Once upon a time, a day in the life of a countess might have involved leisurely gourmet picnics and penning flowery formal invitations to important people. For the Eighth Countess of Carnarvon, Lady of Highclere Castle, there is still some of that. As she told Architectural Digest in an Upper East Side apartment recently, “When writing to the queen, it’s, ‘Your Royal Highness, blah blah, I beg to remain…’”
But in the 21st century, maintaining a 300-room castle on a 6,000-acre estate will bankrupt even the most mannered of aristocrats, so a countess has to do a lot more than send out afternoon tea invitations. Highclere Castle is most recognisable to the world as the real life location of the TV show — and much anticipated movie, out September 13 — Downton Abbey. The show’s filming fees brought in a good chunk of change to put toward the estate’s endless repairs, and since the series ended in 2015, it’s paid dividends in tourism. These days, Highclere receives about 1,500 visitors per day. “I act more as CEO,” says the Countess, formerly known as Fiona Aitken. “There’s the estate, there’s the castle, there’s the properties and people renting cottages, and then there’s the horse-feed business and the books I’m writing.”
Managing it all is no small job (as the Countess also explained on an episode of Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets on BBC One). “I have a whiteboard in my room, which probably has about 40 projects I need to do in the next few months,” she says, revealing that she starts each week by meeting with everyone working to keep the place standing, from plumbers to roofers to stonemasons. “I do social media on Tuesday mornings, theoretically, and Wednesday morning there’s theoretically a castle meeting, but usually by then something’s gone wrong!”
Unexpected surprises are all in a day’s work when your home is 1,200 years old. Some are delightful; the Eighth Countess of Carnarvon recently discovered a church at the back of the property believed to have been built in the 12th century, and a yew tree that looks to be 1,000 years old. Other surprises are less pleasureable. Endlessly entrepreneurial, the Countess is always thinking up novel events and excursions for visitors, but often new ventures can result in unforeseen costs. “At the top of the castle there are three rooms and I thought it would be quite fun to develop a new tour around how the maids lived. So up I went,” she says. “I was going to decorate them as if Anna or Daisy [from Downton Abbey] had just hung up their hat and coat and walked out to do their business or whatever else. And then I found that the ceilings I was going to patch were actually leaking.” What began as a small facelift for a few rooms turned into a £60,000 roof repair, which won’t be completed until September. But the Countess hasn’t scrapped her plans: “I think [it] will be a fun tour,” she says. “And there’s no lift, so people will get in their 10,000 steps a day!”
Another of her latest endeavours is Highclere Castle Gin. The dark royal purple bottle pays homage to the colours of the Bishops of Winchester, who owned Highclere for its first 800 years, before it was sold to the Carnarvons in 1679. “The bishops had an herb garden, and they grew lavender and some of the other herbs we’ve put into the gin,” the Countess explains. “I’ve got records of the pear trees from the 12th and 13th century, and what they grew in the herb garden. They were growing herbs to heal, so actually, in their memory, today I’ve created a healing herb garden.”
As might be expected, many of these innovations involve striking a balance between reverence for the past and appropriate updates. (it can’t clash with Italianate Gothic architecture built on Medieval English foundations–easy!) “There’s a lot that I can’t do because it’s a Grade I listed building,” she says, “But I still have to like it, and I do make changes. I love green, the colours of the olive trees, and warm terracottas. I want to bring in peace and coherence, so it flows.”
Many of the Countess’s decor contributions are aimed more at subtle ambience than design statements. “In Downton you’ll notice all the skirting boards are painted darker colours. I did that because the ceilings are so high, and it gives you a sense of being anchored in the space,” she says. In the bedrooms, she used “seven or eight shades of off-white paint” to bring out the decorative woodwork on the ceilings. Many of the wallpapers seen on the show are ones she installed. “So much goes on behind the scenes to make it seem as if nothing does,” says the Countess.
Speaking of Downton, when the cast returned to Highclere for two months last autumn to film the movie, the Countess says, “It was lovely having them all around again, so fun. I think we all really enjoyed it, because we hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years.” And of course, it’s always a special pleasure to have the venerable Maggie Smith on the premises, she says. “It’s magic that Maggie plays a character who often delivers just a few lines, and is the star. It’s not the young beautiful girls, it’s an amazing lady who is part of English heritage…” She pauses a beat. “Along with the castle!”