How I renovated 'Downton Abbey', by the real lady of Highclere Castle

Last weekend, RealHomes.com was lucky enough to be invited to Highclere Castle, the real Downton Abbey, to meet Lady Carnarvon. We talked decorating on a budget, lighting mattresses and more...

Lady Carnarvon at Carnarvon House/Downton Abbey
(Image credit: Highclere Castle)

Last Sunday, I took a tour of Downton Abbey – or Highclere Castle as it is properly known. I was there to celebrate not just the launch of the Downton movie (out today, see a trailer, below), but also of a new range of mattresses by Silentnight called Highclere. We took a tour of the house – and I can report that it's exactly as you see it on TV, bar the family snaps that litter the table tops and mantelpieces. 

While there, I talked to Lady Carnarvon, who has overseen the renovation of the house to its current state for the past 20 years. What surprised me most? Despite the obvious grandeur, she's carefully chosen the decor in every room herself – and on a tight budget. And, most surprising of all, it's a very homely space.

Highclere Castle/Downton Abbey

(Image credit: Highclere Castle)

Tell us a little about the history of the house

'There's been a home here since 749AD – not sure they had mattresses to begin with – and my husband's family has been here since 1679, so there's always been a home here on more or less the same site,' says Lady Carnarvon. 'There's the remains of an Elizabethan gatehouse and medieval palace here, so people have lived here, cooked here, slept here for a long time – and that's partly I think because of the chalk water which is good for us and the ease of collecting food, hazelnuts and what grows in the soil. The house was designed by Charles Barry, who designed the House of Commons. It was a happy project for him – he thought it was one of his finest buildings, so it's probably one of the most important Victorian buildings in the country.'

When did you take over the running of Highclere?

'When George and I took over after my father-in-law died unexpectedly in 2001, I thought that I did not want to preserve something for the future, but to enjoy it today.'

How did you approach the renovation?

'I've ended up knowing about interiors a little bit more than I thought I would,' says Lady Carnarvon, a former fashion designer, who has done the bulk of the design work herself. 'I've worked my way around the castle, which my parents-in-law never lived in. So, I started working my way around the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the really exciting hot water system, loos, plumbing, lighting... replacing the mattresses was a key part, too, because all the mattresses were about 150 years old. 

'So my sisters would stay with me and give me marks out of 10 for the mattresses – which was usually nearer two! I started on the worst ones. Almost every single one had to be made specifically for the beds. It was so boring! I had to take measurements and look at what John Lewis had and find there wasn't a single right fit, so I'd do three or four mattresses a year and work my way around the house.' Highclere has 12 bedrooms on the first floor, with another 40 to 50 rooms on the second and third floors (many of these now used as offices), in case you were wondering. 'Good mattresses are important,' continues Lady Carnarvon. 'If you sleep well at night, it's what gives us good health in the day time. I have blankets and sheets rather than duvets, which is what my husband chose.'

Where on earth to start?

'Decorating all the bedrooms, which is where I started, was next. I didn't want it to feel like a hotel so I've introduced calm colours. Nothing's perfect because I work on a budget. So I'll do the key parts – I love the East Anglia bedroom which is a beautiful room with two windows. The wall colour is Archive from Farrow & Ball. The room could do with a more 'important' rug on the floor but I bought a needlepoint one because it was £200.'

Lady Carnarvon in Highclere Castle dining room

(Image credit: Highclere Castle)

Tell us more about your approach to decorating Highclere

'When I'm decorating a room like the East Anglia bedroom, I think about the direction the room is facing, of the curtains that are there – I want to work with them and not change them. It's a grand room so you need to choose a colour with a bit more punch to it. If you choose something insipid it just disappears. I recovered the sofa. Again that was a budgeting decision – there was a really amazing fabric but it cost ridiculous amounts, and there was a fabric in the middle which I thought I could afford and that if something was spilt on it I wouldn't... die! The carpet is a new carpet and I like dark green mouse back colours because I think it grounds the house, whereas in a modern house you might choose lighter colours. Skirting boards are always a darker colour – that grounds the room again – they do tend to get chipped rather a lot by film crews. I wait till they have gone and repaint them. So there are practical decisions of being a wife and mother, there's putting the archives on the walls, there's putting books everywhere and things from the china cupboards which are better on display, and there's rewiring the bathrooms with brighter lights – I don't have the ability to put dimmers in.' 

We're amazed to hear you talk about a house like this being done on a budget!

'Like anybody else, I'm making decisions with where I go to suit my budget. I work with a girlfriend who is an interior designer but in the end, it's my money and my home – but I very much rely on her because it's Grade I listed and I also have English Heritage here. They trust what I'm doing but I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes sense. The East Anglia bedroom, for example, was painted a hideous shiny cream, because after the Second World War there was no money in this country for paint – could be going the same way soon – and everything was a shiny cream or a shiny green. Some bedrooms were shiny cream, others were shiny green, which was really hideous. With the cream bedroom I got away with it as long as I could until I couldn't stand it any longer. My mother-in-law had done the curtains – they're perhaps smaller than I would have chosen but they're very pretty and charming, so I left them and painted the room around them, rearranged furniture around it and framed various prints I found upstairs and hung them.'

The main living room at Highclere Castle/Downton Abbey

(Image credit: Highclere Castle)

Presumably, it's a project that never ends?

At this point, Lady Carnarvon's press secretary tells us that there are 60 other houses on the estate that Lady Carnarvon does up herself (some of these are available to rent out as short term lets).

'At the moment, I'm buying beds again; I'm waiting for the sale price to see what I can do,' explains Lady Carnarvon. 

How is it working with English Heritage?

'I approached it with enthusiasm. I went in with the attitude that it's a privilege and a responsibility, so how can we best share it? I work with them, I try to always – just like in school – always tell the truth! I'd never do anything underhand.'

Are there any limits to what you can do to the house?

'Yes. For example, I could never put a bathroom in the first floor of the castle where there's a dressing room because that's fundamentally changing the nature of the castle. And there's not a single shower in the castle because I'd have to bash through the outside wall to fit an extractor fan. I've got plastic jugs on the side of the baths so you can put them under the tap if you need to wash your hair, like I did when I was a child. And now I'm doing it again. So there are some places I know I'm not going to go because I think it's wrong, and other things I'm just really happy with.'

How will you feel about seeing your home on the big screen?

'I'm going to cry, I'm sure. I'm going to need tissues. It is very surreal but you do get used to it. I learnt to step away from what the film do. I did comment that they didn't set the dining table right – but I guess that's because it looks nice on TV – and then that was picked up in the press about a year later. But they can set it how they want if it looks better on TV. I'm not bothered – that's their job.'

Downton Abbey/Highclere Castle and Lucy Searle

Realhomes.com's Editor in Chief, Lucy Searle (and other visitors more suitably dressed for the occasion)

(Image credit: Edie Houlton)

Has Downton changed your life here?

'It's changed our business. Before, we did 30 weddings a year – Katie Price/Jordan got married here – but now we do just one or two. I'm now more events-driven. We've got a week next May called Living in a Castle, where I've got a talk and tours. Mixing and matching things around the filming. I've also written a book called At Home at Highclere (buy in the UK or the US now), which is about entertaining here. I've tried to share what it's like getting the house ready for a weekend. I've also written Christmas at Highclere (buy in the UK or the US now), which is recipes, stories, ghost stories, cocktails, decorating, planning, making lists. It's what life is here. It's very beautiful here at Christmas time. It's a difficult world and looking back at history gives you a lot of reassurance.'

How do you avoid damage during filming – we'd heard a table was damaged?

'Whenever they set the table for example, I ask them to put very thick cloths on it because they are there for 12 hours, leaning on the table, pretending to eat, spilling things on the table, with the long lighting booms over the table. I'm a custodian, I'm not a friend, I have a role. It's a beautiful table so they cannot have it unclothed, whereas we'd have dinner on it without a cloth on. So they have layers of blankets on it and a white cloth. There's just that practical approach to it. They're fine with it.'

Silentnight Highclere mattress

(Image credit: Silentnight)

 What's next?

'I'm beginning to do the tower inside now as a homage to Charles Barry. I'm going to create an exhibition for him. I've done the wiring and the fun bit was choosing the beautiful hand-blocked wallpaper from Hamilton Weston. Otherwise, I start every Monday with meetings about what roofs are leaking, what we're pointing. I've got a board in my office with everything we've got running, what the decorating team, the joiner, the electrician are doing, so that if I'm not there, they've got stuff to do.'

The house feels very welcoming inside, surprisingly seeing as it's a castle

'There were no lampshades originally, so to start with I used to have about four made a week – and now there are about 160 more lampshades in the house than there were. Sadly I'm going to have to redo some of those now. However, I am switching to LEDs which will help preserve them longer.'

Are you interested in living in an environmentally friendly way?

'Wherever we can, we try to minimise our carbon footprint. On the farm, we have for a long time planted wild flower meadows because if you integrate everything you have a much more sustainable farm. The birds will be attracted to eat the insects that you don't want on the crops. We keep bees – which matter enormously – and the honey goes in the shop; we cut the wild flowers and the seeds go into the shop, we've just grown a whole field of camomile for camomile tea, oats for horses... We have sheep but they mow the park. The gin we have comes from our wheat. It's the oldest distillery outside Birmingham. It's a quintessential English drink! I won't add sugar or colouring agents when I cook, I try to minimise salt, eat more vegetables... I hope in our own way we're doing our best.'

How do you fit everything in?

'We've got a moment where Highclere is on top. And I think if the film is much liked, all the better. If you like the series, you'll like the film. There's nothing like it. But I do like Poldark, too! I'm so sad that series is over! 

'But the importance of sleep must be stressed. Silentnight is a great name, but using lavender, turning the TV off – we only have one TV in the whole house – not having phones nearby, no internet (the Wi-Fi doesn't work very well here anyway). There are piles of books in the rooms instead. You go to bed, shut the shutters, pull the curtains...'