Highclere Castle and the Ritz Hotel
The 6th Earl of Carnarvon, my husband’s grandfather, never had a house in London: he simply stayed at The Ritz. Built during the reign of Edward VII on the corner of Piccadilly, it emulated the classical French architecture, including the front arcades which echo those on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris.
Both high society and the press enjoyed the opening party and it became hugely successful.This was in part due to a simple dearth of hotel space in London at the time – visitors were even using converted offices – but mostly because of the exemplary service it offered. High society and Hollywood streamed through its doors and so a legend was born.
I have always thought the Dining Room in the Ritz is the most beautiful in London (the top photograph here). The interior is inspired by the French Ancien Regime just as is the sumptuous green Drawing Room here at Highclere (below) and it is a treat both to lunch overlooking Green Park or to dine in the dimmed romance of the evening. Fans of Downton Abbey know that one of the later scenes was filmed there when Edith finally found happiness sitting at a table in the middle of the gilded room.
The 6th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon would fill the second floor with their friends which worked very well when the owner of the hotel was a chum and less well after it was sold on in 1937. Lord Carnarvon then found, to his distress, that he had to pay although he was ever the street trader and negotiated a deal. Many of the people staying at the Ritz also came down for weekend parties at Highclere – Lady Diana Cooper and Alfred Duff Cooper, the Aga Khan, Prince George, Hollywood actresses and producers. It was a fun world.
Over time, however, the 6th Earl’s rooms became smaller and higher up in the hotel as funds ran lower. Notwithstanding these circumstances, whenever dining, the Earl always sat at table number 1 by the window. It was therefore a tremendous honour that, when I took my son for the first time to lunch at the Ritz after one set of his exams, we were kindly given the same table. The food was utterly delicious and we were treated to a tour of the kitchens and to meet John Wright, the chef.
Far more extensive than our own kitchens, they were fascinating. For all that the Castle kitchens have been in the same place, facing north, for hundreds of years, they are equally full of modern catering equipment although on a far smaller scale. Thus, the Downton Abbey kitchens were filmed on a set at Ealing Studios in order to look historically accurate.
As a result of Highclere’s long association with The Ritz, I therefore thought that it would be the perfect venue for the launch party of my latest book “At Home at Highclere”. After all, one of the chapters begins when the Carnarvons leave the Ritz Hotel one evening in their Rolls Royce to go to a dance at Buckingham Palace and, as the 6th Earl said: “The Ritz has been my London home for over fifty years. I’m very fond of the place. Nobody knows it better”.
He did have the greatest fun and so, I hope will we.