From the set at Highclere to the setting of Yorkshire, Vivian Vassos goes upstairs and downstairs and discovers, yes, it’s all about the lady of the house
The Lady Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, has invited us – 20 of us, a group just in from London – to tea. She’s got all hands on deck in the little tea shop on the grounds of Highclere Castle, the estate of her and her husband, George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon. She’s behind the counter playing mum, pouring the tea as fast as her crew can brew it. She then corrals the group outside in the summer sunshine, where she can observe just how monumental a tourist attraction the family pile – all 6,000 acres of it – has become. The main reason for its immense popularity being that Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, England, about an hour from London, is where Downton Abbey, the international television phenomenon is filmed. Fans have lapped up the series’ post-Edwardian soap opera-esque storylines that centre around the estate and the Crawley family with Lord and Lady Grantham at its head. Loyal viewers have made the trek or, shall we say, pilgrimage to Highclere ever since, when production is on hiatus, as it is on this day. The cafe tables are cheek by jowl with daytrippers on bus tours or Sunday drives, having a cuppa on the lawn or taking in the permanent Egyptian exhibit in the cellars of the house – or just getting a piece of Downton. Of course, not everyone who enjoys the splendour of Highclere comes because of Downton. Namely, Queen Elizabeth. “Her Majesty still comes here because of her great interest in horse racing, and a racing stud is still stabled nearby,” says Lady Fiona. “In fact, the seventh Earl was her racing manager.”
Lady Fiona, who helps run the Castle, properties and the estate, is a former auditor for Coopers & Lybrand and has business in her blood, useful considering the funds needed to maintain such an estate. Cue Lady Mary anyone? To wit, Lady Fiona is a faithful follower of the estate’s history and has written two books about it and her husband’s ancestors. Her most recent, Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, follows the lives of the residents, upstairs and downstairs, as the Second World War loomed. Another big project? London Lodge, the manor’s gatehouse, has been converted to provide luxury accommodation for two.
“Downton takes place during a time when women were coming into their own, and it has sparked an interest in this history,” says Lady Fiona, “and because it is enormously popular, it has given us a platform to help bring [more] people here.” She’s not talking about tea anymore; she’s entrenched in the many special charity events that the Carnarvons host, including a First World War centenary commemoration this past summer with about 8,000 people in attendance.
Julian Fellowes, who created the series, had used Highclere for his 2001 film Gosford Park and, she adds, the house also provides inspiration to Fellowes when he’s penning the Downton Abbey scripts. For example, in a case of life imitating art, Highclere was converted into a hospital during the First World War, taking in and treating the wounded from Flanders, similar to the convalescent home it was portrayed as in Season 2 of the series. Says Lady Fiona of Lady Catherine’s predecessor, “Lady Almina turned her inheritance into a good cause. She went completely bankrupt, creating hospitals and saving lives.”
Back at the main house, I’ve taken the self-guided tour through downstairs and upstairs and wonder at how Fellowes and crew have managed to make the rooms appear so much larger on TV than they actually are. I find myself at the top of the grand staircase, and a flutter of Lady Mary as a bride comes to me, during the episode where she descends into the waiting arms of her groom Matthew.
Despite the surroundings, the Earl and Countess are perhaps not so grandiose. “Geordie opens up for the cast at 7 a.m.,” says the Lady Carnarvon, “and I’ll close up at night.”
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