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Live Like A Lord And Lady... If Only For A Weekend

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This is what I remember from one of my first brushes with British aristocracy. A little more than 10 years ago I was having dinner with the Countess of Dundee in her Scottish castle, Birkhill, when her daughter Lavinia joined us and told us all about her afternoon. She had been to St. Andrews to visit her cousin, William. Just William. Yes, that William.

Here's what else I recall. Later that night, after enjoying single malts in front of the fire, the personable Lady Dundee brought me up to my four-poster bed and returned minutes later with a hot water bottle that she slipped between the sheets to keep me toasty, as if the heavy layers of thick damask coverlet and plush blanket wouldn't have done the trick. The next morning she took me on a stroll around the walled kitchen garden and the flower garden, past the swimming pool to the grounds where she pointed out all the rare trees and bushes brought back from India by the ancestors of her husband, who was away serving in the House of Lords.

And then it was time to leave, onto another marvelous castle, with another Lord and Lady at the ready to welcome me and make me feel at home, in the home of my dreams.

My tour was all arranged by Andrew Loyd and Jonathan Townsend-Rose, who had just started Loyd & Townsend-Rose, a remarkable collection of private castles and manor houses in England, Scotland and Ireland that open their doors to guests. But with a difference from other operations -- you don't just rent a room, with strangers renting the room next to you, like a typical castle hotel. No, with the LTR Collection, you take over the entire house, whether it's just for you, or your family (they plan lots of reunions) or a group of friends (and birthdays) or business colleagues (in a word: golf!) And you put yourself in Andrew and Jonathan's capable hands to plan every detail with perfection. One visiting mogul wanted to throw a dinner party in "his" castle, so LTR provided not just the celebrity chef, but the guests as well. Now, that's service.

The most discreet of Lords and Ladies allow LTR and no one else access to their homes because they trust them. That's why it is possible to rent Althorp, Princess Diana's ancestral home. Says Loyd, "It obviously has a huge wow factor and it really is amazing with a very welcoming atmosphere and charming staff. It feels very private and despite its size, the house is very cosy. Sleeping up to 50 guests, it's been the venue for some amazing LTR birthday parties and guests can't fail to be impressed, especially as they can sleep in bedrooms that have been used by King George V, Churchill and Princess Diana."

Loyd earned the castle owners' trust through his work managing the estates of the rich and famous or merely fabulously wealthy in the United States, which also gave him an understanding of what demanding clients need. His wife grew up at Sezincote, inspiration for the domed Brighton Pavilion, which her brother inherited. In their quietly gracious way, the Loyds are part of the world to which they can offer unrivaled access.

Katherine Loyd's cousin opened her family home in London to LTR guests during the Olympics, and it remains a rental possibility throughout the year. "It's a lovely home," Andrew says, "whereas most London rental homes seem to be very sterile or rather jazzed up for the Arab/Russian market." Not this townhouse -- or rather two, joined together. You can almost imagine later-day Crawley sisters taking tea in the drawing room with the Dowager Countess.

"Most of our properties are either traditional or modern," Loyd continues. Two that would make easy weekend trips out of London are perfect examples of each. Eastcourt House, with its contemporary interiors and screening room, is "quite a cool house," Loyd claims. Or there's Cornwell Manor, "an aristocratic home, set in a glorious estate." Both are 90-minutes' drive from London and close to Bath, the Cotswolds, Stratford on Avon and Oxford.

If you don't feel like driving, or being driven, no worries. There are regional airports or LTR can arrange a helicopter. They just hired one for a guest staying at Eastcourt who wanted to visit Bath without battling traffic; they chartered another helicopter to take guests to a distillery where they blended their own barrel of whiskey and designed their own labels. Loyd has also arranged private Zumba and Pilates classes, a forager to help search for nettles and weeds which a private chef turned into lunch, a cricket match on the lawn, access to the Old Course St. Andrews, riding lessons and on and on.

And if you are wondering how much such pampering and exclusivity costs, everyone, rich or poor, knows the drill: if you have to ask... And if you don't, check out www.LTR.co.uk.

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