Downton Abbey has become one of the most popular shows and franchises in the U.K. and the world, and it’s partially thanks to one very real estate, Highclere Castle. After Downton creator Julian Fellowes knocked on the Earl and Countess Carnarvon’s door in 2009, they graciously opened up their doors for a full cast and crew to stomp around on their ancestral home.
Filming Downton Abbey at a fragile Highclere Castle brought its challenges, but ultimately, the Earl and Countess grew fond of all the bustling noise. Not to mention, Downton saved their home from ruin.
What was filming ‘Downton Abbey’ at Highclere Castle like?
George and Fiona Herbert, the current 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, have been running their ancestral home since 2001, after the 7th Earl’s death. Before that, Highclere Castle had been the Earl of Carnarvon’s estate since 1679.
The Earl and Countess opened up their home to tourists to help fund the estate. However, their finances were in bad shape by the time Fellowes offered them an opportunity that would not only allow them to afford their £12 million ($16.5 million) renovation bill but ensure financial stability for years to come.
Downton Abbey typically filmed from February to June for each of the six series and for one to two months for the film. In the early days of filming the series, the Countess was “constantly in the wings, showing crew how to move furniture — ‘you take a girl in your arms and a chair by its bottom’ — and reminding people to wipe their feet and respect the carpets,” the Daily Mail wrote.
It was a lot of work, making sure things were done right and that her home was being treated with the respect it deserved. Certain rooms had to be padlocked. The Earl and Countess had to be specific about which rooms they wanted to be filmed for the movie.
However, filming the series and film went without a hitch. Now that Downton Abbey: A New Era has begun filming, the Countess is happy that the hustle and bustle are back because it makes the castle come “alive.”
“We all got very used to each other. We had a good routine. It was like a new term at school — ‘here they come!’” the Countess said. “After all, a house like this is used to being busy, to being full of life. It comes alive with people and without them things go wrong.”
What happens at Highclere when ‘Downton Abbey’ isn’t filming?
Offering Highclere Castle to Downton Abbey has proved especially beneficial to life at the castle once all the cameras go away. The Earl and Countess were able to do repairs on the estate from the money they received from Downton. But once production stopped, and everyone left, the Downton Abbey phenomenon continued to benefit the estate through tourism.
Highclere Castle was already a big tourist attraction. After Downton, however, tourism boomed. So there is still the hustle and bustle in the castle, even when the camera crews are gone. The castle is open to visitors for a variety of events and tours.
According to Highclere Castle’s website, the summer of 2021 saw the Magic of the Movies, and in September 2021, there will be Real Lives and Film Sets Guided Tours. In October 2021, there’s Highclere Castle Festival, and in December 2021, tourists can come together to sing carols and have afternoon tea.
Weddings and other events can also be held on the grounds, and the castle is also home to a King Tutankhamun exhibit. In 1922, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the famous Egyptian king’s tomb. Tickets to enter the grounds cost about $33, but other events cost a lot more.
Highclere Castle had to close its doors during the pandemic
Going from having about a thousand visitors a day to none in a minimal amount of time was quite a shock for the Earl and Countess. Their income, like so many other hospitality and tourist businesses, went down to zero. They also had to furlough over 120 staff members as well. “We don’t have a secret pot of gold,” the Countess told the U.K.’s This Morning. “Our pot of gold has been hard work.”
In 2013, the New York Times wrote that it costs $1.5 million a year to run Highclere Castle. The Countess has done everything she can to make sure the estate continues to rake in that amount. With the help of Downton, they’re on a steady course for being financially stable for years to come. But Downton hasn’t given them everything. Tourism is the biggest thing that keeps them alive.
The Countess says running the estate is “both a business and a way of life.” Even if Downton never came to Highclere Castle, the Earl and Countess would still do anything to keep their home alive, just like the Crawleys.