Inside the real Downton Abbey at Christmas
PUBLISHED: 12:34 24 December 2019 | UPDATED: 12:35 24 December 2019
The Countess of Carnarvon of Highclere Castle, the real-life resident of the home portrayed in Downton Abbey, talks about her new book, Christmas and Berkshire memories
I'm sure, like myself, many of you wonder what it must be like to live in such a phenomenal castle, especially one of the most iconic castles: Highclere in Newbury.
The setting for the award-winning worldwide TV series, Downton Abbey, Lady Carnarvon has been a resident since 2001, with her husband, George Herbert (Geordie), 8th Earl of Carnarvon and their 19-year-old son, Edward. Also worth mentioning are their seven dogs, too many horses, a brood of chickens, pet rabbit and a sheep!
Known as 'the real Downton Abbey', it bustles with activity at the greatest of times, but during the festive season it comes alive more than ever, which is what Lady Carnarvon wanted to showcase in her new book, Christmas at Highclere. "I can't tell you enough how much I enjoyed writing this book," she says. "It has got lovely stories, ghost stories, recipes, traditions, families, nostalgia and much more."
Christmas at Highclere is a look behind the scenes at the yearly rituals that make Highclere one of the most magical places to be throughout the festive season, and shares secrets of how you, too, can bring a quintessentially British festive spirit to your home.
"At Christmas, it is a time to sit down and stop," she says. "It means thinking about other people, cooking for your family and making memories. It is about emphasising central core values that are important, particularly when it seems to be such a muddly world at the moment."
Both a historian and writer of best-selling books on life at Highclere, she hopes this new one will give people pleasure.
Sentimental menus and timeless recipes included in the book have been passed down through the centuries, offering the reader suggestions for a truly decadent Christmas, alongside an unprecedented access to life at Highclere. Lady Carnarvon admits Christmas leftovers were a big element of her childhood! "There are many leftover recipes featured in the book, including turkey curries, soups and, one of my favourites, turkey rissoles. We should be using our leftover ingredients more. It is something we should all be doing today, but I try not to preach about it" she says.
"Someone once told me, we tend to cook the same 10 recipes and just rotate them. So, I am always trying to share something else, for example, if you haven't made red cabbage, make it. It's delicious!"
So, what else can you expect from this festive book? Well, Lady Carnarvon will guide you through Advent, Christmas preparations and Christmas Eve, all the way through the big day itself, and beyond through Boxing Day and into the New Year. Also, discover how the Castle and grounds are transformed into a Yuletide Wonderland, including the raising of a 21ft tree in the saloon, and the gathering of holly and mistletoe from the grounds for homemade decorations.
There is also an inside look at some of the illustrious guests who have stayed at Highclere over the Christmas period, precious family memories and Highclere archives, some dating back to over 100 years ago.
"The imagery took my breath away," she explains. "I wanted to create new photographs too, making the book visionary rather than just a history book describing what people can imagine. The photographer said to me it took 22 miles to get the pictures!" And it is not surprising when Highclere is a 300-room estate, housed on 5,000 acres.
Nevertheless, Lady Carnarvon is the first to admit she couldn't have done it without her husband. "He read every page and helped me. I wanted to dedicate it to my parents, who have died, as well as his," she says.
Lady Carnarvon first met her husband when they were seated next to each other at a dinner party and bonded over their love of WW1 poetry. Now, they manage a range of businesses at Highclere Castle. "We split our business and life responsibilities like any other couple. Our car journeys are normally a great time to catch up, or on holidays and planes!" she says.
"He will definitely remember our last holiday," she continues. "Before the book deadline, we would spend the first two-three hours of every day reading, writing and editing what I had done. He was really great and he was very much a part of the book."
On the topic of her appreciation for her husband, she shares her recent fondest memory of Geordie. "Not long ago, he took part in the 10k run around Reading, for Launchpad, a homeless charity in the area. I believe I was a great supporter and cheerer!" she says.
"I do like Reading. I also like to take my step-children and son to The Oracle. It is such a great place to have a cup of coffee and figure out where to go shopping."
So, bring a little Downton Abbey magic into your home this Christmas with recipes, rituals and traditions from this much- beloved historic house. Make it one to remember…
Christmas at Highclere: Recipes and Traditions from the Real Downton Abbey by The Countess of Carnarvon is available in hardback, £30. Published by Preface. penguin.co.uk