Life returns to normal for countess of real Downton Abbey

This time last year, Lady Fiona Carnarvon’s British stately home, Highclere Castle, was a beehive of activity as the cast and crew of Downton Abbey filmed one of the top-rated costume drama’s final episodes.

“It’s a very odd feeling,” admits the eighth Countess of Carnarvon, reflecting upon the relative serenity since then at her magnificent Victorian estate that was used to depict where the Crawley family and their servants live.

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The chatelaine of the real Downton Abbey, the 300-room castle in Hampshire she shares with her husband, George Herbert, a.k.a. Geordie, eighth Earl of Carnarvon, is in Victoria today. She will be guest of honour at tonight’s gala broadcast of Downton Abbey’s series finale at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, with partial proceeds benefiting KCTS 9 Seattle (PBS).

Contrary to what some might expect from a woman living in the home that has been in her husband’s family since 1679, Lady Carnarvon is charming and unpretentious, with quite a sense of humour.

When asked, for example, if it’s true that her teenaged son, Edward, was indifferent to Downton Abbey despite its popularity, she responds with amusing candor. “It depends how cool it is at school, I think,” she says, laughing. “I think the girls at his school are more interested in it. If he watches it, I guess he’s going to have more luck with those girls.”

When the author and former chartered accountant and her husband aren’t residing in the castle, they live “10 yards away” in their field house with a private garden that appeals more to their children.

In Highclere Castle, there is a schedule — “breakfast at 8 and by 10 it’s gone,” for instance — and there is no WiFi, computers or TV “so for teenagers that’s not so ideal,” she says.

“You read a book and listen to the radio and fall asleep,” she says, noting there is so much valuable furniture, paintings and works of art in the ancestral home they must be protected.

The Carnarvons open Highclere Castle to the public for tours, wedding and special events, reflecting Lady Carnarvon’s passion for sharing its history.

“I don’t want to preserve a museum, though. I want to preserve a stately home. So there is a balanced muddle about it,” says Lady Carnarvon, who loves to fill the house with family at Christmas and New Year’s.

“My No. 5 sister has three little blond children and the youngest baby is just so adorable, spending her time crawling around the library carpet, a blond mop of curls on her head,” she says.

Since the Carnarvons are friends with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and his wife, Lady Emma Kitchener-Fellowes, they were comfortable accommodating ITV production crews.

“I’m fond of Emma and Julian and I thought: ‘We’re getting into bed with people we like, so hopefully the ship will be steered more or less the way we all wanted it to.”

It wasn’t the first brush with fame for Highclere, which was featured in films and TV shows including Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Jeeves and Wooster.

“So you’re not going into it cold,” says Lady Carnarvon, who was actively involved.

There were laughs along the way, she says, recalling some amusing “lost in translation” moments when the hosts and film crews got their wires crossed talking about shooting.

“We’d be talking about pheasant and partridge shoots and things like that, and they’re obviously shooting films,” she says. “It got very muddled. Honestly, I descended into hysterical laughter.”

Lady Carnarvon says she considers herself fortunate being part of “the extraordinary adventure Downton Abbey has become,” viewing it as a great opportunity to showcase Highclere.

Life at Highclere today, where their domestic staff is a fraction of the size of the one depicted in Downton Abbey, doesn’t necessarily imitate art. For one thing, Lady Carnarvon and her husband have more dogs than the Crawleys, seven altogether.

As breathtaking but much bigger than the estate on screen, Highclere has “1,000 acres of parkland and 4,000 to 5,000 acres of farm and woodland beyond it,” she adds.

And Lady Carnarvon would never be confused with Lady Cora. Nor would Lady Almina, the Countess of Carnarvon between 1895 and 1923, upon whom Cora was loosely based.

“Lady Cora is quite a passive character,” Lady Carnarvon says, adding she understands Elizabeth McGovern’s character is one of the “foils” needed to propel the story. “Lady Almina was far from passive. She was an extraordinary woman, and I think in today’s world I am much more at the heart of what’s going on in the castle.”

She had the castle blessed by monks, for example, to get rid of a former footman’s ghost that was believed to be haunting the house.

“I said: ‘Could you kindly ask the ghosts to move on?’ ” she recalls with a laugh.

Lady Carnarvon has also learned, through diary entries, that the castle contributed to Canada’s Confederation.

She says it was when the fourth Earl of Carnarvon helped frequent visitor Sir John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister, draft the Canadian constitution there.

“They agreed it’s going to be taken to Parliament on the first of July, 1867,” says Lady Carnarvon, adding her husband’s ancestor introduced Macdonald to Queen Victoria on Feb. 28, 1867.

“In one note he said: ‘Highclere’s ‘a swell place,’ ” says Lady Carnarvon, who plans to use her anecdotes in her upcoming book about entertaining and recipes.

mreid@timescolonist.com

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