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The Countess & the Real Downton Abbey


21st October 2014

It’s the episode we have all been waiting for – after a bit of research and help from ITV – this Sunday’s Downton Abbey has the horses in it. It’s the Point to Point. 

So we contacted the Estate Office at Highclere Castle to see if we could find out about the horses at the real Downton Abbey from the real Countess of Carnarvon. 

Highclere has long been associated with horses – not just from a historical point of view, but also through the work of Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, Europe’s leading racehorse ownership company and the world famous Highclere Stud, which started in 1902.

A former auditor for Coopers & Lybrand, Lady Fiona Carnarvon is the wife of George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon. Today, she manages affairs at Highclere Castle, home of the worldwide television drama Downton Abbey, including overseeing its grounds and gardens and many special events such as the Egyptian Exhibition in the cellars of the Castle.


(c) Highclere Castle 2014


Fascinated by Highclere’s history, Lady Carnarvon has written four books. Her most recent is ‘Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey’ and focuses on the remarkable American heiress who came to reign at Highclere Castle. Sometimes the facts are more extraordinary than the fiction.



Having been invited to interview Lady Carnarvon in person, I duly arrived at the gates, which wasn’t the grand entrance I was expecting but after wiggling my way through the cottages and farm buildings, I came out onto the sweeping drive through wonderful open parkland scattered with cross country fences and beautiful old trees.  It was at a fork in the drive that I first glimpsed the familiar tower of the Castle peeping over the hill and there were 2 options to take – did I take a left and head up to the Castle’s entrance hoping Carson would be there to greet me or did I follow my head and turn right towards the signs to the Estate Office? The latter sadly!


The 'back' door

The ‘back’ door

Waiting for me in the courtyard was Lady Carnarvon, who was incredibly welcoming from the start and showed me into her charming stables to meet her horses and her grooms, Jo and Laura. After a nuzzle from Frankie, Lady Carnarvon’s Andalusian mare, and a nudge from a disgruntled Connor the Cob after turning my Dictaphone on, we then headed into the Castle and into a pretty morning room to continue our chat.


The Gaitpost: Have you always loved to ride? 

Lady Carnarvon: Always. Since I was a child it has always been part of my life. I grew up on Frankie, my Andalusian’s great, great grandmother and have bred from them ever since. Growing up, I found that Arabs required far less work so I crossed the first one with a Scottish Highland pony, and then she was crossed with an Arab and that is where it all started.

It’s just the type of pony, which is charming; they want to go and go for you and be forward and they require far less work than a thoroughbred. We normally had a couple of related Arab cross ponies and we used to do all the gymkhanas growing up, which were hysterical fun and all the fancy dress competitions – I remember the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and it was wonderful.


TGP: Were you a member of the Pony Club?

LC: No, I have a lot of sisters and so we made our own entertainment together.


TGP: Is there an event at Highclere?

LC: We used to have a horse trials here but the thing is we don’t have the car parking for the enormous horse boxes today, and the last time we did it they were just sinking in the mud so we can’t do it. The parkland is Grade 1 Listed Capability Brown and there were too many years when we had too much mud at the end of August so it had to be a much smaller event, which the people who were helping organise it didn’t want so we had to call it a day sadly.


Downton3TGP: Tell us about your horses.

LC: There are a few at the moment! Frankie is my Andalusian cross, then there’s Lara, my 5 year old little Andalusian mare, Connor the hogged cob, who is so charming and a fantastic sensible chap who has taught Frankie all about tractors and how to behave! Then there’s Addy, my Arab mare who is a real sweetie and is Frankie’s mother. She is getting on a bit now but like all Arabs, she never stops dancing and Earl, a 16 year old 12h lead rein pony, which I keep for when my nieces come to stay. Then there is Bill, the big French Warmblood, but I feel a bit over horsed at the moment and I think Bill is sadly wasted here. He is only 9 and has so much to give. We all rode down to Church for Harvest Festival and anyone can get on Bill. A friend rode him down and together they looked so handsome but I think he needs to be used more and the time has come to move him on. And finally there is Tarka, my husband’s mare who has thrown 2 lovely colts and a filly and is back here for 18 months to have a rest.


TGP: The breeding is really important to you, isn’t it? 

LC: Yes funnily enough it is. I think my husband and I both enjoy it, it’s definitely in his blood. He loves the world of racehorses and was brought up with it; his brother and sister also love it but Lord Carnarvon took the conscious decision to work in computers and other things like that. He bought Tarka to race, she was a late foal, everything went wrong for her but she’s turned out well I think to throw some nice foals and one of them, Mambis Cage, is coming back to spend a couple of months here before she goes off to Hughie Morrison.

I always send my youngsters to Gary Witheford, who is excellent and helps with all my horses. He is a horse whisperer and I appreciate some of the fundamental principles by which he works and sometimes we go back to them in terms of lead rope work, or the ground work, or just try to dictate who’s boss, so whatever their size they know if I have the rope they have to walk a tail’s length behind me. I often go back to some of the fundamental lessons that I’ve watched him practise and it really helps me, which is so interesting. We have a kind of process of how we do it and how we think we’re sort of going, but I also listen to other people as well. My groom, Jo, is really into getting the horses to work with us because I’m trying to produce horses who have a natural interest in going forward and enjoying themselves but I’ll go to the carers who work with you in partnerships; it’s all about trying to get the balance right.




TGP: Do you get involved or watch any of the filming for Downton Abbey?

LC: Yes I do because if they’re filming anything around here, we are party to what they are trying to do, so for example the hunt scene that we shot here in the first series, was done with Camilla, a girlfriend of mine, and the Vine and Craven. We had to keep some reality to it and make sure there were leaves on the trees if they are filming out of season. I remember Michelle Dockery did a very good job of riding side saddle but they bring their own horses and tack but sometimes need to borrow bits from our stables.





Downton1TGP: You have recently published your fourth book, Lady Catherine and the real Downton Abbey, about the American heiress who reigned at Highclere Castle during the 1920s. What would Lady Catherine have thought of Lady Mary’s recent seduction by Tony Gillingham and Lady Edith’s illegitimate child?

LC: I so enjoyed writing the Catherine book, because after the War, everybody threw themselves in to London and it sort of restarted the social season. Girls were chaperoned into the dances with the Deb’s Delights and some of the more daring ones would, of course, leave the dances to go to the 400 Club to enjoy themselves or visit the night clubs. So there were two sides in a way that weren’t there pre the First World War.

If you’ve ever read Alfred Duff Cooper’s Diaries by John Julius Norwich, which are stunning, you will see how people used to let their hair down. It was a passionate time and I think television makes it quite sterile because of the nature of the medium, however when you read the Diaries you see that there was much more pleasure and enjoyment and illicit passion that actually happened.

The 1920s were quite a riotous time with quite a lot of riotous affairs going on and everybody was definitely enjoying themselves. I’ve read lots of the diaries from that time and also Evelyn Waugh’s books. I re-read actually nearly all his novels from the 20s and 30s because in there you can see all the wives popping up to London to thoroughly enjoy themselves and there was no holding back. There was full knowledge of what was going on and what they were doing and that’s perhaps slightly overstated perhaps to make a point for Downton. I’ve also tried to write some of the real stories because Downton is fiction, not necessarily accurate but makes a great TV series. 

For me it was important not to lecture people about Lady Catherine and the events in her life. At the centre of my book is her divorce from the 6th Earl and I found it a terribly sad time when I was sitting here writing it that Catherine was obviously alone in the house when her husband was in London. I found it quite traumatic writing actually, it certainly took me into new areas because you were writing about a previous Countess and her husbands, it was not an easy thing to do. But the history was fascinating and I delved in to the Highclere Visitors Book to discover all sorts of things. People have always had affairs, Shakespeare wrote about them, but over the years, things have changed for women: the vote in 1929, the advent of birth control and having many more choices. What Julian has done, and touched on in Downton, with Mary and Edith’s dilemmas, has started a conversation about behavior and it is so interesting and such fun!


TGP: What part have horses played in Highclere’s long history?

LC: Horses were incredibly important here and in the time that you are watching Downton, which was in Lady Catherine’s time, they went riding most mornings and we still go riding daily. It’s very much part of life here, it’s a way to see the estate and in Downton, in some ways they’re always stuck inside, but actually here the whole thing is we’re actually going outside. There are so many windows here so we are always directed outside the house. So in some ways it’s much underplayed in Downton in terms of all that but there are massive time constraints with a TV series. There was never a pack of hounds at Highclere but we have a Meet here every year up at the Temple, only because we can’t have horses on the lawns because they are listed that and we’re predominantly a shooting estate. I don’t hunt but I support the hunt and it is a way of also controlling foxes, which are not controlled in London to bad effect.


TGP: Are their any horse related stories or anecdotes in the history of Highclere that can you think of?

LC: Well actually they’ve just been tremendous companions to all the people who have lived here. The stables and courtyard were well used for carriages, carriage horses and riding horses. The farm horses lived down by a hay rack down the lane and the head keeper had a cob, which he treasured and valued, which either used to pull the cart to take pheasant pens around or, he used to ride out on the shoots and then there were ponies for the donkey carts to take the guests around the Estate.


TGP: Are there any particularly famous Highclere horses, which are still remembered?

LC: Well my father-in-law was obviously very much into horse breeding and the horse studs. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon began the stud in about 1902 and he bred some good horses, one was called Robolo Diable who I think came fourth in the Derby, and he had a very good horse called Franklin in 1922.


GP: "Brideshead Revisited"TGP: What will Downton’s Abbey legacy be for Highclere once the filming has ended because the series will inevitably, one day, come to an end? I’m thinking of Alnwick Castle and Harry Potter for example.

LC: Well I think the one I look at is Brideshead Revisited with Castle Howard and that gave them a legacy for some 25 years or 30 years. They’re still going strong with the music, and the whole atmosphere around it, and for us, according to Visit Britain, because we’ve had 6 years of episodes, they are going to be shown somewhere for ever! Brideshead was just one series of 17 episodes so for us, for my husband and myself, it has raised our marketing profile but having said that I do not take it for granted so I’m always working and looking for new things because I want, I’m always concerned, about future revenue. I prefer certainty rather than ‘perhaps’ but that’s always what I’ve been like.

I’m very good at spending money and as I’m sure you will see, this is a big place to spend money, there are 300 rooms, and there’s always different projects and I’m trying to use, to the best advantage, the marketing profile that Downton has given us to kind of work out where I can continue to develop the business. My books are a great front line, they’re a great reason to talk about Highclere, to share the stories, they’re about people, they make you laugh and cry, they’re hopefully fun and amusing and so that’s a great platform; that brings it back to the house and it continues to do that so I’m enjoying that part of it.

We have to ensure that the businesses, functions and charities that we have supported pre-Downton still get their time here, plus we open to the public. The filming window is April 1st until about July 10th, and we have to stick to that so that if an extra shot is needed, but there is a wedding here, then sadly the drive cannot be used. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle !


TGP: Have you ever found any antique riding gear in the attic?

LC: I have found good boots, but they didn’t wear hats back then, however there are some old jodphurs and jackets.


TGP: Are there more ‘The Real Downton’ books in the pipeline? 

LC: Yes I’d like to go backwards in time but I’m just finishing off a couple of books at the moment. One is with colour photography and looking at the past, comparing it to the present but after that I want to go back to the Victorian times and the building of the castle with Charles Barry. I’ve got some amazing sketches from the visitor’s books of the children playing hide and seek around the gallery.  I’ve also got some really charming vignettes and quite a lot of diaries from that time so I want to do the prequel I think it’s called!


TGP: Do you get your inspirations from riding around the Estate?

LC: Yes I do, especially with Lady Catherine. I was aware, from talking to my husband’s Aunt, that I was riding on tracks where she used to canter through the woods on her pony. They used to picnic up at the top of the hill and we have riding picnics up there so I’ve relived some of it which is a great feeling.


(c) Highclere Castle 2014

(c) Highclere Castle 2014


TGP: What or who inspires you within the equestrian world?

LC: Funnily enough, some of the jump jockeys inspire me just because they get up and give it another go even if filled with titanium from many falls.


TGP: Do you have a favourite equestrian possession?

LC: My childhood memories of riding with my sister Lucy.


TGP: Is there an all time favourite yard or stables that you’ve been to?

LC: I love my stables here especially the few moments of peace when I go out riding. If I’m on my Arab mare, I tend to have 4 dogs with me and whilst I feel like I am concentrating on the dogs, I’m actually concentrating or not concentrating on anything at all. It’s a wonderful time to have an empty head, because then I think some of your ideas link up and you suddenly think, oh my gosh you silly twit! Or when I’m going through the woods, you can actually smell Autumn and sometimes if I’m coming back around 6.30 -7.00pm, and I’m walking back along the edge of the hill, I can hear all the birds going up to roost and the dogs are to heel and you know we’re pottering along together, it doesn’t get much better.


TGP: Which country in your opinion does equestrian best?

LC: England without a doubt. I think there’s this extraordinary abiding love of the horse, of racing, of steeplechases, of the flat and of the beauty of the animal. Also the courage and the glory, which I just don’t see in other countries. Europe and America have sort of transferred a modern day appreciation into perfect tracks with perfect time and I think I like the slight chaotic quirkiness of England; I like the messy corners or the fact you can’t see, it’s like in a garden where you can’t see everything at once and it’s not perfectly manicured. 

The Duke of Wellington riding Copenhagen by James E. McDonnell

The Duke of Wellington riding Copenhagen by James E. McDonnell


TGP: Do you have an equestrian hero? 

LC: Well as a child I was always fascinated by the horses Napoleon or Wellington rode. My sister Lucy and I spent a lot of time riding together, I mean those were the books we used to read about with the wonderful horses who bore different heroes from different times because it was never just the man – it was the man and the horse. I suppose I look back in time and there was Alex, the Emperor Alexander and his great horse, whose name I can’t remember now, but I suppose I think further back in time because horses were part of how we got around in the world, they were extraordinary servants. In some ways I think the Arabs have gone back such a long way – they carried the Romans – the Egyptian Arab from the ancient civilisations were tough animals with speed and beauty and were highly prized for years, so I think I sort of go back to the past there.


TGP: What is the quality that you most like in a horse?

LC: With my Arabs I think it is the fact that they’ll give their last breath for you, they’ll just keep on going but you’re the one that needs to tell them when it is far enough.


TGP: What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given and who gave it to you?

LC: It was at the end of the day and my Father had died and I was feeling completely miserable. I was struggling with some work in the office and David Lance, who was a great friend of my Father’s, rang me up and I immediately burst into tears. David asked why I was crying and I said because it’s all too much and I don’t think I can cope, as you do in these situations, and the usual splurge that you give down the phone.  He then said to me well have you done your best? And I said well I have tried, and he said, well God can’t ask any more. So that’s it …you just do your best.


(c) Highclere Castle 2014

(c) Highclere Castle 2014

TGP: What would be your message to the equestrian world?

LC: I don’t know …I think horses give you such a basis of friendship. They are caring and provide trust, loyalty and companionship. I think they can teach you so much, you have to care for them and put them first so it’s all about kindness and caring, then you always need some courage to go forwards don’t you?


TGP: What are your top indispensable bits of kit for you or your horse? 

LC: I’ve got my favourite pair of really ancient battered brown jodhpur boots, which I love. I bought a new pair but I can’t bring myself to relegate my old pair. I have a wonderful saddle, which I have had for 15 years and fits 2 of my Arabs perfectly. And I couldn’t be without Gary Witheford’s rope headcollars.


Against the Clock…

Dick Francis or Jilly Cooper? Jilly Cooper

Royal Ascot or Cheltenham Festival? I suppose because of my husband, Royal Ascot but I love Cheltenham!

Badminton or Burghley? Badminton because I’ve got more friends I know near there 

Sand or snow? I think snow. 

Tea or G & T or equivalent? G&T





This is the big one. Carson or Barrow?

Carson ! Jim Carter is just charming and plays cricket. We have cricket here but Jim runs Hampstead Cricket Club and I’ve found in the archives, I don’t know whether I’ve told him, a note from the Fourth Earl of Carnarvon about Hampstead Cricket Club and a subscription he played in 1840 something or other!





On this final anecdote, it was time for our interview to draw to a close. Lady Carnarvon had more appointments – some Americans were waiting to meet her in the Tea Room and the Bishop and Archbishop were due later plus the Agents were all about to arrive for lunch. Downton and Highclere are wonderfully interwoven and I shall definitely be returning for the full Castle tour when it reopens in the Spring. I left feeling like I had gone back in time but yet there was a wonderful energy that oozed from this historic building.  The walls could have kept the tabloids busy for years, and probably did, but it was most definitely not an old relic – there was an exciting and vibrant buzz that Lady Carnarvon and her ancestors had preserved and yet updated accordingly.  I almost felt right at home!


We are very grateful to Lady Carnarvon for her time in speaking to us and also to the Estate Office for their help in arranging the interview.  Keep in touch with events and life at Highclere by following them on Twitter @HighclereCastle and by liking their Facebook page here

Huge thanks to ITV for the photographs. (c) Nick Briggs




We hope you enjoy Sunday’s episode – we’ll be glued!  If you like your Twitter feeds, @DowntonAbbey and @DowntonLive provide humorous running commentary and @theLadyGrantham is the place to relive the Dowager’s every quip.  

As we go to print, we have learned that several Downton Abbey cast members have been nominated for a National Television Award – many congratulations to them all. If you would like to vote for them, visit www.nationaltvawards.com



About Highclere:

Highclere Castle is one of England’s most beautiful Victorian Castles set amidst 1,000 acres of spectacular parkland. The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere since 1679, and the current Castle stands on the site of an earlier house, which in turn was built on the foundations of the medieval palace owned by the Bishops of Winchester for some 800 years.  Lady Carnarvon has written four books : the first two are about the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb with Howard Carter in 1922. The New York Times Bestseller ‘Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere’, is an amazing tale covering the same period as the first two series of Downton Abbey, beginning in 1894 with the marriage of 19-year-old Lady Almina into the Carnarvon family and continuing through the Great War. In September, Lady Carnarvon published the follow-up to the international best seller,  ‘Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey’, which tells the story of the beautiful American heiress who lived at Highclere Castle, the setting for Julian Fellowes’ award-winning drama Downton Abbey. 



Lady-C-low-res-196x300-1About the book:

Glamorous and wealthy, Catherine became the toast of London society when she travelled across the Atlantic in 1920 to marry the Earl of Porchester, or ‘Porchy’, as he was known. At just 19 Catherine had to learn how to organise and host the lavish banquets and weekend house parties that Porchy so loved. She found herself suddenly in charge of the more than eighty staff working at Highclere Castle, and persuaded her husband to improve their living and working conditions. But things were far from perfect. The demands of running such a large household were greater than Lady Catherine had expected. Her new husband gradually revealed himself to be a scandalous rogue, squandering their money and pursuing silent movie stars across London. When World War Two broke out, there was yet more turbulence, with Highclere transformed into an American airbase, and host to several hundred soldiers, as well as fifty young evacuees from East London. Drawing on rich material from the archives at Highclere, including beautiful period photographs, Lady Carnarvon transports us back to the thrilling and alluring world of the real Downton Abbey and its inhabitants.


Buy ‘Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey’ here


Visit www.highclerecastle.co.uk for lots more about Downton Abbey, Tour Open Dates and much more.

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