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Three gardeners and 1,000 acres of parkland: Inside 'Downton Abbey's' Secret Garden... and beyond

Highclere Castle seen across wildflower meadow
Highclere Castle seen across wildflower meadow Credit: Highclere Castle

“You stand here, and just feel lucky to be alive,” rhapsodises Lady Carnarvon, casting her mind back to spring, when Highclere Castle’s fêted wildflower meadow blooms with oxeye daisies, lady’s mantle, yellow rattle and scabious.

The exuberant aristocrat – née Fiona Aitken, also known affectionately as “Lady C” – has lived here at the real Downton Abbey with her husband, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, George “Geordie” Herbert, since 2001. She is particularly ebullient when I meet her for a stroll with her yellow labradors Freya and Stella in tow, on the morning of the premiere of Downton Abbey – the film.

It’s perhaps no surprise that she’s in high spirits. The huge success of Downton has taken the pressure off Highclere, a Jacobethan house designed by the architect Charles Barry (who also worked on the Houses of Parliament). When they moved in, it was an ailing stately – with somewhat neglected gardens – facing hefty repair bills. Now, its future looks bright, as Highclere enjoys unprecedented publicity and an influx of visitors from all corners of the globe, courtesy of the Downton effect.

Lord and Lady Carnarvon in the garden Credit: Highclere Castle

But the joy she derives from being outside in the gardens and grounds here “every day” is infectious. Most mornings, she tells me (as we scoff handfuls of freshly picked mulberries from a wheelbarrow), she takes the dogs for a walk to the Etruscan temple, one of several follies on the estate. There she enjoys 20 minutes of sun salutations, yoga and Pilates (“whatever I feel like doing”) with a view of the Lancelot “Capability” Brown-designed parkland, before she goes back to the bustle of the castle to write her weekly blog, in which she shares colourful anecdotes from Highclere.

A historian and author, she has written several books about the estate – including the biographies of two former châtelaines, Lady Catherine and Lady Almina. She takes great pleasure in the history that surrounds her – including that of the gardens. “There are historic layers of landscaping here, so we’ve been working to highlight a few different areas. Gardens are supposed to be shared, wandered and admired,” she says. “Visitors to the gardens remark on the peace, a world apart without a schedule, which can be wandered at will.

“Whenever we’re open to the public, it’s lovely to see people pottering and losing themselves here.”

Other 18th century follies to seek across the 1,000 acres of parkland (the estate is around 5,000 acres in total, including arable farmland), include the pillared Jackdaw’s Castle temple and the Temple of Diana with its Corinthian columns, near Dunsmore Lake. In the distance, the eye stretches past dense woodland up to the Grade-II listed Heaven’s Gate, at the top of Sidown Hill – which is one of the family’s most treasured picnicking spots.

View of the old walled garden  Credit: HIGHCLERE

Sidown, the third largest hill in Hampshire, was the site of a number of tragic plane crashes during the Second World War. A recent addition is an astonishingly lifelike sculpture of an airman carved from beechwood by the artist Simon O’Rourke. Commissioned last year, it’s a peaceful memorial surrounded by three plane-shaped benches with clear acrylic tubes for legs, containing shrapnel gathered from the grounds.

Since Lord Carnarvon’s father died, the couple have taken custodianship of the 5,000 acre estate (close to Newbury in West Berkshire), in their stride. “I got on very well with my father and adored him, but when he passed the buck stopped with me. You have to keep trying things to keep going,” explains Lord Carvarnon, of his inheritance.

Many more new additions are planned. They’ve just planted vines in the hope of producing pink English sparkling wine (“another thing to worry about!” jokes Lord Carvarnon). “I’ve got so many mad ideas,” says Lady Carvarnon. “I want to plant espaliered pears and roses all around the edge, and I’d love to have a little cafe there. I had to move my chicken huts along so the vines could be accessed by the little tractor and they’ve now had a new hutch made, which we call “High Cluck Castle!” she tells me gleefully.

As a couple, they’ve relished the task of developing the gardens: “They were skinnier when we took over, because they’d been forgotten in the First and Second World War.” Brambles have been cleared to unearth a collection of azaleas, and thousands of spring bulbs have been planted.  “Geordie and I have really been developing it together since my pa-in-law died. I find it really therapeutic just to pull on my wellies and go out with a fork to do some weeding,” says Lady Carnarvon.

With only three full-time gardeners for such an expansive estate, the couple do plenty themselves, and much of their work preceded the advent of Downton. Soon, they’ll be out in search of quinces, medlars and crab apples to make jelly and jam, and sloes for sloe gin (Lady Carnarvon’s recipe for sloe gin can be found in her latest book, Christmas at Highclere, see below).

Lush borders have been introduced by the Carnarvons Credit: HIGHCLERE

To the south east of the house, they lead me to the decorative Monk’s Garden, with a border of penstemons, agapanthus and geranium. It was named for the Bishops of Winchester who owned the estate for 800 years before the Carnarvon family acquired it in 1679. The glasshouse offers peaches and nectarines (“We compete with the squirrels to get to them first!” says Lord Carnarvon), as well as tea roses, which are displayed in bowls as table centrepieces.

Next, Lord Carnarvon ushers me to the White Border, where his prized ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas sit alongside white roses, clematis, gladioli, peonies, and poppies. From there, we go through a wrought-iron gate to The Secret Garden. As I step through, two Italian cedars give off the aromatic scent of Mediterranean pine. “The Secret Garden was developed in the Sixties for my grandfather with the advice of my father who was friends with the most incredible landscape designer, James Russell, who lived at Castle Howard,” says Lord Carnarvon.

“The curved, wavy path tricks the eye into thinking its longer than it is, and it allows us to have a lot of fun with the borders; we like it informal, overgrown and blousy, with impact from sunflowers and detail from tiny cupped yellow clematis.” Downton fans will recognise it from the Dowager Countess’s tea parties in the television series (played by Dame Maggie Smith).

Our walk takes us next to the Wood of Goodwill, a newly planted woodland area with 38 native British trees (carpeted in spring by snowdrops and daffodils), and to an avenue of six walnut trees, which Lady Carnarvon planted with her five younger sisters in mind, leading to a rose arbour and camomile lawn. “I’ve planted lots of trees that friends have given us; when they come for a party, I don’t need any more cheese or wine, but trees and shrubs – viburnums, forsythias, smoke bushes – are such a joy,” says Lady Carnarvon. “It’s all about people and memories for me.”

The healing herb garden, centred around a sundial, is also a pet project. “A man who grows sage can never grow old – so I’ve got lots of sage! And I find rosemary very uplifting,” says Lady Carnarvon.

Lavender is used by the estate for gin Credit: HIGHCLERE 

Recently, the Carnarvons celebrated the launch of Highclere Gin, their latest venture – distilled with botanicals from the castle estate – with a Costumes, Cocktails and Castle tour, learning to dance with the Gatsby Girls and drinking Lavender Lady cocktails amid vintage cars and an exhibition of period outfits, unearthed from the hitherto dusty wardrobes of the estate. Along with juniper, lime flower, lavender and orange peel from their Victorian-era orangery, the secret ingredient is estate-grown oats (also sold as feed for race horses and polo ponies, packaged as “Highclere Castle Superior Oats”). “The master distiller looked at me as if I was mad!” admits Lord Carnarvon, “but it adds a creamier mouthfeel, for drinking on the rocks”.

The marquee from the shindig is still up when I visit, next to the sweeping, statuesque Lebanon-cedar tree lined path on the approach to the castle – the very same walkway used by Hugh Bonneville (as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham) and his faithful labrador in the opening television titles. It’s perhaps even more glorious a scene in person as it is on screen.

While Highclere is only open to the public for the summer season from 12 July until 8 September (it’s wise to book in advance: fans from across the globe descend especially for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the upstairs-downstairs world of Downton), it is also open on appointed dates for special events throughout the winter, including guided tours, afternoon teas, Christmas carols, gala dinners and book talks.

There are also a number of walks along public footpaths with views, should you ever find yourself nearby, including Highclere Park public walk, Old Burghclere and Beacon Hill, which as well as being home to the relics of an Iron Age hill fort, is also where Lord Carnarvon’s ancestor the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (who famously discovered the tomb of Tutenkhamun) is buried. Whether the film is Downton’s last hurrah or not, I suspect it certainly won’t be the last for Highclere, where both the past and the future offer rich pickings.

  • Lady Carnarvon’s latest book is Christmas at Highclere: Recipes and Traditions from the Real Downton Abbey (Penguin). Visit books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.