A Visit to the Real Downton Abbey

by Barbara Gulley
All Photography © Highclere Castle

Lady Carnarvon talks about life at Highclere Castle, the impact of the popular series, and where she likes to have tea.

 A cup of tea and the next installment of Downton Abbey make a perfect pairing whether you enjoy your tea milk-in-first or milk-in-last (the former practice historically tied to the downstairs staff; the latter, to the upper class). No matter which side of the manor you identify with, Downton Abbey fans are united in their devotion to the show whether it be the fictional story, the real-life characters who inspired it, or a combination.

Lord and Lady Carnarvon
George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and his wife, Lady Fiona, the current Countess of Carnarvon, welcome visitors to their family home, Highclere Castle.

The first season of Downton Abbey aired on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater in 2010, and for the first two months of the year ever since, many Americans have welcomed the members of the aristocratic Crawley family and their downstairs staff into their homes every Sunday night. In turn, the Carnarvons have been opening the doors to their country estate, Highclere Castle (the blue-blood clan and residence, respectively, that inspired Downton Abbey), to the public for years. Fans of the patrician lifestyle get a glimpse of what it’s like to reside in a home that contains not only the grand furnishings passed down from generation to generation, but also the stories of ancestors ripe for the retelling.

As the author of two books on the former residents of the country estate, the current Countess of Highclere, Lady Fiona Carnarvon (married to George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon) has become the face of the real Downton Abbey. While some may find it daunting to receive so many guests each year, Lady Carnarvon welcomes it as part of Highclere’s history. However, actually viewing her home on the television series can be a little disconcerting.

“Highclere has welcomed visitors since 1988,” says Lady Carnarvon, “and whilst we are busier and are delighted to see more international visitors, it has been part of our life and my life ever since I married Geordie (my husband). I, nevertheless, find it surreal when I am watching TV sometimes and see the familiar carpets, gilded pillars, or paintings.”

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