‘I live at the real Downton Abbey with my own butlers and a banqueting team’

Die hard fans of Downton Abbey will all have wondered just what it’s like to step inside the historic home.

It’s no secret that Downton is in fact a real place, and tourists flock to experience the upstairs-downstairs life depicted in two blockbuster films and an incredible six series on TV.

As Downton Abbey: A New Era arrives in cinemas, we meet Lady Fiona Carnarvon who opened up her outstanding home – Highclere Castle in Hampshire – to create one of our most treasured TV shows of all time.

"My husband is George Carnarvon, and after his father Henry died in 2001, we took over the family estate, Highclere, becoming the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

I’m incredibly proud to live here and keep its legacy alive, not to mention how we can bring joy to so many people from all over the world who come to visit Downton Abbey. To us, it’s been the warmest, most loving, family home.

The estate is 6,000 acres, while the castle has 300 rooms, 61 of these being bedrooms. So there was plenty for the ITV camera crews to choose from when it came to picking the best spots.

My husband and I have known the writer Julian Fellowes and his wife Emma for many years. They’d regularly come over for dinner, and he wrote Downtown with Highclere in mind because he knew it so well, so we have been lucky. We wrote up a contract, negotiated the best way of them filming with us still living in the house, and that was that. Our lives changed forever.

TV life

Since 2009, when filming began, we‘ve become very close with the cast and crew. We have live-in staff, who had to adapt to a whole new routine, often letting in the crew at 4.30am. The kitchen staff would make them all a spot of breakfast, but catering trucks do lunch and dinner. I have nine dogs, and unsurprisingly it was always very easy to find them – waiting by the trucks, pestering the cast for scraps.

While they were filming, there was a whole new rhythm to the day, which was lovely for us. The producers decided to use a couple of bedrooms, the hallways, corridors and drawing room as the main areas to tell the story, whereas rooms like the kitchen, which are so modernised, were no good and had to be filmed in a studio. It also made me proud they filmed in the grounds – designing the gardens has been one of my biggest joys.

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The Downton writers incorporated some of our history into the show too. Highclere was one of the first houses to have electricity. In the series, there was a quite funny scene of Maggie Smith being blinded by the new electric lights! In fact, electricity was one reason Highclere didn’t burn down – oil lamps were a nightmare for Victorian homes.

Julian also made sure to write in some of the various roles the house has had over history. In WWI, it was a hospital, and in WWII – way ahead of Downton era – it was used to house evacuee children from London.

A visual history

We have traditional tastes, so the crew didn’t dress the house differently at all and kept all our decor. The only thing they took away were personal photographs and brought in two special chairs, otherwise it was all perfect. We didn’t need to worry about any modern items being in shot, as we don’t have any! No TVs, modern books… That’s all in our private space upstairs. And even then it’s minimal.

The dogs run wild in the house, but I had an area made for them in my office during filming. People often ask if they’ve knocked anything of value over, but the only people who’ve done that are the crew. On the very first day of filming a light dropped and smashed an antique. But it doesn’t matter, it was just an accident. I’m very relaxed about these things. It’s a home. I want people to feel comfortable.

Our day-to-day lives in the castle now are much busier because of the success of the show. There are various staff who live with us. Louis is our butler and he is hysterical, a joy to be around. He has two aides, Matthew and George, who are also my banqueting team.

That means when we’re open to the public, they’re in charge of organising the tea room for up to 1,000 customers a day. They’ll make scones, croissants, sandwiches, just whatever we need. Carson in Downton had a huge honour being the head butler, it was a major job and very structured. Nowadays, we all chip in. It gives us all some nice variation.

Living in Highclere is a full-time job. I love writing books about its history, and when I walk through the corridors I imagine ladies in long elegant dresses, swishing around, going about their day. There are also plenty of ghost stories I plan on writing about. I’ve heard stories of crew members running down the stairs and never wanting to come back!

The series has created a visual history too, so we loved watching it on Sunday nights, seeing history come alive. When everyone came back to shoot the first film it was like a school reunion. It felt right having everyone here.

As well as the tourism, our jobs are tirelessly trying to maintain the building. I’m in meetings from around 8am with builders or gardeners, it’s a huge operation. At the minute we’re replacing a water pipe, which is pretty standard for modern day homes, but for us it’s a complex procedure.

I’m also looking into doing up the very top floor of the building. The bedrooms there would have had such a prevalent status back in the day and now they’re not used, I’m looking at how we could bring them back to life. I’ve also begun to do up the top tower. It’s never been open to the public, but I think people would love to take in the views.

Caring legacy

Now the estate is visited by thousands from around the world, we’ve had to employ a whole new team. I sit down with the girls who work in the gift shop and come up with new products with them, and we employ retired people to give guided tours.

I love having a vast array of people working for us. The youngest is 16 and the oldest is 91! Pat has painted and decorated here for 60 years and she can tell me what something was like before WWII, because her father painted here before her.

They’re amazing people, the place’s living history. We all socialise together, there is no Downton upstairs-downstairs life here. The other week we had a rounders tournament – banqueting team against the car park staff. We try to laugh a lot.

I think my husband and I have given the castle a good run and also kept it as a much-loved family home. The building has helped so many people throughout its life, and we share as much as we can, anything to keep its caring legacy alive. You can’t ask for more than that, can you?"

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