What makes a successful marriage?
“It works when both sides love each other and help with each other’s concerns,” said George Reginald Oliver Molyneux Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon.
It might also help to live in one of the most felicitous places on the face of God’s green earth. With its crenellated Victorian manor house, sweeping park and farm lands, intimate gardens and neoclassical follies — not to mention an antiquities collection steeped in mystique — Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, is, Lord Carnarvon says, “a romantic place.”
It’s also a particularly well-known one. Lovers of the big and small screens will recognize it from “Jeeves and Wooster,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick’s last film, to name but of few of its credits.
But it is undoubtedly best known to viewers as the setting for “Downton Abbey” (2010-15), one of the most popular and acclaimed series in TV history. Set between 1912 and 1926 as England weathered the sinking of the Titanic and World War I while encountering challenges to its class system and views of women, “Downton Abbey” told the upstairs-downstairs story of the Crawley family, led by the Earl and Countess of Grantham, and their servants. Highclere was used for the exteriors and most of the interiors, with the staff rooms recreated at Ealing Studios in London.
“We love (‘Downton’ creator) Julian Fellowes,” said Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon. The screenwriter-director had looked at Highclere Castle for “Gosford Park,” his 2001 mystery film set on a grand estate, Lady Carnarvon said. Though Wrotham Park and Syon House would both double as the titular home in “Gosford,” Fellowes remembered Highclere when he was casting about for a great country seat to play Downton, she added.
WAG had an opportunity to talk with the Carnarvons during a launch party at the SoHo Grand Hotel in Manhattan for Highclere Castle Gin, a smooth, creamy product made of botanicals from the estate that launches in early spring and represents one of the couple’s many ventures. (Another is the Connecticut-connected Highclere Castle Cigars. See related story.) With its red and green library-like Club Room and spectacular views of midtown from the Loft North terrace, the SoHo Grand proved a fitting setting for the event. A pianist, Héloïse Pieaud, offered a variety of romantic selections, including the “Downton” theme, written by John Lunn, “Did I Make the Most of Loving You?” If love and a regard for each other are the ingredients of a successful marriage, so, too, might be complementary natures. Dressed in pinstripes, Lord Carnarvon percolated. In leopard print, Lady Carnarvon bubbled. Both charmed with their down-to-earth graciousness.
Together, they are enthusiastic farmers, growing visibly excited as they talked about their farm and livestock. Highclere works more than 2,000 acres of arable land, producing oats for equine and human consumption, milling and feed wheat, barley, haylage, winter oilseed rape, linseed and winter beans. Other areas support stubble, maize, wildflowers and a variety of wildlife.
A large flock of sheep grazes 1,400 acres in Highclere Park. There’s another 1,000 acres of mixed woodlands that the family has cultivated, working with farm manager Simon Andrews.
Highclere Horse Feeds’ array of oats, hay and grain plays a key role in the racing community. Highclere Superior Oats has fueled winners of more than 560 races that have earned $11.4 million in prize money.
“In fact, it was Lord Carnarvon’s addition of oats that gives our gin its distinctive creaminess,” said Ted Yang, a co-founder of Highclere Castle Spirits, of which the gin is the first product. “It is a great pleasure to work with people who are passionate and knowledgeable about their heritage. They are truly stewards of Highclere and, I’m happy to say, are deeply involved in what we do, ensuring that the Highclere products are as authentic and elegant as they can be.”
Not surprisingly, then, for the proprietors of a place whose story stretches back to the Iron Age, the Carnarvons are also lovers of history. In medieval times, the site housed the palace of the bishops of Winchester. In the 17th century, it came into the possession of the Carnarvons’ Herbert ancestors, who set about transforming the estate. A century later, its brick and freestone house became a classical Georgian manor in a bucolic setting. It was in 1838, however, that the third Earl of Carnarvon, brought in architect Charles Barry to turn the house into the grand mansion that viewers know today, Lady Carnarvon said.
Yang was lucky enough to tour the house with her ladyship. “It was amazing listening to her tell the story of each room and we quickly drew a crowd. But what struck me most was a casual family photo, just like you would find in your own house — except this photo had the Queen (Elizabeth II, Lord Carnarvon’s godmother) in it.”
Lady Carnarvon is a historian by profession and has written two Highclere books — “Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey,” about her husband’s grandparents, and “Lady Amina and the Real Downton Abbey,” about his great-grandparents. “Lady Amina” is of particular interests to “Downton” fans and Egyptologists alike. “Downton” buffs will notice a similarity between Amina and the fictional Countess of Grantham. Both came from money. (Amina was the natural daughter of banker Alfred de Rothschild.) And both turned their august homes into hospitals during World War I.
Amina’s husband, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, was an amateur Egyptologist, who with archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb with all its splendors. When, however, this Earl of Carnarvon died of an infected razor cut on March 19, 1923 in Cairo, the curse of King Tut’s tomb was born. (Back at Highclere, his faithful dog, Susie, is said to have howled at the precise moment that the earl died and then keeled over, adding to the mystique.)
Highclere contains a permanent exhibit of many artifacts the fifth earl collected. It’s one of the highlights you can enjoy on tours, including the special guided winter tours, which conclude March 16 and 17. Winter events also include a Valentine’s Day Tea Feb. 16 and 17 and a Mother’s Day Afternoon Tea March 31. Perhaps you’ll even run into the Carnarvons, who divide their time between the manor and a cottage on the property, particularly as tours heat up during the soft seasons.
Highclere is not done with “Downton.” Recently, the cast returned to film a “Downton” movie, which will be released Sept. 20. In the meantime, there will be a “Downton Abbey” concert on June 22. “Music From ‘Downton Abbey’” features The Chamber Orchestra of London with composer Lunn on the piano and actor Jim Carter reprising his role as the beloved Carson.
The romance with Highclere continues.
Highclere Castle’s spring opening is set for April 7. For more, visit highclerecastle.co.uk.