Voices: Downton Abbey is under threat – and it’s all because of Brexit, writes the real countess

There is no doubt that Covid and Brexit have undermined the wedding industry at Highclere (AFP/Getty)
There is no doubt that Covid and Brexit have undermined the wedding industry at Highclere (AFP/Getty)

Weddings are such an intrinsically happy part of human life – yet they can also be pregnant with characters and contrived situations which can create amusing sets and scenes that are bound to go wrong both in real life and on the screen. It makes them irresistible to filmmakers.

From films based entirely around nuptials, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral – to our own, much-loved TV series, Downton Abbey – weddings allow us to admire beautiful settings with characters from all walks of life, chic fashions and unfolding plot lines gathered together in one space. As Noel Coward said: “There are many reasons why you should marry – for love or for money – and many why you shouldn’t.”

As one of six daughters, my father always said he was not in the least averse to elopements – perhaps envisaging us absconding out of an upper window. My mother, however, felt very differently.

In Downton, it seemed as if almost every cast member was able to walk up the aisle at some point – from the scandalous match of Lady Sybil and the chauffeur Branson, to the below-stairs tribulations of Anna and Bates; as well as the romance of Mrs Hughes and Carson, the tribulations of Lady Mary (and in the end, thank goodness, even Lady Edith managed to get married).

Like many other stately homes, weddings used to be a large part of our business portfolio at Highclere Castle, which is (of course) the set for Downton. Each year, we would help organise anything up to 25 weddings and had part of our team dedicated solely to wedding planning. Most famously, before Downton Abbey came along, we hosted the unforgettable celebrity wedding of Katie Price and Peter Andre – with 52 pages of coverage in OK! Magazine and a large spread in Hello.

Over the years, the chefs and banqueting team have prepared and delivered many wedding breakfasts, while the days were marked by the arrival of beautiful flower arrangements, large bows for chair coverings and musicians beginning to set up.

Now, sadly, that is all a thing of the past. We have taken the decision to pause the majority of the wedding business – we’ve had to. We are still able to host a wedding of no more than 20 guests (and we do in fact have one wedding booked next year and we are all looking forward to it tremendously), but there is no doubt that Covid and Brexit have undermined the wedding industry at Highclere. It has really all been because of the effects of leaving the EU.

Brexit has caused such a retraction of people available to work in the hospitality business, that we realised we simply cannot guarantee that we can find enough staff to put on an event of the quality that we would want.

We have tried everything – but there is no point pursuing the quest any further. Staff shortages have led to rising employment costs, combined with the fact that, lately, almost every cost imaginable has risen more than any of us might have thought or feared. I know we are not the only ones struggling with such matters in the hospitality business.

Pre-Brexit, students studying here from across the Channel would be available to fill the gaps at the times of year when British students were studying for exams at the most popular time for weddings – the spring and summer. Now, “foreign” students are required to fill in a 30-page form to apply to work in the UK.

Needless to say, they can’t be bothered when there are so many other jobs available for them in mainland Europe. Who can blame them? It is a huge own goal on our part – I really cannot judge the students concerned for being disinclined to deal with no much bureaucracy, simply for a holiday job.

It is not just the wedding business that is affected, either. This year, we cannot get enough staff to offer our seated afternoon teas at Easter. As a result, we have had to close them down as part of our visitor attraction.

It is yet another reduction in income that we are having to deal with. The gift shop used to sell to Europe, but we have lost 100 per cent of that business. We used to export horse feeds to Ireland (a very traditional market) and that has diminished, each sale requiring fearsome paperwork and lawyers’ fees.

Before Brexit, data showed that 48 per cent of UK goods were exported to Europe – and that, likewise, it was our biggest import market. It is close by, so distances are not only practical but also have less climate impact (fewer air miles) than other economies further afield.

Perhaps our input was not sufficiently appreciated. It is probably true that our relationships with the two powerhouses of the EU – Germany and France – have been uneasy, but there is a great deal to be said for the idea that it would have been easier to change things from the inside than from the outside, where we now stand.

The consequences of Brexit have brought us huge uncertainty – we only hope we can keep going.

Highclere Castle would be classed as a small family business. Inevitably, in farming, we are used to taking the long view. Highclere has long practised long rotations, wildflower borders, beetle banks set aside for stubble for wildlife, meandering hedges and undisturbed woodland. I like to think of it as “treading lightly on this Earth”.

Yet none of our current stewardship is valued by the current British government. So many apsects of our lives and business are impacted by the politics and lack of strategy. It makes every part of our business hugely challenging – whether it is in hospitality, visitors, farming or land stewardship.

Covid both masked and accelerated the consequences of Brexit, but loud confident words cannot replace practical details forever. It is an economically challenging time, a frightening time – and it continues to be an emotionally and mentally challenging time.

Yes, this is a global story – and while we probably all hoped and thought that we would find calmer waters after the pandemic receded, it has been a perilous journey, too. The basis of democracy and the values of our culture itself have been shaken and seem suddenly rather fragile.

The structures created after the Second World War by our fathers and grandfathers are being tested – and in many cases, consigned to dusty history. Whether this will be a good thing, long term, is not for me to say; but it does not seem sensible the UK has reduced its ability to trade in one direction without having a strong alternative to put in its place. Indeed, six years after we voted to leave, we seem no closer to a credible new trading arena than we were then.

In some ways, Highclere Castle and its businesses are a combination of a selection of my favourite British sitcoms. From learning to live well and grow our own (The Good Life), to Are you Being Served? (the gift shop), to Fawlty Towers (everyday life as office staff try to man the tea rooms), Dad’s Army (don’t panic) and of course Downton Abbey (though I fear I am not as glamorous as Lady Mary, as I, too, try to get to grips with looking after some rare-breed pigs).

Like every other business, we look at strategy and at risk – trying to balance a basket of diverse but interlinked businesses with innovation. We are constantly looking for new ideas and new markets – and whatever we choose, we try to do it well.

Sadly, I am not sure enough politicians are in business, however much they pontificate about the economy. There seems a gulf in understanding between those who govern us – and those who try to keep everything going on the ground.

Lady Fiona Carnarvon is the 8th Countess of Carnarvon