Almost everyone in the UK and possibly now, the majority of people in the world with a television or computer, will know of Downton Abbey; the wonderful British drama series set in the Edwardian period of the early 1900’s.
The series follows the lives of the fictitious Grantham dynasty who live in “Downton Abbey”, a large country house which the story lines lead us to believe is situated somewhere in the central north of England.
Downton Abbey is in fact filmed at the magnificent Jacobean style Highclere Castle situated near Newbury in western Berkshire and is owned today by the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.
Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian periods, Highclere Castle played host to many gala social events, gatherings of leading British politicians and captains of industry and also the occasional royal visit.
Invitations to be included in a shooting party at Highclere and partake in its quality pheasant and partridge shooting were much sort after. This became even more so after the then Prince of Wales, Prince Albert attended a shooting party there in June 1895 hosted by the recently married 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Lady Carnarvan, Almina Wombwell, daughter of Alfred Rothchild.
It is reported that Lady Almina aged only 19 at the time, spent over £360,000 pounds in today’s money preparing Highclere for the three day visit of Prince Albert.
Chefs and professional house staff from the Savoy in London were hired in, a floral extravaganza arranged by Veitch of Chelsea, overly generous amounts of champagne, fine wines and foods were also trained up from London’s finest suppliers. The bedroom of the Prince was especially redecorated in red silk damask and ornate French furniture.
While the centre of a Victorian/Edwardian shooting party was usually the field sport itself, the extravagance and presentation of the shoot dinners and accompanying entertainment for guests was often how the weekend was defined and recorded.
At Highclere Shoot Dinner Menus were then written in French and usually consisted of five courses:
- Soups or consommés
- Fillets of grilled fish
- Entree of pates or chicken
- Main Course of Beef, Lamb or Game with greens and potatoes
- Dessert of soufflé or profiteroles
A late supper of cold cuts of game, chicken or beef would be made available to guests.
Post dinner entertainment for important dinners was provided by professional musicians, singers or even circus performers. The Rothchilds had their own private circus and orchestra at the time.
Today at Highclere things are still done with exquisite style and panache but not on the same extravagant scale. Shoot lunches are usually simple, hardy meals including a favourite Highclere chicken curry with all the traditional Indian accompaniments such as poppadams, naan bread, chutney, mint yoghurt and green vegetables. The Highclere Curry is thought to have originated in the time of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who brought a curry chef back with him from the then Ceylon. The Rothchild family tradition of having something with dark chocolate and homemade ice cream is still carried on today.
Dinners at Highclere are now usually three courses and only one dish per course. The menus are based on seasonal food and local produce including estate venison and local meats and vegetables. In line with the changing dietary habits of the 21st century, there is now more emphasis on fish and chicken and more vegetables and less focus on red meat.
Traditional desserts such as ginger pudding, spotted dick and apple pie remain popular with friends, guests and clients alike.
Late supper is no longer served and a healthy breakfast of salmon kedgeree or scrambled eggs is offered. This contrasts significantly to the wide array of options offered during the visits of the Prince of Wales.
Some descendants of the guests and families who visited Highclere 100 years ago are still regular visitors as Highclere Castle now enters a more commercially orientated phase of its great life.
Thank you Downton Abbey and to its creator, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford known professionally as Julian Fellowes, for highlighting the wonderful history and traditions of Highclere Castle to the modern world.
Shooting and accommodation is sometimes available at Highclere.