We jumped in the Land Rover and drove through the English countryside en route to Highclere Castle. Approaching Highclere is everything that you could wish for it to be. The magnificent Cedar trees, over 200 years old, dot the landscape as the Gothic turrets atop the castle, an iconic vision for Downton Abbey fans, come into view. Perhaps because of its expansive landscape, there’s a stillness and peace around the Castle. I’m visiting with my husband and we’ve come from a whirlwind few days in London ready to have a moment to pause from the bustle of the city.
There is such a sense of permanence at Highclere Castle. But how does a Castle stay standing today, when repairs can be a staggering financial setback and large-scale entertaining for the sake of society is perhaps a thing of the past. A practical question comes to mind like however do you keep the place warm and the lights on?
Walking towards the Castle feels so much like the opening scenes of Downton Abbey that you can almost picture Mr. Carson coming to check in on your arrival. We are greeted instead by the warmth of the Countess of Carnarvon who lives at Highclere Castle with her husband, the 8thEarl of Carnarvon. In decades past, the Castle would support the residents, but it is now the Earl and Countess in charge of supporting the Castle. Lady Carnarvon is someone who rolls up her sleeves and is figuring out how to not only keep the lights on at Highclere Castle but to continually breathe new life into the Castle for an inspiring, thriving future.
As with the times, Lady Carnarvon has an engaging blog that shows glimpses of Highclere to people across the world. She has written books about the past inhabitants of the Castle, including, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey which is a fascinating account of the tenacious and engaging wife of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, known for his discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Her current book Christmas at Highclere is a pleasureful look at the rituals of the holiday at Highclere Castle. The book documents preparation, decorating, festivities and anecdotes from Christmas to Epiphany. Recipes complete with beautiful imagery include everything from classic roast turkey with all the trimmings and desserts, to light lemongrass and herb broth. The book reads like an invitation to curl up and find inspiration for your own holidays and traditions.
In the spirit of entertaining, the Earl and the Countess of Carnarvon have recently launched Highclere Castle Gin which takes a ‘garden to glass’ approach using botanicals from the gardens of Highclere to create a bespoke flavor. Records from the Castle dating back to 1900 note the many evenings where Gin was enjoyed at dinners and parties. The production of Highclere Gin is one of the many ways that the Castle will be supported for the present and possibly the future.
In Downton Abbey, the fictional costume drama, the Castle is such a powerful presence that to be walking into the library, seeing the red velvet sofas which hosted many a quip by the Dowager Countess, feels a bit surreal in its beauty. The dining room is a classically designed space with period furnishings and immense oil paintings. The grand staircase leads to the bedrooms, including the red silk paneled bedroom where the Mr. Pamuk scandal took place. But this is very much a family home, dotted with photos in frames and flowers from the Orangery. A place where Christmas festivities are about to commence into full swing. Being an interior designer, I was so taken with all of the silks and wallcoverings, done with such a skilled hand. When asked how they keep up with repairs, “I have a little black book” Lady Carnarvon said. She has tradespeople for every decorative and structural elements of the house from artists and seamstresses to joiners. “We have such skilled people that work at the Castle, and I have a joiner who does amazing work but takes quite a while to finish, and I have another who does amazing work and is quick – and sometimes you just need a door to shut!” she says with a laugh.
Christmas preparation begins in November, as themes are discussed, logistics are planned such as how to get an 18 ft tall Christmas tree safely into the house, baubles are shined up, recipes are tested and tweaked. Lady Carnarvon knows how to throw a party. Her guests often don’t know what they are in for when they arrive at the sound of bagpipes and dancing, of Champagne corks popping and parlor games. The grand piano is played by world-renowned musicians one night and well-intended amateurs the next. There is a lightness here among all of the antiquities. Many people that work at Highclere have been here for decades, and some are the second generation. Highclere hosts various fundraisers throughout the season as well as a holiday fair. “A stately home makes you more aware that time is so valuable, and so we must do what we can to support each other while we are here,” says Lady Carnarvon. At the Castle they are making efforts to use less heat, relying instead on fireplaces. They are farming on a longer rotation in an effort to keep the soil nutrient-rich. She adds, “We are tenants in this life and it’s very important to be considerate of the past and also make every effort to leave things more beautifully than how we’ve found them”.
Outside, a gravel path takes you down to the Monk’s Garden and Orangery brimming with citrus trees, geraniums in herbs to last through winter. There are 600 acres of land on the estate with various pastures, gardens, and woodlands. When a woodland that hadn’t been tended since 1950 needed to be tilled, instead of machinery and manpower, they brought in two pigs, Thelma and Louise, who have successfully tilled the soil. Sheep graze in the pastures and new trees are planted to attract birds. They keep bees, which is integral to the health of the various gardens.
We met lovely Hannah who works at Highclere. Lady Carnarvon says that when they are strategizing about an event or mulling around ideas to work out an issue, that they often go on walks which help bring clarity or even to take a small break to practice Yoga. Historically, women have enjoyed a tête-à-tête on the Castle grounds as a way to break off alone to walk and talk.
You get a sense that though the Countess is dedicated to the future of Highclere Castle, that she would have the same outlook on life whether living in a castle or cottage. When asked her favorite room of the Castle she said she loves to climb the steps of the tower, sometimes with Champagne in hand and friends in tow, to look out over the immense beauty of the trees and land. There are many methodical rituals of the house at Highclere Castle. From tending the gardens to dusting the chandeliers. Many of the windows have immense interior shutters that help protect the antique silk fabrics from disintegration in the sunlight. The evening ritual of closing all of the shutters, done by the housekeeping team and Lady Carnarvon, is a meditation signaling the start of evening and drawing inward. The fireplaces and candles will be lit. Lady Carnarvon is passionate about living within the cycles and rhythms of nature, of the darkness and light, of the ways to look to the past and find inspiration for the future.