Going Downton

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From the set at Highclere to the setting of Yorkshire, Vivian Vassos goes upstairs and downstairs and discovers, yes, it’s all about the lady of the house

The Lady Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, has invited us – 20 of us, a group just in from London – to tea. She’s got all hands on deck in the little tea shop on the grounds of Highclere Castle, the estate of her and her husband, George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon. She’s behind the counter playing mum, pouring the tea as fast as her crew can brew it. She then corrals the group outside in the summer sunshine, where she can observe just how monumental a tourist attraction the family pile – all 6,000 acres of it – has become. The main reason for its immense popularity being that Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, England, about an hour from London, is where Downton Abbey, the international television phenomenon is filmed. Fans have lapped up the series’ post-Edwardian soap opera-esque storylines that centre around the estate and the Crawley family with Lord and Lady Grantham at its head. Loyal viewers have made the trek or, shall we say, pilgrimage to Highclere ever since, when production is on hiatus, as it is on this day. The cafe tables are cheek by jowl with daytrippers on bus tours or Sunday drives, having a cuppa on the lawn or taking in the permanent Egyptian exhibit in the cellars of the house – or just getting a piece of Downton. Of course, not everyone who enjoys the splendour of Highclere comes because of Downton. Namely, Queen Elizabeth. “Her Majesty still comes here because of her great interest in horse racing, and a racing stud is still stabled nearby,” says Lady Fiona. “In fact, the seventh Earl was her racing manager.”

A quiet spot in the gardens at Highclore Castle

Lady Fiona, who helps run the Castle, properties and the estate, is a former auditor for Coopers & Lybrand and has business in her blood, useful considering the funds needed to maintain such an estate. Cue Lady Mary anyone? To wit, Lady Fiona is a faithful follower of the estate’s history and has written two books about it and her husband’s ancestors. Her most recent, Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey, follows the lives of the residents, upstairs and downstairs, as the Second World War loomed. Another big project? London Lodge, the manor’s gatehouse, has been converted to provide luxury accommodation for two.

Downton takes place during a time when women were coming into their own, and it has sparked an interest in this history,” says Lady Fiona, “and because it is enormously popular, it has given us a platform to help bring [more] people here.” She’s not talking about tea anymore; she’s entrenched in the many special charity events that the Carnarvons host, including a First World War centenary commemoration this past summer with about 8,000 people in attendance.

Julian Fellowes, who created the series, had used Highclere for his 2001 film Gosford Park and, she adds, the house also provides inspiration to Fellowes when he’s penning the Downton Abbey scripts. For example, in a case of life imitating art, Highclere was converted into a hospital during the First World War, taking in and treating the wounded from Flanders, similar to the convalescent home it was portrayed as in Season 2 of the series. Says Lady Fiona of Lady Catherine’s predecessor, “Lady Almina turned her inheritance into a good cause. She went completely bankrupt, creating hospitals and saving lives.”

Back at the main house, I’ve taken the self-guided tour through downstairs and upstairs and wonder at how Fellowes and crew have managed to make the rooms appear so much larger on TV than they actually are. I find myself at the top of the grand staircase, and a flutter of Lady Mary as a bride comes to me, during the episode where she descends into the waiting arms of her groom Matthew.

Despite the surroundings, the Earl and Countess are perhaps not so grandiose. “Geordie opens up for the cast at 7 a.m.,” says the Lady Carnarvon, “and I’ll close up at night.”

Highclere Castle may “play” Downton Abbey, but Fellowes’ story is actually set in another part of England altogether, in the Yorkshire countryside in the north. It’s about a two-hour train ride from London to York – known as the birthplace of Guy Fawkes and for York Minster Cathedral. From there, it’s a mile from the charming market town of Masham – which fans will recognize as a town often referenced in the show’s dialogue – and the estate of Swinton Park.

A formal sitting room, perfect for pre-dinner cocktails, at Swinton Park

Of course, Swinton Park is not just another stately English home. Because of its geographical location, technically, it is Downton Abbey. The Mashams, like the fictional Granthams, employ numerous people within the 20,000-acre estate and surrounding Yorkshire Dales. Our driver notes that many citizens of the dales depend on the estate and “His Lordship and Lady” for their livelihood. He seems delighted that more people are coming to Yorkshire to get a bit of the real thing.

Walking the grounds with the Lady Masham, one can only imagine what the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey might have to say about her attire: an oversized hooded down coat over mud-spattered Wellies, borrowed from the manor’s boot closet, sans hat or gloves. Felicity, as the former city solicitor prefers to be called, is the wife of Mark Cunliffe-Lister, the current Lord Masham.

After Mark’s great-grandmother Molly, the Countess of Swinton, passed away, the family sold the estate in the 1980s – a fate the fictional Crawleys almost faced as well. In 2000, Felicity and Mark packed in their big-city jobs – something the show’s Matthew Crawley had to do, too, in order to help keep Downton on track – and, along with Mark’s immediate family, bought back the ancestral home. Although Mark’s father, Nicholas, is the Earl of Swinton – Mark is the Baron of Masham – it was the couple who took on managing the estate, turning it into a luxury destination hotel in 2001, perfect for history buffs and countryside escapists – and now, Downton fans. The Lord and Lady Masham even host “Downton at Swinton” weekends twice a year –the next one is Oct. 16 to 18 – where guests can book in and experience a Downton Abbey-inspired country house party. And like Highclere’s Lady Carnarvon, Mark’s mother, Susan Cunliffe-Lister, has recorded Masham history in Days of Yore. She also runs everything to do with the manor’s gardens and parklands, particularly the Walled Garden off the main house. This four-acre plot is her ode to sustainability; when she designed it, she had it in mind to be the source of much of the produce used by the hotel and cookery school. Since she began restoring it in 2001, Susan has planted more than 60 varieties of vegetables and fruits, including 10 types of apple trees, as well as an acre of flowers, for use in arrangements and dried for the hotel.

Country house parties aside, to maintain an estate of this size, one must be all business. Under Felicity’s steady solicitor’s gaze, the hotel offers 31 rooms and suites and the aforementioned award-winning cookery school, while the immediate 200-acre parkland that sits within the 20,000-acre estate is also home to a falconry school. This spring, along with a “glampsite” and nine-hole golf course – ground will be broken on a full-service country club and spa.

Felicity, of course, keeps an eye on the past as much as the future. She’ll also use the construction to help restore some of the castle’s original workshops and garden buildings, while adding contemporary buildings. It’s top-notch luxury for this rural part of England and, like the existing estate – and its fictional sister Downton – the move will provide more than two dozen new jobs. “We’re thrilled with this project,” Felicity says, “which will be a valuable asset to local businesses, communities and visitors alike.” How very Lady Mary.




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