I’m Lady of the Manor, but our life is nothing like Downton..

TBH Carlton Towers, near Doncaster, home of Lord and Lady Gerald fitzalan  Howard
TBH Carlton Towers, near Doncaster, home of Lord and Lady Gerald fitzalan Howard
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Home is a 16-bedroom Gothic mansion dating back to 1614 set in 1,500 acres - and her husband is a member of one of the oldest aristocratic families in Britain.

But Lady Gerald Fitzalan Howard - Emma to her friends - doesn’t live the Downton Abbey lifestyle. To ensure their beautiful home, Carton Towers near Doncaster, survives for future generations, the Howards are making it earn its keep by hiring it out for weddings, dinner parties and afternoon teas.

Undoubtedly, Emma, 52, is the hostess with the mostest...

Q. Who were you before you became Lady Emma?

A. I was a GP’s daughter from East Sussex. I worked in London from 18, ending up at a little P.A. recruitment company as an associate director. I made my best friends there.

Q. How did you meet Lord Gerald? Was it at a debutante’s ball?

A. At a wedding in 1988 - certainly not a deb’s ball - how old do you think I am!!! They were phased out decades ago! He was extremely flirtatious and very funny and invited me to a shooting weekend at his home in Yorkshire. As he had a title, there was some pre-conceived idea it could be a bit of a ‘pile’.

Q. What do you prefer to be called - Emma, or Lady Emma?

A. Emma, please!

Q. When you are called Lady Emma, does it make you want to giggle?

A. Not giggle; I’m proud to be part of such a historical dynasty. In fact I’m not officially Lady Emma - I’m Lady Gerald. I’d only be allowed to call myself by my own name after the title if I was born with it... Shame!

Q. When did you move to Carlton Towers?

A. In 1991, a year after our marriage, with our one-month-old son Arthur, now 22. It was grimmer than grim. Leaving the familiarity, comforts and friends of London was tough. There were no home comforts awaiting us. The first time I had seen the house two years before, it had seemed exciting and romantic but I didn’t envisage living there. It was a big, dark, eccentric and uncomfortable white elephant.

Q. Were you daunted by the massive restoration project?

A. Totally. The first thing we did was make our bedroom cosy and ensuite so the three of us could be warm and comfortable. Six months later we created a kitchen out of Gerald’s father’s study. The kitchen we had been using was a cold, dark scullery in the basement. Poor Arthur ate jar food heated up in a bottle warmer in front of the fire in our sitting room for all his meals, as going down there was so depressing. By the time my first daughter Florence, now 19, was born, the kitchen was up and running.

Q. Are you very rich? Were you able to pay experts to do the work for you?

A. Obviously not! The National Lottery eluded us and Gerald is not a Captain of Industry as far as I know. We hired architects, surveyors, builders and decorators. I was the interior designer and purchaser of furniture.

Q. I read that scrubbing bedrooms with a toothbrush and clearing mouse droppings was all in a day’s work for you. Is that true?

A. Not a toothbrush - but you’re right about droppings. The Baroness’ Tower was full of dead birds and their droppings.

Q. What conditions did you live in?

A. Wallpaper, was peeling off. There were no carpets, just a few threadbare rugs and there was only heating in one room. We relied on hot water bottles hugely. Condensation on the windows when you got into bed was like a car on a winter’s day. It took two years to get bedrooms to the stage where they were luxurious enough for guests.

Q. What do you think the house has brought to your three children’s lives? Will one of them inherit, and make the house their home one day?

A. They love the place. A few years back we asked them if they would be upset if we couldn’t make the place pay for itself and had to sell up. Well, I’ve never seen such shock and disgust in their faces. We knew what direction to head in.

We would be thrilled if Arthur wanted to get involved, but he is happily working at a vintage car auctioneers in London. If his life isn’t destined to be up here then so be it - my daughters may well want to rise to the challenge. Either way, it is a much loved home and I feel the extended family we are lucky to be a part of will keep it going.

Q. Tell me about some of the interior design ideas you came up with, such as Laura Ashley Raspberry emulsion in the drawing room...

A. The shade is my favourite interior colour and Laura Ashley’s paint was way cheaper than a Farrow and Ball! I have a passion for lamps and mirrors. Mirrors reflect light off the lamps. Result; an illusion of space and a softness to the room. Lots of cushions on beds and sofas, too.

Q. Your home is now simply magnificent. Are you proud of it?

A. Thank you. I am immensely proud of it because it gives so much back. How corny does that sound? I am proud to be the custodian of a room as magnificent as the Venetian Drawing Room but the favourite room of my own making is the morning room in our private quarters. It was dark, stark, dusty and inhospitable and is now a fantastic family room where we eat telly suppers, entertain, watch DVDs, open our Christmas presents - properly live in, like every cosy living room in the land.

Q. The costs of running the house and estate must be astronomical. Did you decide to open your home for weddings, afternoon teas, house parties and murder mystery nights as a way of preserving it for future generations?

A. That’s exactly why. And we love seeing it being used. If we had all the money in the world, it would genuinely seem like a lonely house if we didn’t have public events. Gerald and I get such a buzz from hearing all the activity, seeing the bride, overseeing new developments. It’s all really exciting. We are particularly fired up about opening a cookery school in March.

Q. Did a lot of soul-searching go into the decision?

A. It was a case of sell up or buck up.

Q. Is your life like Lord and Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey?

A. One hundred percent NO! No Carson, no Bates and certainly no Mrs Patmore. We have a caretaker, Mick, who has to wear an awful lot of hats, and a lovely housekeeper, Jane, four mornings a week. That’s it.

Q. Do you watch the series?

A. I absolutely love it. I think it’s great that Lord Grantham is having to think about keeping Downton going by diversifying. It draws attention to what stately homes are up against.