Entertaining Tips From Lady Carnarvon, the Countess Who Lives at the (Real) Downton Abbey Castle

If the prospect of hosting houseguests and entertaining visitors has you stressed this holiday season, imagine the level of pressure you’d be under if you were gearing up to welcome the King and Queen to your home. Such is the storyline in Universal Pictures’ Downton Abbey movie, out December 17 on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as on digital. And sure, Downton might be a movie — but the castle is very much real and the lifestyle within it is alive and well.

SheKnows recently made the journey to Hampshire, England to visit the real-life castle that has such a starring role in Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle, the stunning, centuries-old estate situated on 5,000 lush acres in the English countryside, a couple of hours by car from London.

Despite its jaw-dropping, scene-stealing look, Highclere is a real residence, currently inhabited by Countess of Carnarvon, her husband Geordie, eighth Earl of Carnarvon, and their son. (Not to mention eight dogs, tons of horses, a brood of
 chickens, a pet rabbit, a pet sheep — and on and on.)

Lady Carnarvon is an author, having penned various books on Highclere and entertaining there. Her latest book, Christmas at Highclere: Recipes and Traditions from the real Downton Abbey is out now — packed with behind-the-scenes history, rituals, and recipes from the magical festive season on the estate.

Want to entertain like the (literal) lady of the house at one of the world’s most famous homes? We asked Lady Carnarvon to share tips derived from her most essential hosting strategies as the master of entertaining guests on the grounds.

Treat every guest like royalty

Unlike (ahem) many of us, Lady Carnarvon is in the actual position to welcome royalty into her gracious home — but it’s not just those rarefied few guests who get her full attention.

“I thoroughly enjoy welcoming people here. It’s about welcoming guests, it’s about sharing it with joy — even on tours, as well as welcoming some of my friends who might be staying,” she told SheKnows. (Highclere is open to the ticket-buying public.) “It’s mixing it up. We still welcome statesmen, royalty, men, and women from very interesting backgrounds. It’s a place to come and sit and converse. So perhaps when you go into a conference room, you’ve already made friends. That was the function of these houses, particularly through Victorian and Edwardian times… so it continues.”

So whether you’re welcoming your mother in law, your boss — or perhaps even the King and Queen this season — open your doors to all of your guests with the same atmosphere of respect.

Set some ground rules — but not too many

A truly skillful holiday host will set a tone for happy and healthy engagement among guests — but not be too heavy-handed with the rules.

We asked Lady Carnarvon if there’s anything absolutely off-limits when she gives parties. “I wouldn’t expect people to bring out a mobile phone in the middle of anything,” she said… even while acknowledging the significance of some of her guests on the world stage. “Except, obviously some people are far more important and they have a hotline because they have some challenges at the time. But other than that, I hope people will talk to each other and enjoy themselves, whether we’re going to have dance before or after supper, or music.”

So, to win at hosting, let it be known — even tacitly — that you only tolerate respectful behavior in your home (unless, you know, the King is texting with an urgent request).

Listen and learn in an appropriate way

When it comes to decorum, the real world might not much resemble Downton Abbey — or Highclere Castle — especially these days, when politics are ugly and athleisure leggings count as dinner dress. But that doesn’t mean you can’t — and shouldn’t — set the tone for good manners when hosting at your home.

It’s all about “taking the time to listen to other people,” Lady Carnarvon told SheKnows. “So when you’re at supper here and you’re talking to each other, you’re listening to someone. You’re asking them and catching up on their views, and perhaps they might catch you with your news. So it’s the give and take of social interactions, rather than the one-liners on the media we use today. It’s the chance to carry a conversation through for 20 minutes.” (And yes… discouraging the use of mobile phones at the dinner table sure helps facilitate that.)

You may not have a proper royal title, but your home is still your castle no matter what. So this season, and every entertaining opportunity to come, make like Lady Carnarvon and welcome your guests in royal style.

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