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The True Story Behind Highclere Castle, AKA Downton Abbey

Famously renowned for being the ‘real’ Miss Downton, Ellie-Mae Hammond catches up with Lady Fiona Carnarvon, the woman behind the historical preservation of Highclere Castle

Known for being the face behind the ‘real’ Downton Abbey, Lady Fiona Carnarvon is so much more. An avid reader and writer, and with now five books to her name, Lady Carnarvon wants to tell the true stories of the Carnarvon/Herbert family and the grounds that housed her family history at Highclere Castle. Although the tales of the fictional inhabitants of Downton Abbey give so much joy to many, Lady Carnarvon is focusing on the true beauty that Highclere Castle offers to bring the love for life back to their beloved visitors.

What intrigues the most about Lady Carnarvon is her passion to uncover the light in every story. “It all started with my first book – Lady Almina, the first lady of Downton,” she explains. “I had written some guide books beforehand, which had helped when understanding how to write in a historical structure. I had quite a bad riding accident, so whilst I was recovering, I read some material from the family archives, and read some of Lady Almina’s diaries – and I just remember weeping. I thought, what an extraordinary person. And when Downton Abbey set off, there’s quite a strong female centre to it, and I thought rather than write about the earl, because these houses are so associated with the earls, I wanted to write about this extraordinary woman.”

Lady Carnarvon With Her Faithful Four Legged Friends
Lady Carnarvon with her faithful four legged friends

After writing the story of Lady Almina, Lady Carnarvon turned her focus onto the second strong female figure of Downton, Lady Catherine. “I found them both so interesting. Almina, as the earlier countess, had such a phenomenal amount of money, yet such an ability to be in control of it, and Catherine did not. She had very little independence, a harder life. As I was reading material written by Lady Catherine, I realised I was sitting exactly where she would have sat, and cried. I think the sense of place is at the heart of these two books. Being able to access the archives is an extraordinary process – you have to read around the material, and make sense of it yourself.”

Moving slightly away from historical figures, Lady Carnarvon has now turned her focus towards a new style of writing. “I have now done a different book. which is called Seasons at Highclere, looking at the sense of place and the setting, the arcadia around it and how that interacts with the house, whilst being mindful of nature and understanding the people that have lived here for the past 1,000 years and what they’ve brought to life here. I hope it’s written with lightness, but at the heart of the book, it’s all about walking lightly on this earth. “The book looks at many elements of the history that has happened here at the castle,” she continues. “Spring is about life today, our summer section goes back to 18th century landscape and temples, how we use them, and then medieval orchids, and that bleeds into the lands and how we use them now, and then I go back to iron and bronze age times. The recipes are based on what’s found locally. Supporting British fishing, what is sustainable, and focusing on what we should be choosing to eat today is at the heart of the book.” Contrary to her previous books, Seasons at Highclere is a photographic book. “I wanted to share photographically some of the archives and images of Highclere. I then thought I wanted to write about Christmas at Highclere, as this is the time of year, regardless of where we are in the world, religious or not, we all stop. So, I wanted to look at that. Food and hospitality is at the heart of life.”

Moving on from Lady Carnarvon’s written work, conversation turns to the house itself, the history and all that walked the corridors of Highclere Castle. “Downton Abbey became a convalescent house during World War I. Lady Almina’s story is so much more. It’s a costume drama not a historical documentary, so you engage with characters, so you realise that these characters go through the same ups and downs as we do in our lives. We actually have our costume display when we launch our ‘Magic at the Movies’ experience. When we were going through the archives, we actually found Almina’s coronation dress, which we have had restored, and it’s just magnificent. They will be a centrepiece. There’s also an extraordinary coronation robe, of which she would have worn to the coronation of Edward VII, George V and George VI. It really is a magnificent piece of living history.

Seasons At Highclere
Seasons at Highclere book cover

“Before Downton, the discovery of Tutankhamun was our USP,” Lady Carnarvon adds. “The fifth earl of Carnarvon was an associate in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. So, at the beginning, we had an exhibition running through the cellars of the house from 2006-2009. Downton then came along, so we haven’t really pushed the exhibition now, but 80% of people still come and see it. And this will be my next book – a historical biography on the 5th earl of Carnarvon. No-one has ever written [about him] before, so it’s very exciting. This will hopefully be next autumn. Downton has been so strong and I’d rather not offer everything up, but this year I think we all need a treat, so I think I’m just going to focus on what makes people happy. Costumes, cocktails, vintage cars, cream teas, dining, a bit of laughter. After this year, I will then move onto Tutankhamun. I am just trying to answer what makes people happy.”

Whilst being a preserver of history, Lady Carnarvon remains passionate about preserving the admirable stories of her ancestors, whilst using what surrounds her as a purpose to make others happy – much like Downton Abbey does for many millions, but dig deeper and there’s so much more to learn about Highclere Castle and its past.

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