That Time I had Tea with the Countess of Carnarvon

A Bedouin man with a donkey for hire in Petra. A little girl selling bracelets on the beach in Bali. An impassioned vintner in a Tuscan village. A tech entrepreneur on a long-haul flight to Beijing.

It’s the fascinating people I encounter while traveling that impact me the most.

Meeting folks from all walks of life and learning about how they carve out an existence is the best part of this gallivanting lifestyle. Much as I love eating at yummy restaurants, snapping photos with famous landmarks and touring museums, I find I learn the most valuable lessons when searching for common ground with people in circumstances unlike my own.

One such encounter happened on my most recent trip to the U.K.

I met Fiona at a lovely backyard garden party. Like me, she works from home on a variety of passion projects. She takes her many responsibilities seriously and pours herself into each task. She considers herself a workaholic who finds it difficult to shut her mind off after hours. In addition to running her household and its myriad of improvement projects, she’s an author and a blogger. She loves to travel, has a big heart for those who suffer and a natural inclination to provide for and protect others. She uses old-fashioned expressions like “Golly!” just like I do. Fiona loves to entertain guests in her home and often hosts spectacular costume parties. Like me, she’s a fan of the hit show Downton Abbey.

To my surprise, we had quite a lot in common… especially when you consider it was her backyard garden party, and the backyard includes about 5,000 acres and one of England’s most famous homes.

You see, Fiona is a lady with a capital L, and she’s the chatelaine at Highclere Castle.

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More formally, my newest travel acquaintance is Fiona Aitken Herbert, the Countess of Carnarvon, wife of George Reginald Oliver Molyneux Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, godson of Queen Elizabeth II.

You may be wondering how in the world I came to have tea with the real-life, modern-day equivalent of Lady Grantham. My little sister Rachel and I attended the Vintage Garden Party at Highclere while visiting the U.K. for the Jane Austen Festival, and while there, dressed in our finest rental attire from the 1912 era, Lady C invited us to tea inside the castle.

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If you’ve been around the Angie Away world for a while, you know that I’ve always been captivated by the trappings of noblesse – factual, in the case of the Windsors, and fictional, in the case of the Disney Princesses. The structured Regency protocols in Jane Austen’s day and the ordered etiquette of Downton Abbey have always appealed to me.

Perhaps because society life is so different from how I grew up, from my roots. My great-great-grandparents were poor Bohemian farmers who came to Wisconsin in the late 1800s on ships filled with migrants looking for a better life. Sure, I like to dress up as Countess Angelene of the House of Orth-Normoyle, but I’m really just Angie from Florida/Eastern Europe.

I’m the kind of gal who drinks sweet tea on the porch on a sweltering hot day, not English breakfast tea surrounded by priceless paintings and hundreds of years of history.

And yet I found myself doing just that with Lady Carnarvon.

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Lady C bestows the award for “Best Hat”

I don’t usually get nervous to meet new people, but a real countess in a real castle was a different story entirely. Should I curtsy? Is there a protocol for addressing her? How should I take my tea? (With milk, of course!) Had Queen Elizabeth ever sat in this chair? Had Theo James ever sat in this chair? What if I ask a silly question and make a fool of myself?!

If you were expecting the Countess to fit some sort of stuffy aristocratic mold, I’m happy to disappoint you. After a quick kerfuffle in deciding where to share our tea (choosing a room can be a challenge when you have a few hundred on hand), we settled into an easy conversation about a surprising number of commonalities; everything from writing (she has her own blog dedicated to life at Highclere Castle and several published books about castle history) to our costumes and accessories to favorite travel destinations to the particulars of running a 5,000 acre estate. (Ok, perhaps we don’t have that last one in common.)

I always had this notion that marrying a Mr. Darcy-like heir to one of the most beautiful buildings in the world would predicate a life of leisure and excess, but keeping a centuries-old castle and its fascinating history alive is more work than you can imagine. Rewarding work that she feels quite bound and honored to do, but work nonetheless.

Countess is more than a title. For the Countess of Carnarvon, it’s a full-time occupation.

Together, Lord and Lady Carnarvon manage the castle, its park and the Egyptian Exhibition in the cellar, employ dozens of people, welcome thousands of visitors per year, host charity events and coordinate an ongoing restoration and refurbishment. By allowing the Downton Abbey story to be told and capitalizing on its popularity, Lord and Lady Carnarvon have wisely found a way to keep Highclere Castle alive and relevant, something many peers have failed to do. The idea of elegant lords and ladies sitting around on their posh backsides eating crumpets just couldn’t be further from reality for these two.

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Lord & Lady Carnarvon on the carousel at Highclere’s Vintage Garden Party

As a blogger, Lady Carnarvon offers a peek into daily life on the estate, from festivities to seasonal changes to historic photos you can’t find anywhere else. It’s not all garden parties and state affairs, and that’s one of the things I admired most about her. In a recent post entitled Silhouettes, she recounts the history of the property’s regal Cedars of Lebanon. Rather than focusing solely on her own world, she turns the gaze outward, to the Middle East where those same cedars are needed for more than just decoration on a grand estate. During the Vintage Garden Party, she paused the festivities for a moment of silence to remember 9/11, to have the band play the Star Spangled Banner and to read a touching poem by Joyce Grenfell. It was a touching scene.

(Want to see more from the Vintage Garden Party? Check out this video!)

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Rachel dances with Lady Carnarvon and Highclere Castle staff at the Vintage Garden Party

Friendly and obliging, warm and welcoming, Lady Carnarvon was one of the most interesting, focused people I’ve ever met. I could’ve chatted with her for hours (and fished around for an invitation to stay at Highclere on subsequent return visits), but I wanted to be respectful of her time. Running an estate is no walk in the park, even when technically there’s a lot of walking around in a park to be done!

After our tea, when the garden party was over and all the happy revelers had left, Rachel and I were the last to go. We saw Lady Carnarvon in her jeans and a button-up, back to work, cleaning up after the party, moving flowerpots in a pickup truck with the staff. It made me feel a little less sad about the end of our magical costumed day at Downton Abbey to know that even the Countess has blogs to write and a home to run.

Highclere Castle is full of priceless treasures. Lady Carnarvon may well be the most valuable one.

Want to meet Lady Carnarvon? Plan a visit to Highclere Castle and you might do just that as she goes about the business of running the estate. Or, keep an eye out for her book tour in 2017 and go get yourself a signed copy of At Home: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey, about entertaining at Highclere Castle throughout history.

My visit to Highclere Castle was in partnership with Visit Britain. All #OMGB moments, opinions and photos are my own. Special thanks to Alex Popplewell and Lord & Lady Carnarvon for making all of our Downton Abbey dreams come true. Images on this page are copyrighted and may not be used without express written permission.

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