There are normal problems, and rich people’s problems, and then there are aristocrats’ problems. “The blacksmith hasn’t turned up to shoe the horses, so I haven’t got a single horse with four shoes,” says Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, chatelaine of Highclere Castle. “I can’t ride any of them.”
As she says this, she is lounging on a settee in a room that looks very familiar if you happen to be a fan of Downton Abbey . It was in this room, known to the Carnarvons as the “Salon,” where lame Matthew Crawley delivered this immortal line to his beloved, Lady Mary: “You are my stick.”
Highclere Castle, home to the eighth Earl of Carnarvon and his family, is the real Downton Abbey. The enormously popular stately home soap opera is filmed here. Its creator, Julian Fellowes, a friend of the Carnarvons’, was inspired by the house’s storied history. Novelists, politicians and royals were regular visitors at Highclere, although fans may be disappointed to learn that some of the show’s details are not rooted in reality: No dead Turkish diplomat has ever been dragged through the castle’s oak-panelled halls, the victim of a particularly vigorous bout of rumpy-pumpy.
Before the premiere of Downton Abbey in fall 2010, a few hundred tourists arrived on each visiting day at the estate, which is located 90 kilometres southwest of London; now when it’s open to the public, up to 1,300 guests a day pass through the heavy doors adorned with a wolf’s head holding a stag’s leg in its jaws. The third series just began airing in North America, with it suffering-and-snobbery formula wearing thin, but still intact. Be warned: This season, which premiered to record-breaking numbers on PBS, brings some shocking twists. Although Lady Carnarvon knows what happens to Bates, the noble and wrongly imprisoned valet, she’s not talking.
In some ways, the estate is the victim of its own success. It is open to the public only for a limited time each year, including a few days in December, and then for extended periods in spring and summer. But the house can’t welcome visitors while Downton is filming. Dame Maggie Smith must not be interrupted when she is aiming the dowager Countess Grantham’s icy barbs (“Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle class.”)
As well, people live at Highclere. “Don’t forget, this is very much a family home,” says Lady Carnarvon, a former accountant who is married to the eighth earl. Granted, it’s a family home where the paintings are by Van Dyck, the desk in the corner once belonged to Napoleon, and many of the family snapshots feature the Queen, the current earl’s godmother. For generations, Carnarvons have acted as horse-racing advisers to the Royal Family.
The country seat of the Carnarvons was completed in 1854, which makes it a toddler among Britain’s stately homes, but the illustriousness of its pedigree sets it apart. Its architect was Sir Charles Barry, who also built the Houses of Parliament, and its lush 1,000 acres of parkland are the work of Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Arriving for a weekend visit, Benjamin Disraeli (a two-time prime minister of Great Britain) paused to marvel at the rolling landscape dotted with beech and oak and cedar trees: “How scenical,” he said. “How scenical!”
Now, the visitors who arrive by the busload are more likely to ask, “Where’s Lady Cora’s bedroom?” (it’s upstairs, and the bed is ridiculously small), or “Where does Mrs. Patmore do all her complaining?” (that’s actually in London, because the servants’ scenes are filmed at a studio).
Guests can see the dining room table with its 12 leaves where the Granthams gather to grouse and wail over their waning influence in the world (if they’re shown eating fish, it’s actually chicken; no one wants to smell mackerel over a 13-hour-shooting day). Occasionally the film crew will take apart the Bohemian glass chandelier, or try to clamp a light onto the ashlar columns, and sometimes they even break china. But those are minor inconveniences. As Lady Carnarvon says, “they make the castle look incredibly beautiful.”
Last year she published a biography of her predecessor, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey , a book that provided the TV series with one of its most memorable storylines. Almina, the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, married the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, an amateur Egyptologist famous for bankrolling Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb (there is a popular King Tut exhibit at Highclere). At the outbreak of the First World War, Almina asked her father for £25,000 (about $40,000) to turn Highclere into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. For the duration of the war, the once glamorous and flighty heiress devoted herself and her home to their care.
It is a storyline that Julian Fellowes happily pinched for the show’s second season, but Lady Carnarvon doesn’t mind: “It’s an extraordinary house for the history, and if nothing else Julian has translated the appeal of history to the screen.” But the Edwardian riches of Almina’s reign, when she would spend £360,000 to feed, water and entertain the corpulent Prince of Wales on a three-day visit, are long gone. Now, as Lady Carnarvon points out, times are more straitened. There are dozens of staff to support: The head gardener at Highclere is 76, and an office assistant is in her eighties. The roof is in constant need of repair. And the fee that the Carnarvons are paid by the Downton producers is tiny, says Lady Carnarvon, “not enough to keep me in cappuccinos.”
However, the benefit of starring in a worldwide hit is, as the ads say, priceless. About 750,000 Americans entered a “come and have tea at Highclere” contest sponsored by VisitBritain last year. The gift shop is buzzing, and the estate is doing a robust business in weddings and corporate events (a famous British reality TV star, the orange-skinned, platinum-haired Katie Price, held one of her marriages at the estate). Lady Carnarvon has another book in the works, this one about the history of Highclere between the world wars. It is her fondest wish that the Downton phenomena will protect her family home, much as an earlier smash-hit drama saved the famous Yorkshire estate where it was filmed: “In some ways Castle Howard was secured by Brideshead Revisited ,” she said. “The same could happen here.”
In Feburary, guests can book summer tours at highclerecastle.co.uk.
Downton Abbey’s current season airs Sunday nights on PBS; Season 1 airs Wednesday nights on Vision.
Elizabeth Renzetti writes about art and culture for The Globe and Mail. She travelled as a guest of VisitEngland. The tourist board did not approve or review this article.