Quiet on the Set! Life Inside the Real Downton Abbey

As the countess of Highclere Castle, the grand home that is also the set of the lavish Edwardian TV drama Downton Abbey, Fiona Carnarvon needs to demonstrate grace under fire. In the spring, about 120 crew members descend on her 6,000-acre (2,400 hectare) estate. They drag miles of black cables across her lawns, place hot lamps near the 400-year-old leather wall coverings and swing camera cranes dangerously close to intricate wood carvings. “It’s a complete takeover,” she says, seated on a floral-print couch beneath a chandelier. “And it’s always utter chaos.” If crew members dare to lift the family’s antique chairs—including one that belonged to Napoleon—by the arms rather than the legs, they can expect a playful scolding from the lady of the manor. “I sometimes have to stop them and say, ‘Excuse me! You lift a chair by its bottom—and a woman in your arms,’” she says. And don’t even get her started on the crew’s request to wrap ivy around Highclere’s marble statues. “This isn’t just a film set,” she says, placing her cappuccino firmly back on its saucer. “It’s also our home.”

The Carnarvon family has lived on this estate in rural Hampshire, England, since 1679. The countess sees it as her duty to open the doors of Highclere not just to television crews but also to tour groups and schoolchildren. “It’s a living house and a part of our national heritage,” she explains. But sharing Highclere is also a matter of necessity. The Carnarvons, like many aristocratic families in Britain, are asset-rich but cash-poor. Exorbitant main­tenance costs can make even the bluest of blue bloods cringe: Geordie, Carnarvon’s husband and the eighth earl, estimates that he will need to sink $18 million into renovations in the coming years, from fixing faulty plumbing to restoring a 15th century barn with ancient timbers. Any revenue the house generates—from its tearoom, its filming contract, its $15 entrance fee—goes toward upkeep. “If I wanted Manolo Blahnik shoes or swish clothes from London, I definitely married the wrong man,” says Carnarvon, 47. “But I like looking at sheep and walking across lawns with dogs, so it’s fine. Everybody with houses like ours faces exactly the same challenges.”

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But not everybody with houses like Carnarvon’s has the free marketing of a Downton Abbey. Now starting its second season in the States on PBS, the Emmy-winning hit—which charts the ups and downs of the aristocratic Crawley family and its busybody servants—has transformed Highclere into Britain’s most talked-­about stately home. In 2010, about 1,200 people visited the castle on its busiest days; in October, following the U.K. premiere of the second season, 4,000 visitors came in a single afternoon. The so-called Downton Abbey effect has boosted the fortunes of other stately homes too. Increased interest following the series’ first season helped historic houses attract more than 17 million visitors in 2010, up from 15 million in 2009.

Part of Downton Abbey’s appeal stems from the castle’s Elizabethan grandeur. “It is a sculpture dedicated to the superiority of birth,” says Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer and creator. Highclere isn’t just Downton Abbey’s title location; it’s effectively one of the show’s main characters. Carnarvon understands this, and she’s given the producers access to ­every corner. The abundance of furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries reduces the need for outside props, though Carnarvon draws the line at china and ­glassware. “They have all these lighting cranes above the tables,” she says somewhat apologetically. “I’d much rather they broke their own kit than mine.”

The Crawleys’ life on Downton Abbey ­frequently mirrors the Carnarvons’ reality. Just like the fictitious Lady and Earl of Grantham (played by Elizabeth Mc­Govern and Hugh Bonneville), Carnarvon and her husband eat opposite each other frequently in the castle’s state dining room, which counts 15 paintings on its walls, including a 14-ft.-tall (4 m) van Dyck portrait of Charles I. And the Carnarvons do gather around the red velvet sofa in the library after dinner—though they usually roll in a bar and play charades, and the countess is more likely to don leather boots and jeans than a corset and elbow-length gloves.

Shooting disrupts any cozy routines. During filming, the crew arrives at 7 in the morning and generally stays for 13 hours; each day results in just six minutes of TV footage. Carnarvon must constantly consider logistics: if Highclere is hosting a weekend wedding, filming a fox hunt on the pristine grass simply won’t do. Naturally she sometimes feels trapped. “I’ll be walking from my office to get a cup of tea and I suddenly hear, ‘Silence!’” she says. “I always hope it’s a quick scene. Otherwise I’m stuck there for a while.”

Keeping Up with the Carnarvons

Downton Abbey has helped propel the Carnarvons’ renovation efforts and given them the peace of mind of knowing they can sustain their staff—­including two full-time chefs and an 88-year-old steward—for years to come. But the future of hundreds of other British stately homes remains less cushy.

Nick Way, director general of the Historic Houses Association, says Britain’s historic homes face a backlog of repairs amounting to more than $600 million, up 50% from six years ago. For the 1,500 stately homes that his organization ad­vises, the average cost of maintenance—from cleaning antique carpets to roof work—is $150,000 per year, and at least three properties budget more than $1.5 million. “Most of us live in our houses­ and decide how and when to decorate or renovate,” Way says. “But if you live in one of these houses, it’s not like that. The house lives you.”

Hoping to ease the squeeze, home­owners have started innovating to attract more visitors. Dalemain, a Georgian house in Cumbria, stages a Hindu dog blessing to celebrate the Nepalese day of the dog. At Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII’s old digs, guests receive velvet cloaks at the start of their tour. At Kelburn Castle, which dates back to the 13th century, the Earl of Glasgow commissioned Brazilian street artists to paint psychedelic murals on his home. The National Trust, a charity that advises historic properties, has encouraged estates to hire actors in period costume and remove barriers so that visitors can climb into beds and play billiards on pool tables.

Critics have lambasted such moves as the Disneyfication of British heritage. “I’m absolutely against throwing vulgarian tosh at the public. If increasing visitor numbers alone is your objective, then ­offer live sex and public executions,” says Stephen Bayley, the founder and former chief executive of London’s Design Museum. “I loathe this awful idea of having chewed chicken bones on the floor and his lordship’s cigar butt smoldering in the ashtray. The contemplation of great architecture and landscape doesn’t require third-rate circus activity.”

But something of the kind might be ­required to preserve these wonders for future generations, especially as costs rise faster than incomes. “It’s a tricky one,” Carnarvon says of the need to both lure visitors and respect a building’s integrity. “I’m afraid I still have the red ropes up.”

She has, however, expanded her revenue stream—without erecting a barbecue pit in her living room. In honor of her husband’s great-grandfather—the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who was present alongside archeologist Howard Carter at the discovery of King Tut in 1922—the Carnarvons converted their cellars into an exhibition that contains 5,000-year-old artifacts exhumed from Tut’s tomb. And she recently published a book, Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, about a predecessor who steered Highclere Castle through World War I.

That’s a lot to keep straight, even if you have live-in staff to help. But unlike the characters whose tumultuous lives unfold in her drawing rooms, Carnarvon knows that resolution to her own drama is never far from hand. “At the end of the day, if I haven’t done it all, at least I’ve tried,” she says. “And if it’s really bad, a glass of pink champagne does wonders.” Surely all home­owners can agree on that.