The Countess of Carnarvon talks us through what it’s like to be the ‘real’ Lady Grantham. She lives and breathes Highclere Castle, the grand Victorian estate on the edge of Hampshire that plays the leading role in ITV’s immensely popular drama, Downton Abbey. Everyday life involves film crew, builders and lots of sheep…
Waking up in Highclere
Highclere Castle sits on a high chalk escarpment above sweeping parkland so opening the bedroom shutters in the morning is always a magical way to start the day. It doesn’t really matter whether clouds are scudding across the huge skyline, a mysterious fog is nestling around the building, or the sun is attempting to make an appearance, it is always beautiful and interesting.
When “Downton” are filming here I try to begin the day with some exercise, listening to Radio 4 whilst the white vans outside sort themselves out for filming for the day. My husband, Geordie, has already gone downstairs to let the film crew in and take the dogs out. In the summer we are open to the public, on other days there are dinners, or private tours or conferences. Whatever is going on, our housekeeper, Diana, and her assistant open the shutters and I tend to have a chat with Diana, or put my head round to see Paul and Rob in thekitchens downstairs, and perhaps see the gardeners as the whole place wakes up.
Geordie will disappear into his office and concentrate on the accounts and strategy of all the businesses here whilst I try to deal with the daily matters. Often I am working alongside our castle manage,r John Gundill, and our agent, Chris Turner. My aim each day is to tackle what is important as well as try to free up thinking space and time.
After breakfast my PA, Candice, and I run through the diary. The day is punctuated with meetings, which could be up on the roof or deep in the cellars, press interviews, and meetings with charities who fundraise at Highclere and builders. I retreat to the cappucino machine in our tearooms and can recognise the tread or tap of people’s shoes as they come by in search of me; I have fair warning of their approach!
I have normally left my mobile phone somewhere, which is a constant excitement and my husband can never understand why it is never with me. If the car keys are also missing I know I have a spot of bother.
Apart from dipping into the normal office work of upcoming events, contracts and future plans, I try to put time aside to write. I have two books on the go with deadlines. The office know they can count on me being at any meeting if they promise a cappuccino in the morning, or tea in the afternoon plus the odd naughty treat. I can tell how tricky a meeting might be by the delicious incentives on offer…
I usually have a refurbishment project underway within the Castle, which I try to keep under the radar. My husband inevitably walks into a room just when I’ve said “yes” to some charming – if expensive – curtain material, or when I’m surrounded by electricians and plumbers looking at a decoration plan I hadn’t quite put him in the picture about yet.
If there are people in draughty places manning gates or on roofs I find time to give them some soup on a cold day or make sure left-over food does not go to waste and finds its way somewhere useful. The builders are always welcome to tea but as they always seem to be around we are always running out of teabags, milk and the sugar, as well as mugs. The latter are to be found balanced on fences, scaffolding, near a back door or with the plumbers in a bathroom.
We really have a marvellous team who are fun to work with and care hugely about what they are doing. Some of them have been here much of their lives. Pat who paints for us today grew up here watching her father paint at the Castle. I find it fascinating that I can ask her what colour a room was 50 years ago and she might well know.
I will meet Geordie for a lunch of soup and salad and I tend to pick up anyone who I have failed to see that morning to share it with us. This is usually Nora, who helps us part time with sorting out letters, invitations, diaries and manages the cricket in the summer. She worked for Geordie’s father the 7th Earl and had not used computers until we asked her to help us. She is now a complete whizz at them and we have so much fun and laughter working together. I am normally in trouble with her because I am late and haven’t signed letters. I receive the most lovely letters about the Lady Almina book I wrote and I do try to reply and thank everyone who writes to me. I have found the whole process amazing and have, as ever, met charming people along the way.
With our ewes and lambs we have a lot of sheep – they are the Highclere Park lawnmowers and often find the grass greener on the other side of a fence and get stuck. The odd afternoon finds Les (our security chief) and myself on a rescue mission. Normally some lucky walkers appear fortuitously to help us haul the sheep backwards out of a fence, as they are jolly heavy. Visitors are usually game and even help round up sheep on occasion.
Sometimes I try to take a shortcut, and move some horses and walk our five dogs all together to save time. Needless to say it doesn’t always work. One day I mismanaged some gates so I let a hundred or so sheep out heading towards the Castle lawns. I was leaping around waving at the figures I could see in the Castle for help who simply waved back and thought that I had rather a lot of white labradors before realising it was the sheep. I flagged a visitor down to borrow his mobile (mine was nowhere near me) and he kindly developed rounding-up skills… I was trying to get everything back in the right place before my husband appeared to comment on my achievements of the morning. I hadn’t saved any time at all.
In the early evening I love quickly to saddle my Arab mare and with three spaniels to heel head off for forty minutes, sometimes quietly coming back through the dusk as the birds are going up to roost. Riding around the park is the perfect way to smell the scent of the limes trees in late spring or the cold nip in the air as autumn begins to appear. I catch sight of the deer and hares, and turn back to see the different views of the Castle as it is revealed and hidden in the landscape.
Geordie loves this land, the trees, the crops in the field, the woods and downlands, as did his father, the 7th Earl of Carnarvon, who would walk through a field of ryegrass and know it was a good crop. It is a privilege to be in touch with the landscape around the Castle and these are lucky moments.
If it is a quiet evening then I will cook supper for us, which I enjoy doing. If our son, Edward, is at home he likes to be very involved in what we are eating and how many courses. We have a small vegetable garden, scattered fruit trees and I grow lots of herbs. Edward, loves to bake bread and I enjoy seeing what I can cook with what we have from the garden, as well as the resources of local supermarkets.
I then turn to my emails or my research, although by now I will also have mislaid my glasses and have to borrow Geordie’s. Sometimes I am behind and other times way behind with dealing with e-mails.
I think it is one of the greatest treats to stay here. At nighttime all the windows in the Castle have their shutters closed and the curtains in the main rooms are drawn. The shutters make it dark and peaceful so all our family and friends seem to sleep well. I read books before I fall asleep, turning down pages, with a mug of herbal tea, my husband’s glasses and my mobile phone reunited with a charger, readying it and me for tomorrow.
Read Lady Carnarvon’s book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, to discover the many parallels between the stories of Highclere Castle and Downton Abbey.
Highclere Castle is open to the public during summer, Easter and for a traditional Christmas fayre in December. It is also available as a venue for weddings, corporate events, private dining and celebrations.