Movie sets that have inflamed the imagination with fairy-tale encounters taking place during the great eras in which luxury ruled are plentiful. But most of these exist in make-believe surroundings that are anything but inspiring when the trappings have been removed to reveal nondescript edifices and warrens of empty cubicles. Each time I welcomed Downton Abbey into my home as the credits for Masterpiece faded to a scintillating rush brought on by the rippling waves and cascading swells of John Lunn’s “The Suite,” I never tired of seeing Highclere Castle come into view.
One of the most exciting things about the show (and now the films) is the knowing that the comings and goings of its characters were actually taking place within a historic property. When I saw that the Countess of Carnarvon—the real mistress of the house—had produced a book published by Rizzoli, I knew that reading and taking in the visuals within Seasons at Highclere would provide a sumptuous experience, and I was spot-on. In the beautifully produced volume, she shares the history of the castle, behind-the-scenes access to the gardening and growing on the storied land, and seasonal recipes that have been enjoyed by Highclere residents for generations.
Delving into the history of the landed estate, the Countess notes that its origins extend back to Anglo-Saxon times; that it served as a medieval bishops’ palace for eight centuries; and that it grew larger and more ornate through the Victorian and Edwardian eras. “Highclere Estate has a uniquely long history spanning nearly 1,300 years, with very few changes of ownerships,” she writes. “For 800 years it was owned by the Bishops of Winchester and it still stands, more or less, on the same footprint as it did then, with the old medieval walls lying within the curtilage of the current Castle and gardens.” It was in 1679 when her husband’s ancestors purchased what was then an elegant Tudor family residence, which, from the start, he planned to transform it into a glorious castle.
As the home grew, a classical Georgian home was built around the Elizabethan façade. “This lasted until the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon commissioned the pre-eminent Victorian architect Sir Charles Barry to design and build the current Castle,” the Countess explains. “Barry was inspired by his travels in Italy, by the colors and sights he saw there, and he regarded Highclere as perhaps his most successful project, and far more enjoyable than his contemporaneous one: the Houses of Parliament.” She says of the current iteration of Highclere Castle: “It has a cozy splendor, with between 250 and 300 rooms, and sits in 1,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland. We still look after farmland, downland, and woodland comprising another 4,500 acres.”
Her descriptions of the seasonal changes brought on by the weather are as lovely as the property itself: “The bursts of color, sounds of birdsong, frisking lambs and fresh bright light that herald spring and the warmth and drowsiness of an English summer: insects amongst the wildflower meadows, the sound of a tennis ball being hit and the thought of fresh homemade lemonade in a tall jug. Autumn has a crisp smell in the air, with the crunch of leaves underfoot and the crimson colors of distant views, whilst winter is pale, with brisk walks on ancient white-chalk downlands, eating hot stews or roasting chestnuts by the fire and sharing cozy conversations with friends and family.”
She ends this meditation with: “Our four seasons involve all the senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, and they all live in our memories.” The Countess goes on to say how grounded they are by the history of the place and the nature in which it keeps them steeped. “For Geordie and I it is a privilege, a responsibility and an extraordinarily busy life at all hours alongside a community who love this building, its garden, farmlands, woods, nature on Earth and in the sky and all the values, cultures and dreams that it stands for,” she explains. “To quote the French author Victor Hugo, ‘If you don’t build castles in the air, you won’t build anything on the ground.’”
An in-depth look at the history of the property in Seasons at Highclere opens the chapter on Spring, the views of Highclere from different angles breathtaking, the flowers dotting the property beautiful, and the images of horses and sheep driving home the fact that that this is still a working farm. The image above opens the section of this chapter on Spring Cocktails, which includes recipes for a number of spirited drinks. At the end of several of these are Butler’s Notes with specific instructions as to how or why they are prepared in a particular way. Then, a presentation of the flowering trees and meadows is followed by a section on Spring Cooking with recipes for an array of main and side dishes, and desserts, such as the Pineapple Cake with Vanilla Icing shown below.
The Summer chapter in Seasons at Highclere describes the Georgian Highclere, the text accompanied by historical images and soulful moments that capture the architectural elements of the buildings. These include not only Highclere Castle, but the ruins of Jackdaw’s Castle and the Temple of Diana. The Countess is shown harvesting flowers surrounded by deep azure delphiniums, some taller that she is. Opening the section on picnics, the Countess writes, “During the eighteenth century, letters and diaries were as likely to be written in French as in English and our archives reflect the esteem in which the French language, customs and culture were held at that time. The formality of English gardens reflected the French example, as did the idea of picnics.”
The image above is of an alfresco lunch being served at the base of the Temple of Diana. The recipes in this chapter include a Heritage Tomato Tart; Potato Salad with Lemon and Chives; Burrata with Roasted Tomatoes, Basil and Olive Oil; a Crayfish and Avocado Salad; and Smoked Salmon Roulade. The gorgeous photography of these delicious dishes illustrates the exquisite care with which the presentations are considered, the Tarte aux Fraises below an excellent example. Summer cooking in this chapter include more formal meals with images of table settings that rival the lavish feasts shown in episodes of Downton Abbey. As the Countess describes her take on “The Art of Entertaining,” she quotes W. Somerset Maugham, who wrote, “At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” I could almost hear Violet Crawley’s venerable voice making this declaration!
The chapter on Autumn in Seasons at Highclere opens with the harvest. Though it still involves a Medieval Barn, the equipment that gathers and sifts through the spoils from nature stored there are decidedly modern, as are the banks of solar panels that bring a sustainable mindfulness to the management of the property. The Monks’ Garden is also shown with its greenhouses and pruned hedges, some in whimsical shapes. At the heart of the autumn picnic is a Field Mushroom, Roast Vegetable and Gruyère Quiche that looks absolutely mouthwatering with its flaky pastry. Autumn Cooking recipes include Soups, a Tagine, a Beef pie, and a Fig Tarte Tatin.
In spite of spritzes of snow, the landscape maintains its hints of green well into the winter. In this chapter, the Countess shares the philosophy behind the expanses of rolling hills sculpted by Capability Brown. Readers see the fire being stoked as more soup recipes, warm breads, a winter salad, and Baked Gnocchi with Spinach are served. To please the huntsman’s palate, pork, pheasant and venison are hearty additions. In her epilogue, the Countess illustrates how mindful the Carnarvons are when she writes, “Looking forward, as custodians of this landscape, our task is to preserve, renew and reinvigorate. Once lost, ancient woodlands, grass uplands and field boundaries cannot immediately be recreated.”
This book is a feast for each of the senses the Countess mentions earlier in the book, thanks to her thoughtful prose, the gorgeous photography, the sensuous gastronomy, and the glimpse into a storied history. The Countess maintains a lively blog that I highly recommend.
© Seasons at Highclere: Gardening, Growing and Cooking Through the Year at the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon, Rizzoli New York, 2021. All images courtesy Rizzoli USA and the Countess of Carnarvon. Saxon Henry, who has written this review, is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.