By Tom Corby
The days when a girl born into privilege, like Lady Mary Crawley, would glide down the stairs of a stately home similar to TV’s Downton Abbey, swathed in chiffon and diamonds, to be greeted by a chorus line of young men in white tie and tails, are long over, but the weekend house party in country houses still happens, although perhaps in different forms.
There is a band of survivors hosting private weekends in their grand, sometimes crumbling houses, but guests no long arrive in a cavalcade of Rolls Royces, accompanied by personal maids and valets, and enough luggage to contain at least three changes of clothes a day. The Rollers have been replaced by 4 X 4s, while the hosts, more often than not, wear Barbours and green wellies. Violet, Downton’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, would surely have had something to say about that!
This does not mean to say that people are not conscious that the appropriate clothes must be worn for the appropriate occasion. White tie outfits are still very much in demand, and here again the Downton effect is in evidence. Incidentally, Huntsman, Savile Row tailors since 1849, produced the white tie suit for Lord Grantham, the actor Hugh Bonneville, and two seasons later he is still wearing it. The tailcoat was made to faithfully reflect the fashion of the time, with the firm’s cutter replicating early 20th century shoulder construction and line. The director and costume department of Downton asked that the trousers be made without pockets, to prevent Hugh putting his hands in them.
Kathryn Sargent runs her modern tailoring house from her atelier in Brook Street with traditional Savile Row values at its core. She says that a great number of people have country houses as a getaway, and, of course entertain from them. Her clients tend to ask for country colours, perhaps for shooting parties. Long walking skirts with pleats and made of tweed are very much in demand and ideal for following a shoot. Riding habits are also making a come back
The people at Guns on Pegs, the Jermyn Street shoot promoters, are also convinced that country house parties are still very much the thing, with the accent on the corporate, but with aristocratic land owners still playing a part. Tom Adams, the firm’s shoot account manager, says that participants are continuing to ‘dress to the nines’, in gaiters and plus fours, in just same way as their great great grandfathers during the Edwardian hey-day of fashionable house parties. Lavish picnics are served at lunchtime, and there is usually a dinner party the night before the shoot, with another party on the Saturday night of the weekend.
He said: “It’s all about a passion for the countryside, with shoots becoming more accessible, opening up to a large cross section of people.” Shooting parties have even been taken up by show business. Madonna has been known to join the guns on her estate in Wiltshire, doing her utmost to look the part, spending almost £1000 on a Cashmere outdoor coat, Burberry moleskin breeches and a pair of Le Chameau boots, an ensemble which, when topped with a tweed cap, moved her friend Gwyneth Paltrow to dub her ‘Miss Marple’.
In these egalitarian times, you can also rent your own scenario, and pretend to be Lord Grantham and Lady Mary for a couple of days. Any number of big country houses and estates are opening up to guests who want to indulge in this kind of fantasy – at a price. And as well as sporting weekends, they are in demand for weddings.
An example is Blairquhan Castle, in Ayrshire, the ancestral home of the Hunter-Blair baronets, but now owned by a Chinese syndicate. Twenty people can occupy 10 rooms there for £4,500 per night. For that, they get all the original furnishings, and even the blankets have ‘1824’, the year the castle was built, woven into them. The producers of the Oscar winning film The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, used the castle’s interiors as their Balmoral. Both castles were built in the baronial style in the 19th century, on sites which had castles there before them, and both have sporting estates.
Even the royal family is letting in paying guests. The Castle of Mey, the late Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother’s beloved hideaway on the north coast of Caithness can be rented for £50,000 for a long weekend. The guests, a small circle of wealthy business people and philanthropists, are carefully vetted, and for their money enjoy a full programme of events put together by Lady Elizabeth Anson, the Queen’s cousin and party planner, including stalking and salmon fishing. Only the Queen Mother’s bedroom is off limits.
The Castle of Mey Trust devised these very privileged breaks to raise funds to pay for the upkeep of the castle. The wise guest would pack shooting and fishing kit and black tie. The women would also pack an evening dress, perhaps a Bruce Oldfield, who, once having dressed Princess Diana, is now ironically couturier to the Duchess of Cornwall.
Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the 4th Earl of Lichfield and Princess Anne of Denmark, could rightly be described as ‘the hostess with the mostest’. There are few, if any, party planners who are better known than her. For instance, she organised a dinner for 40 members of the royal family on the eve of Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton And she has been a sharp observer of both ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ since she was a child, having been brought up at the Lichfield family seat, Shugborough Hall, in Staffordshire.
“I spent more time with the servants than with my family,” she said, “and watched how they worked. They even had to iron the newspapers. I learned how to polish silver, and ate the remainders of the grown ups breakfast when it was sent back to the kitchen from the dining room.
“As far as my brother, Patrick, and myself were concerned, the servants were our friends. I don’t think I came down to dinner until I was 15, and I was 17 when I had my deb season. We wore long dresses every night, and in those days trousers and jeans were unheard of.”
One of the last bastions of old style formality are the royal weekends hosted by the Queen and Prince Philip at Balmoral or Sandringham. Lady Elizabeth, however. does not arrive with a trunk full of designer clothes.
“I don’t do new designer,” she volunteered. “I go to charity shops, and have found some unbelievable bargains, like Hardy Amies dateless couture. Not so long ago I bought five jackets for £9.40.The Queen laughs about my glass jewellery. Her Majesty knows that I’m not wealthy.”
In the golden age of country entertaining, between the end of Queen Victoria’s reign and the start of the 1914-18 war, food beside sport, both in and out of the bedroom, was one of the most important constituent parts. For breakfast, the Edwardians could gorge themselves on fruit, eggs, potted meats, fish, toast, rolls, kidneys and fried bacon, followed by at least two other huge meals, including the sportsman’s breakfast, not be confused with ordinary breakfast.
Lady Carnarvon, chatelaine of Highclere Castle, near Newbury, the location for the filming of Downton Abbey, serves her guests porridge and croissants for breakfast, and at Christmas entertains a party of 26 who stay for up to 10 days.
In the early 20th century, 14 footmen, a butler, an under butler, a major domo, a groom of the bedchamber, ladies maids, three or four cooks, kitchen and house maids were needed to ensure that every whim was catered for. Now Lord and Lady Carnarvon have seven or eight staff on duty when they entertain. Lady Carnarvon admits that she doesn’t achieve a true Downton ambience, not one that its author, Julian Fellowes imagines.
“Just as well,” she says. “We don’t want people dying in flagrante, in Lady Mary’s bedroom, or of the Spanish flu, do we!”