Lockdown in a stately home: Lady Carnarvon – chatelaine of the ‘real Downton Abbey’ – reveals that when you have too many bedrooms to count (and the staff are on furlough), vacuuming really sucks
One of the legacies of lockdown could be that we all end up with spotless homes. With time on our hands, we are turning into a nation of housekeepers, fearlessly delving into dusty corners and attacking grubby grouting with an old toothbrush.
Some have dustier corners to deal with than others, though. Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, chatelaine of vast Highclere Castle — famously the filming location for TV series Downton Abbey — has tried to join the national springclean.
But it’s tricky when you are used to having real housekeepers, and your home has 300 rooms, including approximately 61 bedrooms (yes, stately home owners do work in approximates when it comes to bedrooms).
She lugged the vacuum cleaner to one of them early in lockdown. ‘I’d gone in to check on the rooms and pulled open the shutters and there were a lot of dead flies. They do collect on all of the windows on the South Side.
Lady Carnarvon doing the hoovering at Highclere Castle, Highclere, Hampshire. Now that her staff have been furloughed, Lady C has been left with the housework
‘So I went to get the vacuum cleaner — I know exactly where they are kept; we have one on each floor — but doing that took me long enough.’
Did she continue with the vacuuming, whizzing through every room on the top floor, then working through the rest of the castle?’ Are you mad, her reaction suggests?
First, you don’t really flit about with Highclere’s industrial-type vacuum cleaners. Second, all that plugging and unplugging rules out whizzing anywhere (no cord is long enough to stretch the length of one of the grand rooms).
‘I would love to have the time to do every inch of the place, but I just don’t. Even walking round the castle just to check if there are any lights on that shouldn’t be takes 40 minutes.’
Dare we ask about the dusting? Er, no. ‘We’re having to make decisions about what actually needs to be done, and I’m afraid the dusting will have to wait. Or it certainly won’t be done to the usual standards.’
Lady Carnarvon means the standards set by Highclere Castle head housekeeper Diana Moyse. Or ‘our real housekeeper, who is utter heaven’, as she puts it. Even pre-lockdown, Diana would be horrified if Lady C, as the staff call her, dared to suggest she could help with the cleaning.
‘Occasionally, I’d offer to vacuum or dust, and she’d look askance at me, because I wouldn’t do it to her standards, so maybe it’s best to not do it at all?’ We are all making sacrifices in this lockdown.
It seems Lady C has sacrificed her heavenly housekeeper; indeed, most of her staff. For the first time anyone can remember, Highclere is without its loyal butler, cleaners (two full-time housekeepers, and one part-time), kitchen team (of four, including a full-time chef), and office staff (eight in total).
Most of the 25 or so full-timers have been furloughed, which Lady C admits is part of a harsh commercial reality. The castle in Hampshire has faced difficult times before. During World War I, it became a hospital for wounded soldiers; during World War II evacuee children were housed there.
Lady Carnarvon cleaning her stately home, Highclere Castle. The castle served as the set for the TV series Downton Abbey
But even in those days, the staff would have lived on site, hunkering down with the family (albeit in less grand bedrooms). Now, while a few employees live on site (the head gardener lives in a lodge house, for example), most staff come in on a daily basis. Their job isn’t primarily to look after the Carnarvon family either.
It is to keep the castle clean for the coachloads of visitors who pitch up daily, to cook for the bustling tearooms, cater for big events, and staff the gift shop and office. When lockdown began, most were sent home to their families. So who is keeping the castle ticking over?
Step forward Lady C, in her Marigolds, though she’s at pains to admit that there isn’t much polishing of ancestral silver going on. ‘I have a huge whiteboard, and every day I write on it the priorities, the things that absolutely have to be done. The dusting and the polishing of silver don’t get a look in.
The main thing is looking after the animals, so every morning the chickens have to be fed, the horses have to be mucked out, and the dogs have to be walked.’ When lockdown was first mooted, difficult decisions had to be made. Because the head gardener (and his two staff) lived on site, they could carry on.
Lady Carnarvon feeding the chickens at Highclere Castle, Hampshire
‘I think this was a priority, too, because a bit of dust can be allowed to accumulate, and we can sort that in time, but the gardens need to be maintained.’ And how: they extend to 100 acres. The park and farm, a staggering 6,000 acres. In the gift shop, every item has been photographed to enable them to be sold online.
‘My son has been doing that,’ she says, referencing Edward, 20, who was at university, but is home for lockdown. ‘My husband, Geordie, has been dealing with the furloughing. I’ve been trying to sort the animals, but above all, work with IT to get in touch with all the visitors who had booked to come.’
There are a few other souls about, mainly looking after security and the grounds, and a few interns who were working in the gift shop and office — furlough would not apply to them. Only a few people are allowed to come and go to do shopping, though. Are these staff or family?
Highclere Castle pictured during a sunset. The Castle is also available to stay in as an AirBnB
‘We are all family,’ is her response. ‘There are a few elderly people who live in properties on the estate and are self-isolating, so we have all been looking after them. There is a lot of ‘Hello! Do you need anything?’ going on over hedges.’
Although the family do sometimes live in the castle — they moved in each time Downton was filmed, and for private weekend parties or at Christmas — they also have a more modest house in the grounds, which Lady C is cleaning herself. You can’t completely shut a castle, though.
‘There are things that need to be checked. We are forever having to keep an eye on the roof, and the pipes. If we have a flood or there are issues with the boiler, these things need to be handled immediately. And we have miles of pipework, so there are always leaks somewhere.’
Then there are rooms, such as the grand dining room, where a Van Dyck portrait gazes down at a table seating 20, which must be aired. What’s happened with normally bustling kitchens, where head chef Paul famously whips up club sandwiches for anyone working in the castle and oversees catering for bigger events?
Lady C raves about his breakfast Eggs Hollandaise. ‘The castle kitchens are shut. I have been cooking eggs, though, because the chickens keep them coming. I did baked eggs for everyone the other day, and I did do my own version of a club sandwich. I think it went down well.’
Downton Abbey characters Jim Carter as Carson and Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes
No one seems to have told the family’s four labradors the kitchens are shut, though. ‘One of them, Scoobydoo, ran past with a loaf in his mouth,’ Lady C reveals. Perhaps fortunately, given the new reality of lockdown, Lady C is one of our more down-to-earth aristocrats.
Before she married the Earl, she worked as an accountant, and likes to introduce herself at society dinners simply as ‘Fiona’. She may have been born into a wealthy family (meeting Geordie at a London dinner party), but she did not have an aristocratic background and had little clue about running a stately home.
She was wholly unprepared to take the place on — the previous Earl, her father-in-law, died just two years after she and Geordie married. Highclere had been open occasionally to the public since 1988, but the new Lady C knew that to keep it going, it needed to embrace, nay woo, visitors more regularly.
Early on, she and Geordie mucked in with the housekeeping: ‘I’ve never been afraid of hard work.’ Then she took a decision that brought huge change — she allowed the makers of Downton Abbey (writer Julian Fellowes is a family friend) to film there. Highclere was suddenly one of the world’s most famous castles.
Even when filming stopped, the tourists kept coming, paying their entry fees, keeping all that history — or at least a version of it — alive. ‘Today there should have been 1,200 visitors,’ says Lady C, rather forlornly. ‘But it all just stopped. Like every other business, we’ve had to press pause.
It’s terrifying.’ She knows that no one with a Van Dyck in the dining room can expect anyone else to get the violins out. Still, there’s a specific sort of terror that comes with owning a castle which can’t earn its keep. Not that it will be hers for ever. On her husband’s death, the castle will be run by Geordie’s son from his first marriage, George (Lord Porchester).
George, 27, lived on the estate until last year, but the relationship with his stepmother is strained (though, he does still have a cottage, she points out). For now, the responsibility for the entire estate is firmly on the current Earl and his wife’s shoulders.
‘There have been sleepless nights,’ she admits. ‘I’m exhausted. We are doing 12-hour days, getting up early and working till 2.30am. The business is on a knife-edge. ‘I don’t think any of us realised the nature of this catastrophe, so we’ve all gone over the cliff and it was too late to pull the parachute cord.
Now we are just trying to cushion the landing, as much as we can. It’s all going to be about how we can get back up later.’ But Lady C says she takes comfort in the fact that Highclere has seen everything over the years. She is referring to the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun.
‘When he was growing up, there was cholera, diphtheria, typhoid and smallpox. ‘So yes, we are a bit drained and tired and reminded of the fragility of the world, and of life, but this, too, will pass.’
What’s striking, as she chats about padding around the empty castle, is how eerie it sounds. And there are many tales of ghosts at Highclere. Lady C once fled a corridor on seeing a dark figure. Later, she was told that in the 19th century, a footman had committed suicide not far from that spot.
Now, though, she reckons the ghosts are happy because they have the place to themselves. ‘It is strange when it’s empty, but I’ve kind of got used to it over the years. However, there are some corners where I think: ‘I wonder if I will meet any of my ghostly friends today.’
‘At the minute, maybe it’s all to do with whether I am feeling strong or not. There are a few areas where I’ve thought ‘I will leave that for today’, or ‘I’ll check those windows when feeling stronger’. ‘They are probably having the time of their lives having the place to themselves.’ It’s just a shame you can’t train a ghost to do the cleaning.
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