The Countess of Carnarvon is arranging flowers. ‘I’ve been cutting in the garden,’ she says, which explains her smart navy floral dress, knitted mink gilet and (less grand) muddy trainers.
Highclere Castle, the Hampshire stately pile she has called home for 22 years, has between 250 and 300 rooms (no one’s really sure, she admits), so of course you’d have a ‘flower room’.
With this year’s spin-off series Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story in the nation’s consciousness, charities, custodians and owners are hoping the Bridgerton factor will work its magic again.
Of course, the Countess (‘Lady C’, as the staff call her) is familiar with what the small screen can do for a grand house after Highclere became famous during 52 episodes of Downton Abbey (equating to a global TV audience of roughly 160 million).
The Countess of Carnarvon (AKA Lady C) at Highclere Castle. While Highclere has just 5,000 acres of land, a modest pile by comparison with Blenheim or Balmoral, finances are a constant worry. It needs to make about a million pounds a year to stay standing
We sit and talk in the castle’s smoking room. I am perched on a smart but weathered leather sofa under a sizeable still life of a dead swan by Dutch artist Jan Weenix.
For all the fame it brought Highclere, Carnarvon says the fee for the production of Downton Abbey ‘was just enough to keep me in cappuccinos’ – meaning not a lot (one estimate puts it at about £5,000 a day).
While Highclere has just 5,000 acres of land, a modest pile by comparison with Blenheim or Balmoral, finances are a constant worry. It needs to make about a million pounds a year just to stay standing.
Money headaches are something a great many of us can relate to, though most of us don’t have quite so much floggable stuff – there are three Canaletto-worthy masters alone, hung high up and miles from the line of vision, over the smoking-room door.
The fee for Downton was just enough to keep me in cappuccinos
Why not sell something, I ask?
‘I refuse to do that. What you do is you make a big effort and figure how to get some money in.’
Cost considerations mean the family don’t live in the main house but rather in a smaller farmhouse nearby. How big does she anticipate next winter’s electricity bills will be? Six figures? ‘I’ve no idea.
‘We don’t use much. I mean, there’s two lights on here. And that storage heater probably doesn’t work,’ she says, pointing to a forlorn-looking radiator. ‘All I know is I need to sell some more guided tours that will pay for that inevitable atrocity.’ [The high electricity bill.]
Highclere is one of the most notable historic houses in the country, and so death duties are held over in return for keeping the estate open to the public.
Downtown Abbey was filmed at Highclere Castle. But while the show brought Highclere fame, Carnarvon says the fee for the production was fairly low (one estimate puts it at about £5,000 a day)
Lady Carnarvon’s role is, she says, ‘Stewardship, strategy, process. We need a pragmatic approach, particularly following Covid; like every other business, we had all our reserves stripped out.’
Is her life stressful? ‘At the moment it is, yes, because it is so hard to run a business in this country. Brexit was a disaster for us.’
She reels off a list of difficulties, including importing champagne as well as tractor and lawnmower parts.
She talks in a carefully unprovocative way about a relative who refuses to work and lives off the family and what a financial concern this is. She is focusing on equanimity, but her disapproval and frustration are apparent.
Before she was Fiona, 8th Countess of Carnarvon, she was Fiona Aitken, a St Paul’s Girls’ School-educated accountant. She still loves a list and a spreadsheet.
‘I’m a pretty prudent accountant. Highclere is a business. It needs money coming in, money going out.’
She talks like Selina Scott or Kirsty Young, with a steady, slightly breathy warmth. She knows her history: dates and battles, kings and queens.
She speaks several languages, and if people comment at the Highclere website, she is keen to reply in their native language – German, Portuguese, French.
‘I want to make sure they’re not feeling ignored,’ she explains.
I’m told the staff – Lady C prefers the word ‘team’ – tend not to leave Highclere. The former head of security, Les, a retired police officer, worked until two months before he died aged 96.
Lady Carnarvon capitalised on Highclere’s newfound celebrity with a 2011 nonfiction book about the wife of the Fifth Earl, Lady Almina, the illegitimate daughter of banking tycoon Alfred de Rothschild, and her life at the ‘real’ Downton Abbey
She recounts how she ‘caught up with all the gardeners this morning, which was a joy’. She tells me one lady had a pair of trousers she liked – ‘with lots of pockets in the legs. She said she got them from Sports Direct.’
This high-street store mention is, I feel, quite relevant, for two reasons. One, Lady C is keen to assert that she doesn’t like anything class-based – she dislikes the word ‘aristocracy,’ for instance, saying she ‘doesn’t like being pigeonholed myself. ‘So I don’t [do that to others]. I see them each individually.’
The second reason is money, and the need to be prudent. Spotting a chance to save or make money is a skill that has served Lady C very well.
Within a year of the first Downton Abbey series, she had capitalised on Highclere’s newfound celebrity with a 2011 nonfiction book about the wife of the Fifth Earl, Lady Almina, the illegitimate daughter of banking tycoon Alfred de Rothschild, and her life at the ‘real’ Downton Abbey.
HIGHCLERE IN NUMBERS
1 ,400 visitors on average to the castle on a public open day
5,000 acres on the Highclere estate
£1m annual cost of running Highclere Castle
388,000 Instagram followers of Highclere Caste @highclere_castle
Translated into no fewer than 15 languages, it sat on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 60 weeks.
Lady C, like Downton, broke America in a big way. Five books on and she is a serious author. Her US publisher is HarperCollins, which is behind works by, among others, King Charles (while the Prince of Wales), as well as Julia Quinn’s ten-book Bridgerton series.
The Countess’s family were close to the late Queen for generations. The 7th Earl, Lady C’s father-in-law, was Her Majesty’s racing manager and confidant.
She stayed at Highclere regularly, often with her dogs. It is not, however, a relationship Lady C wishes to say too much about, or capitalise on.
‘The Queen never spoke very much, but when she did, we listened. Her Majesty didn’t judge other people, she walked the walk and demonstrated to us what was important. She did it by doing. That is how I try to live.’
Having spent an afternoon with Lady C, witnessing her passion and hard work, I believe it’s a life she will continue to succeed at. Highclere is in safe hands.
The Earl and the Pharaoh by The Countess of Carnarvon is published by HarperCollins, £20*