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The Countess of Carnarvon talks about Downton Abbey

The author of Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey talks about filming the hit show, Downton Abbey, her home, and her New York Times bestseller.

The Countess of Carnarvon, author of Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, shares with us her thoughts about the past year, living at Highclere Castle, the filming of Downton Abbey and what it’s like to have a New York Times bestseller.

By The Countess of Carnarvon

December 2012 at Highclere—the film location for Downton Abbey

The weather has been clear and cold, and we are all trying to “tidy up” at the end of the year. The days are short, the sun fades midafternoon, and since Highclere sits on a high chalk escarpment, the winter winds flurry around most corners of the Castle. We therefore fill the daylight hours with outside tasks and meetings before settling inside for computer and book work.

My husband (Geordie) and I are simply part of the castle and a way of life which has existed around here for several hundred years. Perhaps we are leading from the front, but our success depends on many different people carrying on around us. Highclere’s business of weddings, private dinners, conferences, and visitors had been steadily growing. We are all working here for the shared love of a beautiful house, its park, estate, and the community of all of us who gives it its heart.

It has been incessantly busy in all our departments at Highclere over the last year; there hasn’t been a break. Traditionally the different areas of running the castle have been called “departments,” and whilst there may have once been ten or twenty staff working in each department, today it is usually just two or three people.

There is a strong seasonal cycle to life here. For example, the gardeners are busy planting new trees, hedges, and shrubs, which is best done now when the plants are dormant.

Various scaffolding needs to go up in January for gutters (for the maintenance and roofing department, followed by decorators for window frames); the scaffolding around the chimneys on the castle roof should be down for Christmas but is running late. One small outhouse has neither roof nor door, and the storage in an old sawmill is apparently damp, so there are discussions about where to move chairs and fridges. That project has involved banqueting, maintenance, castle office, and the outside team of Sam and Woody, plus everyone from gamekeepers to me refusing to give up any other storage. We never have enough storage.

I know we’ve needed “wash-up” meetings for the past year to review public opening, but since the New Year is so close, perhaps future plans should come first. The new on-line gift shop has started well, except the floor in the store room needs repairing, so carpenters are head down mending planks.

Downton Abbey may return for another season, and they make significant contributions to dust and mud with cars, lorries, cables, and computers, so I am not sure when we will have time for spring cleaning in the castle. The filming takes place here intermittently from February to the end of June.

Downton Abbey has given our businesses much faster trajectories, and the castle, its architecture, and the people who have lived here and do so today have become better known. The fictional TV show is now a success in several hundred countries around the world, but we are also proud of the real Highclere—the stories of today (which are usually hilarious) and the real stories of the past.

One hundred years ago the fifth Earl and Countess (Almina) of Carnarvon lived here. Their lives were about to be irretrievably changed with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Almina was extraordinary, and her contribution to other people’s lives during the war most humbling. It was a challenge and a privilege to write about her. I do not know of many people with such a generosity of spirit and who spent so much personal money, so comprehensively, to save other people’s lives and to make them better. Highclere really was a hospital and a home.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey has returned to the New York Times bestsellers list. I feel that Almina’s heart of gold has been a gift to us to help support and bring knowledge of the real Highclere. The third season of Downton will soon begin in the USA and help direct more interest to our home—to her home. Looking backward over the year, we just kept going and tried to do our best. Many of our lists remained unfinished, and some things have not gone exactly to plan. Some of the people who work here have had health scares, and others still carry on working and laughing in their seventies and eighties teaching us so much.

I am now busy researching the next book and beginning to see how I can shape characters. What is particuarily exciting for me is I now have electricity and, therefore, lights in the archive room which lies at the top of the castle. I even have internet and a radio. I am very lucky because I have a real story about a New York beauty who marries an English earl, the sixth Earl of Carnarvon.

Meanwhile, my husband is trying to look at the longer view for the next few years. It is a complex business with many relationships to balance, one which needs to make money, but not one formulated to make money.

Christmas is a time for reflection, and some of my beloved sisters will arrive as well as some of Geordie’s cousins and our friends. We play board games, test our Scottish reeling prowess, and have quizzes after supper. Looking forward, we know we have many visitors who hope to come, weddings booked, and for ourselves some weekends scattered through the year filled with friends. But like everyone else in the UK, we are just hoping for some sort of summer this year and a break from the rain!

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