On a recent mild afternoon, towards the end of luncheon, the estate yard of Highclere Castle was a tranquil place to be. Filming for the second series of Downton Abbey, the ITV costume drama that has returned the splendid, honey-coloured pile to the national consciousness, is long finished; the Christmas special has yet to be shot; and, it being a Friday, the estate was closed to visitors. The only sounds came from the stables, where a radio tuned to Classic FM was drowned out every few minutes by the whinnying of the farm manager’s horse.
Inside the castle, the Countess of Carnarvon, whose husband’s family has lived at Highclere since 1679, was taking coffee with guests. I had come to join her on an afternoon ride, and was let in through the back door by her assistant, who had broken away from her duties at table, and was wearing white gloves.
Lady Carnarvon has just written a biography of her predecessor, Lady Almina, the fabulously rich wife of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who ran the estate during its Edwardian heyday, and converted the castle into a hospital during the first world war. She was having lunch with the son of a soldier who was treated at the castle, and went on to marry Lady Almina’s secretary.
I met the party in the drawing room, whose walls were covered in green silk by Lady Almina in 1895. Lady Carnarvon explained that she had restored the room with money raised from the filming of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut at the castle 100 years later. Then we moved into the smoking room, where the fifth Earl plotted the excavations that led to his discovery, with Howard Carter, of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Lady Carnarvon thanked her guests for coming and said goodbye. We headed for the stables.
Reality can be hard to grasp at Highclere. In the late 19th century, when the current incarnation of the castle was built (it was designed by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament) it was one of Britain’s great houses: a meeting place for royalty and prime ministers. Nowadays its identity is more fragmentary and imagined: a tourist attraction, a farm, a conference venue, the set of a television show seen in 100 countries. It is known for what it is not, or what it used to be.
The Carnarvons – the eighth Earl and his second wife, a former auditor, born Fiona Aitken – live somewhere in between. Daily life is ancient, modern, lordly and humdrum. On the day I visited, the castle was being fitted with a new computer server (“Mega problem, mega job,” according to the countess), and a long, slightly vulgar red carpet had been laid down in the Grand Saloon for a wedding (the Madame de Pompadour of British celebrity, Katie Price, married her former husband, Peter Andre, at Highclere in 2005). On our way out, the countess stuck her head behind a door and talked to one of her staff about a gas connection that needed checking.
In this many-quartered life, even pastimes such as riding, Lady Carnarvon’s great love, come to fulfil a number of roles. We crossed the yard to the stables, where the countess tacked up Star, a large bay that belongs to James Phillips, Highclere’s farm manager, for me; and one of her eight horses, Azzie, a grey Arab mare that is the descendant of a horse she rode as a girl. “Arabs are good because they don’t need much looking after,” she said, as we took turns mounting from an old bench and rode away, crunching over the wide ruff of gravel that surrounds the castle.
On weekday afternoons such as this, riding primarily offers escape. “I’ll have been at my desk doing e-mails, and it’s lovely to just go and catch this one,” said the countess, who grew up riding in Hyde Park and the Kent countryside. “We’ll disappear off with the dogs for 45 minutes or an hour which is absolutely magical.” Although she had to stop a few minutes later and take a call (church business in the village), Lady Carnarvon normally manages to disappear. “It is quite hard to talk on a mobile on a horse.” She has 6,000 acres to ride into, with loops and gallops to suit the time of year, how long she has to spare and the lee of the weather, as she calls it, during the winter months.
On the driveway, our horses called out to others grazing in nearby fields. “Thank you,” said Lady Carnarvon, as if to stop a bit of fun going on below stairs. Her predecessors were not known particularly as horsewomen (they preferred to ride in carriages) but the Highclere estate, much of which was laid out by Lancelot “Capability” Brown in the 18th century, was designed to be ridden. “You get views or places to stand and admire the castle, and the height is of a horse,” said the countess. “You can cover so much ground.” Which means that horses are also still useful at Highclere: once a week Lady Carnarvon and her husband (“a jolly good rider with very good balance”) ride out with Phillips to see the farm. “You can see what the problems are, and you’ve got the time actually to smell and to hear.”
It is the horse, of course, that heightens your senses when you ride. You can’t help but notice their reactions – finer, animal-intuited – to the land and wildlife around you, and in their movements you leave yourself. “You have to think about what they are doing, so you forget about the lists of things you haven’t done,” said Lady Carnarvon.
At Highclere, this reduction of yourself is further magnified by the age and the augustness of where you are. The deer in Deer Park were introduced by monks eight centuries ago. The sheep in Sheepley are fat and surrounded by pheasants. Disraeli liked coming to stay. “I think you begin to understand the layers of history and the layers of people who have lived here,” said the countess, pointing to lime trees the size of townhouses. “It gives you a sense of tenureship and stewardship. You are here for a short time and you are just passing on what you have been given.” By this point the pinnacles of the castle were visible over the trees. “I don’t know,” she said. “To live in a place like this and not ride, I think you would miss out on a lot.”
At the end of our ride, we came across a meadow of wild flowers, sown below the castle, that had gone brown with the end of summer. There was a curving path running through it, and Lady Carnarvon promptly cantered away. My horse, as I had been told, was “a trotting horse” but we still managed enough speed, as the 300 rooms of Highclere loomed up, to fill me with the brief exultant thought that I was a young aristocrat from another time, turning up for the weekend. I looked for someone to throw my reins to. The countess was off to one side, talking on her BlackBerry.
‘Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle’ (Hodder & Stoughton) is published this month