- Odd News
By Louise Eccles
PUBLISHED: 18:56 EST, 25 December 2012 | UPDATED: 06:08 EST, 26 December 2012
Millions of us were gripped by the exploits of the Crawley family on the Christmas Day special of Downton Abbey last night.
In just three years, the trials and tribulations of the Edwardian gentry and their below-stairs staff have made the show one of the most popular period dramas ever made.
But its success has also had a dramatic impact on the lives of those living inside the ‘real’ Downton.
Family seat: Lord and Lady Carnarvon of Highclere Castle, location for the television series Downton Abbey
While the fictional Earl of Grantham struggled to keep hold of his ancestral home, things have never looked better for the owners of Highclere Castle, where the ITV drama is filmed.
Before Downton hit our screens, the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon admitted their Berkshire estate needed £11.75million worth of repairs, including £1.8million of urgent work on the main house.
Ravaged by damp and rot, at least 50 rooms were uninhabitable and its stone turrets were falling into disrepair.
But after their friend, writer and producer Julian Fellowes, asked if he could film his new period drama at Highclere, it has become one of Britain’s best-known stately homes.
As many as 1,200 visitors a day descended on the house in the summer, enabling the owners to begin major repairs.
On the small screen: Highclere Castle in the background for a promotion photo for ITV's Downton Abbey
Lord Carnarvon, 55, said the show had ‘taken the pressure off’ for them financially. He said: ‘At the time that we were approached about Downton, it was just after the banking crisis and it was gloom in all directions. We had been doing corporate functions, but it all became pretty sparse after that.
‘Then Downton came along and we became a major tourist attraction. It has been a wonderful thing for us and our visitor numbers have doubled.’
Redundant buildings have been turned into tearooms and a three-year project to fix those distinctive turrets is finally under way.
The only man who might be disappointed by news of Highclere’s success is Lord Lloyd-Webber. When the composer heard the family needed money for repairs, he offered to buy the property to house his art collection. It was a move that still rankles with Lady Carnarvon, 48. ‘We were completely astounded,’ she said. ‘I thought it was incredibly rude actually. It comes back to the old saying that an Englishman’s home is his castle. Geordie [the earl] loves this house, we all do and it is not for sale.’
Figures show the Carnarvons’ limited liability partnership Highclere Enterprises had cash assets of £329,685 for the year ending September 2011, compared with just £121,118 for 2010.
But Lady Carnarvon is not taking anything for granted. She said: ‘Any bit of money we make here goes back into making another set of curtains or something like that. I enjoy that. If I wanted to have Manolo Blahnik shoes and a big flat in London then I would have married the wrong man, but if I want beautiful views and to walk through fields, then that’s what Highclere gives us.’
Helping hand: The television series about the Crawley family at Downton Abbey has given new life to Highclere, boosting visitors numbers and allowed much needed repairs
Highclere, which has been home to the Carnarvon family since 1679, was redesigned by architect Sir Charles Barry in the 19th century after he finished work on the Houses of Parliament.
Yet it was not until 2009, when the first series of Downton hit our screens, that it was propelled to international fame.
Today, it is used to promote Visit Britain’s campaign in the United States. The family moved into the main house from a cottage on the estate when the 7th Earl died in 2001. They now split their time between the two properties, leaving the main house during summer when it is open to the public.
Lady Carnarvon said: ‘It is not an ivory tower. It is lived in and we hope that makes it more interesting to visitors.’
Extraordinarily, Lady Carnarvon says she has no idea how many rooms there are in their house.
‘I don’t know’, she says. ‘The archivist said there are between 200 and 300 rooms and 50 to 80 bedrooms.’
She did start counting one day with her son and nephew, but lost count after 13 rooms.
‘We started at the top of the first tower and counted coming down but when we got to the bottom the boys were bored and it was their holidays so we abandoned it.’
For now, the Carnarvons are too busy creating new business ventures to re-count the rooms.
The series has led to a flurry of bookings for weddings and private events.
Lady Carnarvon said: ‘We are lucky that people love Downton Abbey at the moment and that we have had three series, but I don’t think we take anything for granted.
‘I still wake up having a panic in the middle of the night about all sorts. I don’t assume it stays around.’