV/PBS period drama Downton Abbey -- in an era when the grandeur of such stately residences was in fashion, the two buildings share many of the same features and functionality.
But, though Dundurn does have connections to British aristocracy -- Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, is patron of the Ontario castle, which was home to her great, great, great grandfather -- it has a place all to itself in the story of Canada's past.
The house was built from 1832 to 1835 by Sir Allan Napier MacNab. Named for his ancestral home in Scotland, MacNab built the 72 room mansion in what was then the countryside of Hamilton for $175,000, incorporating the latest technologies in gas lighting and running water.
MacNab was a veteran of the 1812 war and built his home over an existing military encampment on the site. He entered politics after a successful career as a lawyer, serving as the Prime Minister of the Province of Canada from 1854 to 1856. The family welcomed Sir John A. Macdonald and King Edward VII to Dundurn Castle during its most prominent phase.
After most of the family passed or moved to England, the City of Hamilton purchased Dundurn in 1900 for $50,000 and began restoring it as a tourist attraction. A functioning vegetable garden still exists today and the Hamilton Military Museum is also located on the property.
Just like Highclere Castle, Dundurn has a number of opulently decorated rooms serving a variety of functions, such as the family room, where the MacNab daughters would gather to play piano or games with their parents, a pink formal sitting area for the ladies, a grand dining hall with space for a lavish dessert table, and a library, smoking room and study where the master of the house could host male guests or retreat to do business.
In each room is a handle that, when turned, causes a bell to chime in the downstairs servants' quarters, just like the ringing bell in the opening credits of Downton Abbey. Each bell chimes a different note, which let servants know where in the house they were needed.
There is also a magnificent wood staircase on the ground level, likely descended by MacNab's daughter, Sophia, during her wedding at Dundurn. It is very reminiscent of the third season scene in Downton Abbey when Lady Mary descends Downton's staircase on her way to her own wedding.
The décor at Dundurn is either original to the house, artwork from the same period or an accurate duplication. The wallpaper in MacNab's bedroom, for example, was created to match the original wallpaper, which was discovered under the carpet during the restoration process.
Where the upstairs is built to be a fantastical showpiece, the downstairs is much more functional. Rooms for storing preserves, bottles of wine and making beer line a hallway leading to the servants' dining room, where they gathered for three meals daily, consisting mainly of stews.
The cook's bedroom is next to the kitchen, where, in addition to the three meals she would prepare for the servants, she would cook the family's four daily meals, including afternoon tea, and transfer them to a small elevator for the butler to collect upstairs and serve to the family.
Rooms for laundry, firewood and an ice pit can also be found downstairs.
This National Historic Site of Canada is a fascinating step back to a very different time and a very different way of living, whether you are a southern Ontario resident who wants to experience a little bit of Downton Abbey close to home or a history buff who just wants to take in a piece of Canadian history.
Dundurn Castle is open year-round to visitors, with guided tours Tuesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, visit hamilton.ca/dundurn.