My Fair LadyLady Fiona Carnarvon
If someone were to exhibit downright lovers of life: “We obviously what a lady should be, that lady would be Lady Carnarvon—and she is simply extraordinary. Lady Carnarvon—resident of Highclere Castle, better known as the setting of television’s beloved historical drama Downton Abbey—is delightfully surprising, down-to-earth, and downright lovely to meet, even if only virtually. Her spirit and energy are contagious. She’s the bubbly tonic to your pau hana G+T made with none other than Highclere Castle’s own gin, distilled from botanicals grown in the castle’s colorful English gardens. But gin is only one of many facets characterizing a castle renowned for parties and good taste. This castle, and the Lord and Lady who inhabit it, have a hospitable heart of gold. Lord and Lady Carnarvon aren’t only British nobles; they are also active humanitarians, hospitable entertainers, esteemed conversationalists and downright lovers of life: “We obviously still dress up and have parties, and I’m bloody glad we have them … You have to live every day. Carpe diem! Seize the day, because it won’t come around again,” says Lady Carnarvon, beaming, when speaking about life at Highclere, often referred to as “the real Downton Abbey.”
“When Georgie [Lord Carnarvon] and I took over the castle, after my parents-in-law died, I started turning it back into a home, and welcoming people to come and stay, which my parents-in-law didn’t do. They had another lovely house, and didn’t move in to what, in fact, is a huge house that requires a lot of effort,” Lady Carnarvon shares of Highclere. “It’s stately, it’s large, and it’s a home, and I think you need that sense of home, otherwise, these homes that were built as houses become separate from the title, so I wanted to bring that back.”
As for comparing her life to the tele- vised Downton Abbey, Lady Carnarvon comments: “It’s all fiction with mythical characters, but what gives it the reality is the house. The characters aren’t us. You can draw comparisons, etc., but in the end it’s supposed to be fun, and that’s what we need!”
Fun certainly is fitting for Lady Carnarvon. She lights up a room and has a knack for spreading joy like afternoon tea cakes. Moreover, she is a skilled storyteller, who brings to life every bit of Highclere Castle through profiles and poetic blog posts. She profiles the real Downton Abbey’s colorful cast of characters, from her eight dogs (four Labradors and four Spaniels), to her husband and 94-year-old (soon to be 95-year-old) Head of Security.
“When Julian [Fellowes] wrote Downton, he had Highclere in mind … And I think that comes across, because he knows how the dining room works, he knows where we go before and after supper … it becomes a familiar friend to him, and in that way, I think it has become a familiar friend to many other people,” Lady Carnarvon comments on Downton’s success. “I find it truly fascinating when you take words on a page, and you turn them into three-dimensional humans who everyone comes to love. It’s a skill … It’s been amazing to watch and amazing to see it come together.”
While she may not have had a hand in producing the show, Lady Carnarvon has directed many of her own productions at Highclere, saying that “part of life is throwing parties, having people to stay, conversation, dinners …”
In addition to entertaining and charitable speaking engagements, she is also an avid writer and media mogul with a full weekly editorial schedule that includes: Monday blog posts on the delightful ladycarnarvon.com, Thursday podcasts and the daily upkeep of Highclere Castle’s much-admired (and followed) social media platforms, which include the following Instagram accounts: @highclere_castle, @highclerecastlegin, @highclerecastlefarm, among others.
“We’ve built a bit of a community through the blog,” shares Lady Carnarvon, smiling. “I was doing some behind-the- scenes filming with Good Morning America, and John Green said, ‘you should write a blog,’ and I said, ‘what’s a blog?’ … So, I started to blog in a chaotic fashion, not really knowing what I was doing.”
Well, Lady Carnarvon has since mastered online media, and she attributes this, along with many of her successes, to “hard work, and then by chance, and then realizing what does and doesn’t work.”
Her blog posts reach several million people, including the British press, which Lady Carnarvon believes is “extraordinary.” She hopes her blog comes across as “calming, thoughtful, and sometimes funny. I try to judge the mood,” when choosing topics. As selecting subjects and an editorial angle, “in my mind, it’s all about tone. That matters hugely to me, sensitivity I suppose.”
While her Thursday podcasts were born during lockdown. “I wanted to make sure that I could capture these extremely extraordinary people who won’t be here forever … That’s the strength of social media, no matter where you are—in Honolulu, or in Canada—you can listen to them.”
Call it a project of passion, but Lady Carnarvon is capturing history and the heart of artful storytelling at Highclere. “You take a media, and it’s what you do with it … I think Highclere does take what’s at the heart of it: It’s not about money. It’s about life.”
Amidst all of her captivating digital projects, Lady Carnarvon is working on another book, and isn’t shy about getting her hands dirty while working with Highclere’s many animals, or about sharpening her cooking knives—whipping up dishes from pancakes and beetroot salmon— alongside Highclere’s beloved chef, Paul (@highclerecastle_chef ).
In speaking about her next, nature- inspired book, Lady Carnarvon shares: “It’s a whole range of trying to reconnect us to the land, which is where we began … We’re all so connected, and those tracks and paths [on the hillsides, in the land- scape] were made by our ancestors walk- ing, and we’ve forgotten we’re supposed to walk … That’s what makes the landscape, and that’s what forms it, so that’s what I’m writing about.”
To complement her writing, Lady Carnarvon’s generosity and genuine kindness know no cultural (nor country) boundaries. This in mind, Susan Bier, sister of Ho‘?la N? Pua (HNP) president and founder Jessica Muñoz, had the pleasure of meeting with Lady Carnarvon while visiting Highclere Castle: a meeting which would lead to something bigger.
Ho‘?la N? Pua is a non-profit devoted to preventing sex trafficking and providing care for children who have been exploited. Muñoz founded HNP after working 10 years as a nurse practitioner and witness- ing children who were victimized through sex trafficking. Thus, she named the organization Ho‘?la N? Pua, meaning, “new life for our children,” something that HNP is committed to fighting for.
Following her Highclere visit, Bier wrote a letter to Patsy Arnett, Lady Carnarvon’s speaking agent, sharing the story behind Honolulu-based Ho‘?la N? Pua, asking her to speak at HNP’s forthcoming fundraising event, something that fits the legacy of the real Downton Abbey.
“I hope Highclere’s always done what it can to help others and to reach out,” Lady Carnarvon shares. “My predecessor, Almina [the 5th Countess of Carnarvon] turned it into a hospital in World War I … and that was my first book, sharing what she did: She gave her money, her life, her time to making others better … I think that is somewhat at the heart of what we do here. It’s helping people have a moment of peace, wherever you are. You can find it within you, and that’s important. I look back at my predecessors, and I’m lucky, because they were good people who got that. God can’t ask for any more.”
Thus, Lady Carnarvon rides on Highclere’s coattails, supporting others, beyond castle grounds.
“Most of the talks I give try to raise awareness or money for different charities, and this [sex trafficking] is something that is harder to talk about … because you sort of think, ‘that doesn’t really happen in our world,’” Lady Carnarvon shares. “It’s interesting, I mean it’s gone on for ages, and you just think we live in a better world.”
According to Ho‘?la N? Pua, every year, more than 4 million people are sex trafficked, over a million of which are children, in a $100 billion criminal enterprise. Yes, under the utopian image of Hawaiian paradise lies a dark industry of misguided human predators and the victims who need care, love and guidance to reenter society.
“It’s extraordinary what they [HNP] do. It must as well be emotionally exhausting, and you probably can’t believe that this is going on,” Lady Carnarvon shares, adding that she is “reaching out and trying to offer a hand to help.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ho‘?la N? Pua was planning a fundraiser in California, where Muñoz is from, with Lady Carnarvon as guest speaker. Muñoz and Carnarvon both foresee a future fundraiser, when travel permits, some- thing that Lady Carnarvon believes is “so important because it opens the mind, and you meet new people … It’s quite good for the soul.”
“We look forward to continued collaboration with her,” Muñoz shared on Lady Carnarvon’s support of HNP. “The work that we’re doing, while we might be based here in Hawai‘i, is setting up a national and international model of how to intervene and work with children who have been sex trafficked or exploited. With her voice involved in this effort, I think it will help us to continue to gain traction from stakeholders around the world and bring awareness to the issue of child sex trafficking, which really is an epidemic in our world today.”
Until Lady Carnarvon is able to make it to the West Coast, you can follow her activities on her enchanting blog that invites you to virtually voyage to England to experience the halls, gardens, kitchens, and active farm life of the majestic Highclere Castle.
“At the heart of it, [Highclere Castle] is just a welcoming family home, which reassuringly has stood there for well over 1,000 years. I think it acts as an anchor and as a visible history for more than just our family,” Lady Carnarvon shares. “In the end, the house is about people, it’s not about stones.”