Half asleep and listening to Radio Four, one Sunday morning, I heard the usual news stories until suddenly John Humphries said “Lady Carnarvon says Downton Abbey set the table incorrectly”. My husband leapt up expostulating, “What have you been saying now?” and I pulled the blankets over my head thinking I might be getting my own cup of tea this morning… I could not remember saying anything much at all but I probably say more than my husband.
I think I had commented to one of the crew about a year before that we set the wine glasses differently and was that of interest? I had tried to put it carefully. This small point of detail was now half a page in the Sunday Times and even mentioned on the August morning show of Radio Four.
Even without Downton, setting the table is an act in itself, a process conducted with care and precision and one handed down though practice and instruction.
Often in the TV series there are about 14 people sitting round the table, which is practical because they have to fit another 30 crew in the room filming the scene from perhaps three different angles. In fact, it is a good number when we dine for real as it is actually possible to converse and enjoy the dinner rather than feel as if conducting a parade.
Highclere’s dining room table is a marvellous piece of Victorian engineering. It can contract to be just enough room for four people or, with the numbered extensions, lengthen to allow 30 friends to sit around it.
Setting the table is an art and allowing enough time is important. Luis our head Butler and Jorge, who assists him with Matthew and Fred as needed, usually set the table in the afternoon for the evening dinner. A cupboard at the servery end of the Dining Room holds all the carefully marked leaves of the table, the sideboard next door the knives and forks whilst an adjacent door leads into the glass cupboard.
I enjoy cutting and arranging the flowers and will bring them up from the flower room ready for when needed.
The exact layout depends on the menu and number of courses that Paul the Chef and I have agreed, matched with wines chosen by my husband and Luis.
The white gloves are used, which keep the silver clean and finger prints off the glasses, I imagine little has changed about the process in the past 100 years. White embroidered linen table mats are placed over leather protective mats to mark each dinner guest’s place. The knives, forks and spoons are set from the outside in, beginning with the bread knife and working through each course to the cheese. A pat of butter is impressed with the intertwined C’s and coronet of our crest and placed in front of each guest.
Unlike in Downton Abbey, the wine glasses and water tumbler are arranged to the top right of each setting and the mnemonic to remember the order is white on the right, or as Luis likes to tell the staff, like “a Mickey Mouse head“, with the two smaller glasses as the ears. The pudding glass sits at the back as this is the last one guests drink from.
Downton prefer a different arrangement to the glasses but, hopefully, all the ancestors hanging in their gold frames in the Dining Room would simply wish everyone to enjoy the pleasure of a dinner and conversation.