• History

Take a Tour of the Real Downton Abbey House

2 minute read

The prospect of opening up Downton Abbey to the public might shock the fictional Lord Grantham, even if ticket sales could help subsidize the house’s upkeep. In real life, however, the house at which the popular TV show is filmed does allow commoners to traipse through. As the house’s current resident, Lady Carnarvon, recently told LIFE Books, Highclere Castle has been open to the public since the 1980s, when an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts went on display. The home is currently open to visitors for a couple dozen days a year, and it’s even possible to book an overnight stay at the estate.

In 2012, TIME visited the estate to take a look at what it’s like to live at the real Downton Abbey. And, as the article explained, the real reason for the tours is just the same as the one explained on the show:

The Carnarvon family has lived on this estate in rural Hampshire, England, since 1679. The countess sees it as her duty to open the doors of Highclere not just to television crews but also to tour groups and schoolchildren. “It’s a living house and a part of our national heritage,” she explains. But sharing Highclere is also a matter of necessity. The Carnarvons, like many aristocratic families in Britain, are asset-rich but cash-poor. Exorbitant maintenance costs can make even the bluest of blue bloods cringe: Geordie, Carnarvon’s husband and the eighth earl, estimates that he will need to sink $18 million into renovations in the coming years, from fixing faulty plumbing to restoring a 15th century barn with ancient timbers. Any revenue the house generates—from its tearoom, its filming contract, its $15 entrance fee—goes toward upkeep. “If I wanted Manolo Blahnik shoes or swish clothes from London, I definitely married the wrong man,” says Carnarvon, 47. “But I like looking at sheep and walking across lawns with dogs, so it’s fine. Everybody with houses like ours faces exactly the same challenges.”

Luckily for visitors, however, the real Lady Carnarvon proved a better tour guide than Cora Crawley:

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com