AJ's fairytale ended up with her living in an English castle (Image: NC )In recent years we’ve watched Cora, Countess of Grantham, negotiate the un
AJ’s fairytale ended up with her living in an English castle
In recent years we’ve watched Cora, Countess of Grantham, negotiate the unwritten rules of the aristocracy in Downton Abbey. And recently there has been a real life addition too, but if you think AJ Langer, the new Countess of Devon, is wandering around her grounds in a ballgown and pearls then think again. The former Hollywood star and all round Californian girl first met her English husband Charlie, she had no idea who he was. She was at a hen do in Las Vegas and he was on a rugby tour. In true fairytale style, their eyes met across a crowded room, and “the rest is history”.
What she didn’t realise was this particular fairytale would wind up with her living in an English stately home. Powderham Castle is the ancestral seat of the Earls of Devon. It was built in 1390, but has been through many reinventions since then, with multiple Earls making their mark.
Now, it’s the turn of AJ – short for Allison Joy – and her husband Charles, the 19th Earl of Devon, to be in charge.
The 46-year-old is bringing a Californian breath of fresh air to the county and is intent on creating a modern vision for Powderham Castle that will last for the “next 100 years”.
As we saw with the Countess of Grantham, there are definitely advantages when it comes to being a fish out of water in an antiquated British system that still features “primogeniture”, the right of succession to the firstborn.
“I come in without a class system awareness. Charlie and I can travel in a camper van and feel perfectly comfortable and I’m not a person that sees convention,” she says.
“I see the privilege and that makes me want to use it to empower others. We’re going from an us and them mentality to a we mentality.”
For AJ, that means digging around in the history of the Courtenay family and telling the stories of those inhabitants who have been forgotten or brushed under the carpet – such as the 9th Earl, William “Kitty” Courtenay, who was gay.
Powderham Castle is the ancestral seat of the Earls of Devon
AJ says: “We’ve had the gift of uncovering Powderham’s gay history because it hasn’t really come naturally to anybody before we came into it, because our lives and culture have taught us different things.
“William ‘Kitty’ Courtenay cared for his 12 sisters and designed the music room and made the place full of magic and craftsmanship. No one knew his story.
“And we’re learning more about the women – this is a male history but things are changing and we have all these amazing stories in the archives that nobody’s looked at yet.”
AJ insists she is determined her children will grow up socially aware.
She says: “My daughter is very strong with Black Lives Matter and women’s equality and so even Charlie is working to recognise how the patriarchy lives in him. We look at the white privilege we’ve inherited and how we can take responsibility for that and support shifting it into the 21st century.”
Like Highclere Castle – the setting for Downton – Powderham, which overlooks the River Exe, is available for weddings and shoots. It was the backdrop to The Remains Of The Day and Mary Berry dropped in for her series on country houses.
AJ is working with the College of Medicine to create a social hub at Powderham
But AJ is also taking the house in a completely different direction by making it a centre for “social prescribing”, a “hub for health and wellbeing”, where people in the local rural community and beyond can come together to experience complementary therapies, music, art and the like. It is a passion born from AJ’s own experience.
Since childhood AJ has suffered from fibromyalgia, a syndrome which causes pain all over the body. She was a sporty child with a classic all-American upbringing. “I grew up in a very Western family, we played Pop Warner football and Little League, and I wanted to keep up with my brother who was an athlete. It was no pain, no gain,” she says.
But after a baseball injury at 13 sparked a pain reaction all over her body, she went to the doctor for tests. “I overheard him telling my mom I was exaggerating it. It was mortifying. For the next 20 years, it affected me and triggered shame. I hid a lot of pain,” she recalls.
AJ went on to have a successful career in Hollywood, landing the lead in My So-Called Life in 1994.
In the early noughties she was starring in Three Sisters when dealing with her condition became too much and she decided to take a break from showbiz.
The countess says she is still getting to grips with being lady of the manor
“I was taking a lot of vitamins and bless my castmates, they thought I was a drug addict and staged an intervention,” she laughs. “But it was the catalyst for me taking a year off.”
Then Lord Courtenay walked into her life.
AJ says: “I’d organised a bachelorette party for a friend in Las Vegas.
“On the first night we went to the bar, I saw Charlie and he smiled at me and the rest is history.” It was supposed to be a “ridiculous romantic fling” – their next date was in New York and then a rugby pal invited them to his wedding in the UK.
“We went to the Isle of Skye and camped out and drove back across the country.
He said, ‘Do you want to see where my parents live?’ I didn’t know a thing about it.
The actress starred in TV show Three Sisters in the early noughties
“It was stunningly beautiful, the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen. Especially coming from California, where it’s very raw and new. Suddenly you’re in this historical novel. It’s sumptuous and green and Turner-like.
“But I didn’t know what to do with that information. I liked Charlie, and so all the other stuff was…well, I’m sure there would be other girls who would be more impressed! But I think that’s why he liked me.”
The pair married in 2004 and have two children, Lady Joscelyn, 14, and Jack, Lord Courtenay, 11. They settled in Cali-fornia, intending to divide time between the UK and US.
But when the 18th Earl died in 2015, suddenly that romantic castle became AJ’s new home. So how do they balance their two cultures?
AJ says: “The plan was to have a home in both places because the culture is so different yet essential to our balance as a family.
“Inheriting Powderham happened very quickly – we kind of upped and left and it was so overwhelming we haven’t spent much time back in California.”
Californian girl AJ first met her English husband Charlie in Las Vegas
AJ says she is still getting to grips with being lady of the manor – “it’s like having a kid, it takes a lifetime to get your head around it.”
During the pandemic the family have been able to spend time in California and catch up with old friends and family. She says: “We promised the kids a year back in California and it ended up being this year.
“I’ve never really stopped acting and my agents keep me on their books. I do love it and miss it. My kids are talented performers and we stay open on both sides of the pond to what life brings us.”
As part of her drive to create the social hub at Powderham, AJ is working with the College of Medicine and being treated by their member Dr Toh Wong, who has contributed to their upcoming manifesto Hope For The Future.
It looks at the future of healthcare and encourages GPs to put “social prescribing” at the heart of the NHS.
Tai chi devotee AJ says: “I’ve discovered that the marriage of Western medicine and complementary therapies with the element of me learning who I am is the trifecta.
“Mental, physical and emotional are all three elements of experience – there’s no separation. Medication alone isn’t going to help if you’re not connecting to yourself.”
Far from being alarmed by this dynamic Californian now revolutionising the castle, locals have taken her mission on board.
“Social prescribing is a great way of making Powderham relevant, because it connects people,” she says.
“I want to see us facilitate health and happiness through connection with arts, culture and community. I’ve seen first-hand the response to so-called Californian ideas of Tai Chi and yoga. People are showing up – it’s amazing.”
● Hope For The Future looks ahead to a world altered by Covid-19 and was written by some of the most influential names in UK health. The College of Medicine is home of the social prescribing network: collegeofmedicine.org.uk