The real Downton Abbey

THE REAL THING: Lord and Lady Carnarvon live at the Highclere Castle, better known to television viewers in 100 countries as Downton Abbey.
THE REAL THING: Lord and Lady Carnarvon live at the Highclere Castle, better known to television viewers in 100 countries as Downton Abbey.

"It's been a hell of a ride for us all."

Young, blonde and attractive, Fiona Herbert passes over my coffee with a smile and - very far from looking frazzled - is relaxed and friendly; although not so friendly that I dare to call her Fiona to her face.

She's the Countess of Carnarvon, with 200 years of history behind the title, and she's greeted me under the soaring Gothic columns of the entrance to Highclere Castle, better known to television viewers in 100 countries as Downton Abbey.

At the end of the estate's long private driveway through rolling green fields of sheep and 400 hectares of parkland, Highclere earns two gasps when it comes into sight at the centre of a broad velvety lawn with cedars 150 years old.

The first is of instant recognition of the location of Downton Abbey, the compulsive early 20th-century upstairs- downstairs series; and the second is at the sheer beauty of the building.

Designed in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, who was also responsible for the Houses of Parliament, Highclere has the same ornate pinnacles on its turrets and towers, the same tall narrow windows, the same honey-coloured Bath stone.

It's elegant, impressive and stately, but for Lady Carnarvon it's both her home and her business.

Married to George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, whose family have lived at Highclere since 1679, Fiona came to the castle in 2003 after her husband inherited the title.

She describes this, significantly, as "taking over the stewardship": there's been a house on the site for 1300 years, which gives perspective to the comparatively brief lifespan of any one incumbent, and puts paid to grandiose ideas of ownership.

While "Geordie" runs the estate and its associated businesses, Fiona has taken on the fulltime task of maintaining the fabric of the building and making the castle pay its way.

That's why I'm here, joining a houseful of visitors happily trooping around three floors of the building. The castle has been open to the public for some time, and while there's no doubt that the television series has raised its profile and increased the numbers through the gates, Fiona says the steadiest income has been the weddings that are booked here.

Starting at $19,000 for the package, that buys quite a lot of lead flashing to patch a leaky roof; and the estimated $2 million that model Jordan spent on her special day here, including her two pink thrones, must have been a particularly nice little earner. Most welcome of all, however, despite the inevitable disruption to castle life, are the location fees paid by ITV for the two series already filmed, a Christmas special, and a third series in 2012.

The house is seductively photogenic, inside and out. The high, studded front door leads into an entrance hall more cathedral than castle, its high vaulted ceiling supported by ornate columns rising from a busily patterned marble floor.

It's a dramatic entry, but it's dwarfed by the scale of the oddly named saloon beyond where skylights 15 metres overhead brighten the carved stonework of the upstairs gallery.

Around the perimeter, 20 painted heraldic shields belonging to successive generations of the Herbert family are just one indication of the history here; and so are the large oil portraits throughout the house of the earls and their families, from the first in his formal red velvet jacket and lace cravat, all the way to Geordie in a business suit and the countess herself, casually posed in trousers on the arm of a chair.

The day-trippers, however, are showing more interest in the framed photographs on the grand piano and side-tables in the drawing room; in among family skiing holiday snaps are others featuring the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Margaret, Charles and Diana.

"Oh, yes, most kings and queens have stayed at Highclere," Fiona says airily, adding, "My father-in-law was one of the Queen's best friends, and she is godmother to my husband."

The rooms are endearingly lived-in: fireplaces are set with scrunched-up newspaper ready to light ("It's perishing cold here at Easter," confides a guide) and on the bedside tables are squeezed tubes of ointment and novels by Philippa Gregory and Frederick Forsyth.

It's fun to recognise the bedroom where in the programme Kemal Pamuk should have died, instead of along the hallway in Lady Mary's bed; or the desk where Lord Grantham sits to discuss his valet's gammy leg with the butler; or the morning room where the Dowager Countess and Lady Grantham hatch an uneasy alliance.

The dozen-plus rooms open to the public are opulently, even extravagantly, furnished. In the saloon there are rare gold- embossed leather wall-coverings dating from 1680, a high marble fireplace and heraldic wyverns - two-legged dragons with a lizard's tail - on the fireplace surround.

The large but cosy library has 6000 gold-tooled books on its shelves. Next door the music room is light and dainty with gold-and-silk embroideries; in one corner a mahogany desk and chair on carved lion's legs, used by Napoleon during his confinement on the island of St Helena.

The dining room, where the table seats 24, is dominated by a huge Van Dyck painting of Charles I; but in every room there are smaller treasures to spot: beautiful china, clocks, tapestries, statuary, furniture and paintings collected by earlier earls on their travels. All those souvenirs are eclipsed, however, by what's downstairs in the cellars.

Before Downton Abbey, the Carnarvon name was best known for its Egyptian connection: it was the fifth earl who funded and assisted Howard Carter's investigations, culminating in the discovery of Tutankhamen's fabulous tomb in 1922.

"It was the first global media event," Fiona says. It was also the end of the earl. The folding razor with which he nicked a mosquito bite, leading to the septicaemia that killed him on April 5, 1923, is on display in the basement.

Asked about the Curse of the Pharaohs, she says: "Carnarvon wasn't a well man, but there are some really strange coincidences. Tutankhamen's mask is made from sheets of evenly beaten gold, but there's just one small weak spot, and it's in exactly the place where Carnarvon was bitten by his mosquito.

Also, at the precise moment of his death in Cairo, all the lights went out in the city and, eerily, back home here at Highclere, his favourite terrier, Susie, suddenly howled and dropped dead."

I find the stone staircase leading down to the cellars oddly much less inviting after that, but in the arched brick tunnels, where the servants used to polish the silverware and sharpen the knives, noses are being pressed to glass cases of ancient artefacts.

Most of them - faience beads, gold rings, mummy wrappings - are from earlier digs, but there's a mock-up of the entrance to the young pharaoh's tomb with peepholes to look through as Carter did when he broke a hole in the door to the burial chamber, the earl behind him.

Written on the wall is Carnarvon and Carter's thrilling exchange: "Can you see anything?" "Yes, wonderful things!" That's as good a way as any to describe Highclere Castle.

Downton Abbey will return to New Zealand television (Prime) next year, details yet to be announced.

The Press