Exclusive: What it Takes to Run the Real Downton Abbey

Posted: Sep 12, 2019 10:00 AM
Exclusive: What it Takes to Run the Real Downton Abbey

Source: Cortney O'Brien

Newbury, England - And I thought I was busy. Sure, I have a 9 to 5 job that demands my time, talent and energy. But I just met Lady Carnarvon, the overseer of Highclere Castle. You may know it better as Downton Abbey. And after a chat with her about her daily schedule, was exhausted.

Downton Abbey premiered in 2010 and became an international sensation almost overnight. The program centers on the Crawleys, an aristocratic family who must search for a new heir after Lord Grantham's cousin dies aboard the Titanic. As with any drama, the main characters not as innocent or as noble as they may seem, and some of their mischief has to be seen to be believed. The other half of the show is dedicated to the Crawleys' servants and their downstairs quarters.

As you can see on the popular British drama, Downton requires an astounding amount of upkeep. Lord Grantham sees to the finances, Mrs. Hughes keeps the maids and servants on schedule, and Mrs. Patmore keeps the food on the table. All under the purview of head butler Carson. They’re the “downstairs” crew, as Downton fans affectionately call them. 

But while the servants and the “upstairs” crowd live separate lives, in reality Lady Carnarvon does it all. One moment she’ll be wining and dining her guests of honor, including royalty and statesmen, and the next she’ll be tending to the pigs on the farm.

That’s why I was amazed she had time to sit down for an interview.

I arrived at Highclere on a beautiful day in late August with dozens of tourists. Dozens – not hundreds – because it’s a trek to get there. But some dedicated Downton fans did make the trip. Which, if you’re coming from London, requires both a train and a taxi, and a bit of walking.

The entrance to Highclere Castle.

I met Lady Carnarvon at the back of the castle for a chat and a cup of tea. Lady Carnarvon, AKA Fiona Herbert, AKA the Eighth Countess of Carnarvon, has been overseeing Highclere Castle for many years now. She married George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, back in 1999. I asked her to explain what it takes to keep the house in order and she spent several minutes trying to do so.

Sometimes, before things get too hectic, she starts the day with a calming exercise, such as yoga or gardening. Or, she'll try to catch up on side projects. She looks at emails three times a day and tries to segment the day into various topics. That could include marketing, human resources, or social media. Her lunch, as you can imagine, is usually a working one. On the day we met she had meetings scheduled every half hour. 

The 4-5,000 acres of farmland requires some tending to as well, particularly the animals. And then there are about 50 or 60 cottages which she looks after. 

Oh, and she writes a blog every Monday. And responds to fans in the comment section.

She writes on the way back to Newbury on whatever mode of transportation she happens to take on a given day, such as a typically “cramped” Ryan Air flight, with her husband giving her edits over her shoulder. A steward or stewardess might find her reading contracts on the plane too.

If she had free time?

“I’d love to go riding,” Lady Carnarvon said, speaking fondly of horseback riding. “I haven’t had time to ride.”

A joy ride probably isn't in her near future either, as Downton Abbey: The Movie is premiering in just a few short days. 

"I feel as if six years’ work of PR has been condensed into two months of PR," she shared. "And it’s the same small team," she said, laughing.

Highclere is no stranger to cameras. Before Downton there was 1993's The Secret Garden with, perhaps providentially, Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey’s beloved and hilarious Dowager Countess whose zingers sting for days. Other films to have been shot there include Eyes Wide Shut.

Yet it was Downton that made Highclere Castle such a popular postcard in North America.

Throughout both the show and the film productions, Lady Carnarvon thrived in her role as “custodian.”

“I have a role as a custodian,” she explained. “They do what they wish to do. I learned a lot. You have to be silent. You’re always listening and watching, which is great.”

In fact, when the cameras were rolling, she’d sometimes take a break from writing in her study, go grab a cup of tea and sit on the stairs and watch them film a scene.

She still keeps in touch with the cast and crew, letting them know that Highclere's doors are always open.

"I see quite a lot of them," she shared. "I also ask everyone to stay from the crew to the producers. The thing is we’re all part of it."

I asked her to pick a favorite character on the show, but it was hard tearing her from her main object of affection.

"The castle is my favorite character," she matter-of-factly answered. 

The castle is a catch, and as such it's had a few famous suitors. In 2010 composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber had hoped to purchase Highclere Castle. It was clear what Lady Carnarvon thought of that offer.

“I’m not going to because he’s sent it to the press and not to us,” she said. “The Second Commandment in the Bible is love thy neighbor. What I want to do is build up a community here and it’s give and take support. Everything here is built on what you can share.”

“You know I wouldn’t walk in to your house and say, ‘oh I’ll buy that, go away,’” she added.

The Countess was happy to hand over the keys to Downton creator Julian Fellowes for a time, however, and spoke admirably of the world he had imagined.

"I'm really fond of Julian Fellowes," she said. "I think it’s a period that Julian writes really well for. He has nuances and tone for that particular period...It’s costume drama and he sat us all down on Sundays to watch it."

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I tried once more to get abstract and ask Lady Carnarvon if she'd feel comfortable leaving Highclere in the hands of any of the Downton characters, but again she very protective of her historic home.

"I wouldn’t because they’re all fictional," she said.

And there's no need to dwell on it either. Highclere is already in very capable hands.

Of course she can't do it all herself, as she'll be the first to tell you. At the time that Downton was filming, Highclere had "30 Daisies," in reference to Mrs. Patmore's young kitchen helper on show, 14 footmen, and three butlers.

The castle is only open to the public for 60 days a year, yet it often opens to the community for weekend events, particularly at holidays. And that is actually a very generous open house schedule.

“I can’t have anymore,” Lady Carnarvon said. “I’d break the house. I can’t do any more days. I’d break the team who work here."

Because she can only accept so many tourists, Lady Carnarvon pursues marketable side projects. She's authored books like Christmas at Highclere: Recipes and traditions from the real Downton Abbey and, most recently, helped produce and promote the castle's own gin line. They were selling signature gin cocktails at the castle, but I opted for a classic glass of Highclere champagne.  

Lady Carnarvon was proud to advertise Highclere Castle's very own gin, available for guests at the back of the castle.

Lunchtime at Highclere, featuring a glass of the castle's very own champagne.

If being the site of a beloved TV show wasn't enough, Highclere Castle also houses an Egyptian wing below the staircase. That's because the 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 with Howard Carter. The Egyptian Exhibition features several artifacts from the tomb, as well as several other antiques, and it's all a part of the public tours.

The castle also takes pride in commemorating the end of the First World War and showcasing the bravery of the men who served each V.E. Day.

"That’s what I’m most proud of," she said.

"It makes it come alive," she explained. "These were people’s sons. So it’s saying thank you."

If Lady Carnarvon was tired the morning we chatted, I couldn’t tell. In fact, she was eager to travel to New York City to launch Highclere Gin, and to help promote the new Downton movie, in UK theaters September 13, and in the U.S. September 20.

Long after the film has left theaters and Downton fans mourn the end of an era, they can be comforted to know that Lady Carnarvon is a real life Carson. And a real life Lord Grantham. And a real Mrs. Hughes. And...well you get the picture.

But there's still only one Dowager Countess.