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High Society: Inside Highclere Castle

Only a handful of homes in the world carry the prestige of having Kings and Queens of England, along with a host of nobilities and celebrities roaming its interiors. Highclere Castle, the setting of the award-winning “Downton Abbey” series, is one such home. Designed in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry (the architect responsible for building the Houses of Parliament in Westminster), the grand Victorian castle in Hampshire, England boasts 1,000 acres of parkland, at least 50 bedrooms and a history as rich and drama-filled as the fictional “Downton Abbey.” The estate was, at one time considered “the social epicenter of Edwardian England,” hosting HRH The Prince of Wales for an extravagant shooting party in 1895. While those days have past, it is still a place for the privileged to stay, shoot or have their weddings and grand fêtes. For most of us, it might seem incongruous to refer to a place of such legend, as simply “home.” But to its current occupants, the 8th Earl and Countess, Highclere Castle (all 120,000 square feet of it) has been home to the Carnarvon families since the 17th century.

 

With as much care given to the home she now stewards, Lady Carnarvon has written a New York Times bestselling book (Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, Hodder & Stoughton, $15.99) that charts the time period covered by the first two seasons of “Downton Abbey.” The book closely follows the path of Lady Almina, the real Edwardian mistress of Highclere Castle. Previews Inside Out spoke exclusively with Lady Carnarvon about life at the castle and why Highclere has always been synonymous with high style.

In one Downton Abbey episode, Maggie Smith, Dowager Countess of Grantham asked, “What is a weekend?” Describe for us a typical weekend at Highclere Castle.


If we are having guests, the planning starts sometime before, when I give some thought as to whom I am asking, what sort of weekend it is and what sort of balance I am looking for in the party. Once I have invited various friends and established when they are coming, we then move on to who to ask who lives locally for dinner on the Friday night, who on the Saturday, who for Sunday lunch, etc. We then ensure they know directions and dress codes. After that, I have checked for any food allergies and the chef has started to suggest menus and banqueting works on the wines.  We decide what cocktails and whether we are dancing, since it impacts which rooms we might use. There are also bedrooms to allocate and children’s meals to plan. There are further details like flowers (which I Iike to do) and placements for each meal. The nature of the weekend depends on the time of year as well. I plan ahead, hoping that I can then enjoy myself!


How might the preparations for a formal event during Lady Almina’s time be different from a formal event today?


Almina returned here many times during her life before, during and after the second World War. She saw things change. However, in some ways today, my husband and I have brought back some of the old ways and filled the Castle again with friends and laughter. The Castle became emptier as the years post-1945 continued. We don’t do things that differently, so she would know some of the names in the visitors’ books. We have less staff to help (currently a staff of seven, reduced from 25 domestic servants during its Edwardian heyday), and more machines (Hoovers and washing machines).


As you pored over the details of Lady Almina’s life, what were you most surprised to learn?


How she rarely got it wrong despite being just 19 years old when she arrived.


Are there parallels between her life experiences and Lady Grantham’s experiences, coming from American high society?


I think there are more contrasts than parallels. Almina had already met and been quietly introduced to some people, since her mother and her father lived in London. Her father had a hugely luxurious house in Buckinghamshire, so she would have been aware of how it worked. We don’t know how Cora arrived or how long she had been in England. Julian Fellowes hasn’t yet divulged that.


If Lady Almina was hosting a party in the castle today, what do you think she would be most appalled to learn has changed?


I don’t think many things would have thrown her. She seems to have been a most redoubtable lady who was able to turn her hand to most things. She had a hugely practical approach.


What would make the most peculiar Downton Abbey storyline taken from Lady Almina’s life? 

 

Later on in the next book, I have some hilarious stories about valets and staff.


Which room of the castle has seen the most diplomats and nobility over the castle’s history?

 

Many of the rooms downstairs… certainly the dining room.


Can you say which room Lady Almina spent most of her time?

 

She was full of energy and on the move. I imagine she would have used her sitting room, as she could give orders there to senior staff and write letters as well as receive them. It was pink and charming and clearly her room. Highclere is quite a masculine house, so the odd nook and cranny that is mine today, or was hers, is very necessary.


Which room is your favorite room in the castle?


I love books and so am very fond of the library (which houses 5,650 books, some dating back to the 16th century). But I find my study peaceful because it is private and therefore, slightly messy. I listen to music as I work and often have the odd dog or puppy with me here.


In one episode, Maggie Smith, Dowager Countess of Grantham, was appalled by such modern inventions as electric lights. What other modern inventions have made their way into the castle that might really send her into an outrage?


Lady Almina was at the forefront of technology, and we had some of the earliest lights, power, battery systems and well-equipped kitchens. Almina adored the telephone and spent hours on it. I am sure she would have been busy on Google and e-mail today.


TIME magazine estimated that the Castle might be worth some £150 million, or approximately $227.5 million USD if it were sold today. Do you agree?

 

One U.S. magazine valued the Van Dyck (the equestrian portrait of Charles I in the dining room) alone at £60 million. There are quite a few paintings and other Van Dycks. The intricate carved stonework around the castle turrets alone is exquisite. There are all manner of animals and heraldic symbols up there. There are gilded ceilings and hand-painted ceilings as well as 16th century embroideries. There are leather wall coverings in the saloon (brought back from Cordoba, Spain by the 3rd Earl)and there is no other Spanish leather lining a room in England. I don’t think monetary values are the correct set of values to use.

 

PHOTOS: © Highclere Castle LLP 2013 

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