The CultureMap Interview

The real countess of Downton Abbey deciphers tea etiquette and secrets of the hit series

The real countess of Downton Abbey reveals secrets of Highclere Castle

Lady Fiona Carnarvon head shot
Lady Fiona Carnarvon at Highclere Castle. Courtesy photo
Downton Abbey cast in front of manor
Promos for the hit TV series Downtown Abbey are shot in front of Highclere Castle. PBS.org
Highclere Castle with Lady Carnarvon in garden with dogs THIS
Lady Carnarvon in the gardens at Highclere Castle. Highclere Castle/Facebook
Downton Abbey
Maggie Smith, left, and Michelle Dockery, in a scene shot at Highclere Castle. Photo courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE
Highclere Castle with horse, dogs, day
Highclere Castle. Highclere Castle/Facebook
Lady Fiona Carnarvon head shot
Downton Abbey cast in front of manor
Highclere Castle with Lady Carnarvon in garden with dogs THIS
Downton Abbey
Highclere Castle with horse, dogs, day

Having 150 cast and crew members running around Highclere Castle doesn't ruffle the lady of the house. While an episode of season six of Downton Abbey was recently being filmed,  Lady Fiona Carnarvon was sitting in her "very messy" study, surrounded by books on gardening while researching a new book, as she chatted on the phone with CultureMap.

The reason for our conversation: She's headed across the pond as the guest of honor at Highclere Tea Friday at the St. Regis Hotel to benefit Houston Public Media. At the tea, hosted by Lynn Wyatt, the Countess of Carnarvon, the wife of George Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, will discuss the history of the castle popularized by the wildly popular PBS series. (It will be the countess' first visit to Houston.)

Actually, the castle, located about 45 miles west of London, has been open for tours since 1987, to showcase an Egyptian exhibition, she explained. (The 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered the Tomb of the Egyptian Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, in 1922, and mysteriously died soon afterward.) "The tours that came around the house at that stage were even longer than Downton," she said.

Even so, the popularity of the series has rejuvenated interest in the castle, as she was quick to note during our phone conversation, along with an explanation of what a makes a bonafide tea.

CultureMap: What is a Highclere Tea exactly?

Lady Carnarvon: I'm not sure what the Houston version is going to be, but here we tend to have tea with scones and cake. It's a very lovely time of the afternoon to gather your thoughts and have a lovely cup  of tea. It's one of my favorite times to sit down for 20 minutes.

CM: Do you dress up for a tea?

LC: If we have guests here for the winter or the summer, sometime you come in from the lawn or perhaps have been riding or perhaps it's the weekend and you've taken time to do some other leisure pursuits, so you would change, rather than sit down with what you were wearing to ride or play croquet or whatever. 

 "High tea tends to be a term I use for the children's tea, actually. You would apply the word 'high tea' to what you do with children between tea and supper." 

CM: What is high tea vs. another kind of tea?

LC: High tea tends to be a term I use for the children's tea, actually. You would apply the word "high tea" to what you do with children between tea and supper. I think there are different cultures and different traditions in different parts of the world.

Tea is normally between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, earlier in the winter because the light is drawn in England. I'm trying to write a book about recipes for the last 100 years, including a summer tea when the famous American novelist Henry James came to the castle.

CM: Is there a traditional tea that is served?

LC: We always serve Indian and China tea.

CM: Do you have a favorite?

LC: Well I do quite like Earl Grey tea. I don't think you can really do better.

CM: How does it affect your life when filming is going on?

LC: When they're here for a few days at a stretch, some of the rooms that they are filming in look, to me, topsy turvy. They always look rather glamorous (on TV) but usually the carpets are covered with Correx (floor protection sheets) as they move their equipment around. I'm sure they would think of it as a carefully pre-planned plan.

 "It's helpful when so many people are interested in it. It means I can spend money at a faster rate and I'm very good at that."

CM: Did you ever think Downtown Abbey would be the success that it is?

LC:  No. We hoped somebody would like watching it. But I think the interest found in America has been amazing. I'm hugely appreciative because it helps in terms of what we want to do to sustain the house and take it forward. So it's helpful when so many people are interested in it. It means I can spend money at a faster rate and I'm very good at that.

CM: You spend a lot on castle upkeep.

LC: Joking apart, we did a lot of that before Downton started. We did a lot of work on the roof and some of the brickwork and stonework. My husband kept on doing it over his lifetime. He has not stopped. I hope we're not entering a huge black hole. He has always kept on. Every autumn we fence another couple of miles of park or farmland. Every autumn we plant another 20,000 or 30,000 bulbs. This year my husband planted 67,000 bulbs, not himself, we use machines to do it.

You just simply keep on going but it's a huge space. I'm just excited because I've just had the most beautiful hand-blocked wallpaper delivered for a room I'm working on at the bottom of the tower, so I'm so thrilled.

CM: Do you have a favorite room?

LC: The messy study that I am sitting in I'm very fond of because it's my own. What I think is so lucky there are different rooms for different times. Sometimes going up to the top of the tower and looking out over the trees, you're climbing on the roof. It's an open room at the top; it's a room in a different way. It's very peaceful.

CM: Is there a character you identify with?

LC: Elizabeth McGovern as Cora is very clever, but she's more reactive and I think I'm more proactive. I'm grateful that we're very different.

CM: When do you think the show will come to an end? And what happens next?

LC: I'm sure (PBS and the British channel ITV) would like it to go on a little bit longer. There's word there might be a film, which would be quite fun because they could decide what time to set it in. Obviously you know it's coming to a end. I can't worry about it actually. In some ways it's rather wonderful that I am unable to influence it.

Highclere Tea with Lady Carnarvon, Countess of Highclere Castle, will take place at the St. Regis Houston Friday afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. Individual tickets are $450. For more information, visit the HoustonPublicMedia website.