The seasons are changing at Highclere Castle, the real setting for Downton Abbey. A few days ago we were brewing fresh lemonade in a tall jug, to the sound of tennis balls being struck and insects humming in the wildflower meadows.
Now in the mornings there’s a crisp smell in the air, and soon my husband Geordie, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and I will feel the crunch of leaves underfoot.
The cool clear scent of an early autumn morning signals the change of season. I love the arrival of autumn at Highclere, but then I appreciate all the seasons here. They have been gently turning for nearly 1,300 years.
Lady Carnarvon shared her appreciation for all the seasons at Highclere Castle. Pictured: Lord and Lady Carnarvon preparing to picnic
The current building has a cosy splendour, with between 250 and 300 rooms, sitting in 1,000 acres of parkland designed by Capability Brown (whose statue stands in the grounds) – and we look after farmland, woodland and downs comprising another 4,500 acres.
Whether we’re gardening, growing or cooking, there’s always plenty to do throughout the seasons at Highclere…
Our first sparkling wine
Lady Carnarvon revealed it has taken four years of research to have chardonnay grapes planted in two quadrants and pinot noir in two more (pictured)
I once took a combine harvester for a spin, lurching off humming the Wurzels song, ‘I’ve got a brand new combine harvester.’ Did I warn Geordie? No, I did not!
As the evenings draw in, departing birds circle the tower of the castle, from warblers and flycatchers to nightjars and swallows, all preparing to head south. The late flowers provide a final pitstop for the bees, and our beekeeper Mike Withers (now in his 80s) has to judge how much longer he can take honey from them, ensuring they have their own supply for the winter.
Geordie and I leave the harvesting to our skilled and experienced farming team. My agricultural prowess is more useful in the kitchen garden and the orchard, where apples and other fruit trees have grown for at least 800 years. Grapes, however, are a new departure and one I’m very excited about.
Enjoying a glass of champagne one afternoon with friends, we began to muse on the geology of Highclere’s soil. The castle sits on a strata of chalk soil and clay tops, speckled with flints, that runs all the way from Champagne country in France.
Highclere Castle sits in 1,000 acres of parkland designed by Capability Brown. Pictured: Capability’s statue
Could we have a vineyard, we wondered, if it was set in a large walled garden which would help retain the heat? It has taken four years to do our research, but now we have chardonnay grapes planted in two quadrants and pinot noir in two more.
To make sure our vines are protected against frost, we have invested in a hot-air blower, something like a giant hairdryer.
Soon we will be bottling our own sparkling wine. Naturally, I have volunteered to do the first tastings. Another new addition is the revived woodland walks, replanting native species conscious of the loss due to Dutch Elm disease and the current challenge of ash dieback.
Some of the planting is inspired by memories of a walk with my father-in-law around the gardens at Milford Lake, a mile or so from the main house. We started with a group of Parrotia persica or Persian ironwood trees, which turn a gorgeous red in autumn.
Look after the lambs
Lady Carnarvon (pictured) revealed she and Geordie would help with the lambing during the cold snap in March 2018
Every barn and stable is filled with animals as spring begins, to protect mothers and babies from late frosts. During the cold snap in March 2018, Geordie and I enjoyed a lovely supper at the castle with friends before swapping evening dress for Wellington boots at 11pm to head down to the lambing barns for a couple of hours to help with the lambing.
We topped up the ewes’ water, put wedges of haylage [moist hay] into corners of pens and made sure there was enough straw around their perimeters to help the lambs survive the icy temperatures. Lambs expect ‘food androom service’: water, hay and bottle-feeding for the orphans.
The piglets are happy to snuffle through the woods, squeaking noisily and keeping the sows awake. At the opposite side of the park is a courtyard of stables in which the thoroughbred brood mares spend early spring.
Did you know it’s supposed to be bad luck to bring bluebells inside? It attracts faeries… who can be mischievous.
Inevitably their foals will be born in the small hours of night, although we are now blessed with cameras to alert us. Then we head over, armed with Thermoses of tea and coffee.
The telltale signs of pacing start and stop until suddenly the mare is down, then hooves and a face appear, followed by a collection of long legs landing on the straw. As the weather gets warmer, our thoughts turn to cocktails in the gardens with friends.
Alec Waugh, the older brother of novelist Evelyn, claimed that he invented the cocktail party – and since Evelyn married not one but two of my husband’s relatives (nieces of the 5th Earl), I expect there were some memorable Waugh parties here. In fact, when something was especially good, Evelyn would describe it as ‘very Highclere’.
A wonderland for the wildlife
Lady Carnarvon said an enclosure away from the castle was overgrown until they bought two young female pigs. Pictured: Lady C with her pig Lady Mary
Our posh piggies
Our five new sows are named Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Lady Sybil, Lady Violet and Lady Cora. I do hope the Downton stars don’t find out.
Walk down the hill, away from the castle, and you’ll come to an overgrown enclosure. At least, it used to be overgrown until we bought a pair of ‘gilts’, or young female pigs.
Their names are Thelma and Louise, and they are British lop-eared pigs – an old, endangered breed. At one point, there were only about 100 breeding sows left in the country. These two wasted no time churning up the ground.
In a few weeks, it looked like it had been professionally rotivated… just the way Thelma and Louise like it. A boar named Arthur joined them, and five more females – we’re looking forward to piglets in the spring.
Our formal 18th-century gardens, designed by Robert Herbert, included a ‘great wilderness’. Robert was a fashionable ancestor and character, famous for his goldlaced clothes, with an amazing imagination.
Lady Carnarvon said there’s nowhere prettier in all the grounds than the parkland in the snow, which is a haven for deer and pheasants (pictured)
He built a theatre in the woods, scattered statues through the shrubberies and glades, and loved to welcome his friends to enjoy the gardens.
By the 21st century, his great wilderness was entirely lost. We cleared and reinterpreted it, and renamed it the Wood of Goodwill. Much of it is made up of native species including juniper, crab apple, lime, holly, hazel, yew and hornbeam.
Others are more exotic, planted in a salute to Geordie’s adventurous ancestors – including Japanese cherries and tulip trees. There’s nowhere prettier in all the grounds than the extensive parkland in the snow.
Once it was the preserve of nobles who hunted here. Now it is a haven for the deer, as well as the pheasants and French red-legged partridges.
Season of scents
Lady Carnarvon revealed one of her favourite walks on a warm evening is between the faded wall of the Monks’ Garden. Pictured: Croquet and cocktails on the lawn
One of our favourite walks on a warm evening lies between the faded wall of the Monks’ Garden, which dates back to the time of King John, and a tall yew hedge (it wasn’t always so tall, but during World War II it leapt up because there weren’t enough gardeners to keep it under control).
In this tranquil space, Geordie’s parents planted out a border of white plants, including buddleia, sage, lilies, anemones and white agapanthus, with hydrangeas and wisteria too.
The 1993 film The Secret Garden was filmed in our Secret Garden and starred Maggie Smith – who came back for Downton Abbey.
Walk along here and under a brick arch, and you’ll discover the Secret Garden – laid out on a spot that for centuries was used by gardeners as a rubbish pit.
This garden was designed in 1962 by Jim Russell, a boyhood friend of my father-in-law, and the first thing you notice as you open the gate is the delicate scent of the incense cedars.
Jim compared the garden to a painting, though he also said it was like a sculpture – because the views changed as you walked around it.
We can also walk in the rose arbour I created in memory of my mother and enjoy the fragrances. I laid it out in a circle with four paths converging at the centre, and made sure there were gaps in the paving stones so that I could plant chamomile in the crevices.
It crunches underfoot and even more wonderful smells waft up. A fence keeps out the rabbits and the deer. One of the most dramatic roses is a climber which is fuchsia red and white. Its name is… Lord Carnarvon!
Seasons At Highclere: Gardening, Growing And Cooking Through The Year At The Real Downton Abbey (Century, £30) is published on 16 September. Adapted here by Christopher Stevens
Lady Carnarvon shares Highclere’s enchanting year-round rituals in this extract from her new book