Have you ever dreamed of staying at “Downton Abbey”? If you have, this dream came true for eight lucky guests from Canada. I am not sure now whether I developed the idea whilst going for a walk, or in the bath, but I do remember that I had the vague recollection of reading in some newspaper survey that Highclere Castle had been voted the place that readers most wanted to stay the night.
The idea then developed into a project to raise money for worthwhile charities such as PBS. Entrants would dress up, invite their guests and prepare a dinner party, raising money for the charity of their choice. It was all about sharing and, in the end, we had entries not only from the USA and Canada but also from Europe and Australia. The visitors’ books here at the Castle reflect the rich diversity of friends and honoured guests who have enjoyed sharing in Highclere’s hospitality over the centuries. I gather nuggets of detail as I delve into the archives. It is, however, rather like some of my old accounting days: it is all about incomplete records and, like an accountant, there is a little bit of filling in the blanks.
I wish I knew which bedroom Sir John A. Macdonald stayed in, or Charles Adams. Howard Carter, the Egyptologist, stayed here so often that perhaps he had a favourite room or perhaps he enjoyed the view from many different bedrooms. Anyway, the point is that, when the Canadian winners arrived, they ‘were’ staying in John A’s room, or George Etienne Cartier’s or John Galt’s or John McGee’s. Apart from the odd ghost wagging a finger at me, I can’t be proved wrong. I know they stayed but not precisely in which room they slept.
In our busy lives sharing a dinner, deciding how to balance a placement and generally organising the evening, is a fundamental part of reminding us what it is to converse, to sit and eat. From the earliest history, banquets and feasts defined society. It has been mooted that our ability to be omnivores, to cook and eat a diversity of food from seafood to fish and meat, from eggs and dairy, grains, fruits and vegetables, helped our brains develop and thus to develop speech and the organisation of our environment and society. We are, quite literally, what we have eaten.
However, over the last couple of decades, for many of us food and cooking has changed in perhaps a not so positive way. We eat whilst walking, whilst sitting in the car, at a desk and much less often at a table or with other people. Food is plentiful and unlimited, we no longer have to catch it, make it or cook it and most of us take it utterly for granted. I think this is our loss and one of the things that has been so interesting about the Downton journey for me, is it’s demonstrable emphasis on both formal and communal dining.
It matters how to set the table and what foods to choose to cook. Downton of course began at breakfast time, the family gathered together. Many scenes were set around our Dining table with often a cutting comment or physical collapse leading to exits stage left in deathly silence.
The guests’ arrival may have included some wonderfully cutting comments from the Dowager Lady Grantham before they had even sat down to dinner. By contrast, I rather hope our guests loved every moment of their arrival at the Castle.
I found the entries we had to the “Come and Dine” contest very moving: dinner parties being created with such trouble and attention to detail and with such amazing photographs, songs and videos. All the food came from my book ‘At Home at Highclere’ and for our own dinner we started with Luis’s champagne cocktail and the beetroot cured salmon, also from the same book.
Naturally, when I was judging, the first thing I wanted to do was cry. Karine (Hagen of Viking Cruises) was with me and she was no better. We both sat in Highclere’s dining room with the other judge Andrew McKenzie feeling utterly unable to choose. Finally we decided on Tressa Lemky from Winnipeg, Canada who went above and beyond everything we could possibly expect.
Viking Cruises, like Highclere, is a family business and one which is about community and sharing through travel.With extraordinary kindness they flew over the eight lucky winners and organised all their logistics. Before coming to Highclere, the winners had dinner and an overnight stay at The Vineyard, who also supported the project and have a wonderful spa as well as an extraordinary wine cellar.
Laughter, tears, friendship, dinner and beds you sink into, with views that money cannot buy. What more could you ask for. Thank you above all to Karine and Torstein of Viking and thank you to all those who took apart.