Learning La Vida Downton

Jan 6 2014, 11:37am CST | by

Learning La Vida Downton
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

As much as I love Downton Abbey, there’s one bit I find intimidating. I try to imagine myself living that life and wonder how would I – a nice Jewish boy in that most un-English of American cities, Los Angeles – ever fare in that most refined of worlds of horses, hunts and servants?

Here, we wear t-shirts and flip-flops to sip lattes from paper cups at the Coffee Bean; there, even the butlers wear tie and tails to serve tea in fine bone china in the parlo(u)r. There, masters and servants live by the dozens under the same roof; here, we hire day laborers outside Home Depot. Here, we ride by Prius to watch the Lakers; there, people ride on horseback to the hunt. And here, if you hear the word “shooting,” it’s on a movie set or a police report. Rarely does it involve a pheasant.

On the other hand, Downton‘s Lady Cora is American-born and half-Jewish, and if she could make it there, I reason, so could I – with training, of course. So when the opportunity presented itself to learn some basic skills for la vida Downton, I jumped at it.

Learning La Vida Downton

It happened last summer, when I was a guest of Ellenborough Park, a 500-year-old former stately home of a one-time governor of India, renovated and reopened as a hotel in 2011. It’s in the Cotswolds region, about two hours by train west of London; Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, is across the Cotswolds. This is horse country (Cheltenham Racecourse is just across a meadow) and well situated to learn about marksmanship and proper table setting, with experts on site or a short drive away.

While much has changed since the Downton days a century ago, I was struck by how one thing has not: the precision, detail-orientation and dedication to be the very best at one’s job, whether you’re a beginning table-setter or have received a title from the Queen.


My quest began with a bang, literally, at Ian Coley Shooting School. Mr. Coley has coached six Olympics’ worth of British rifle sports teams, including two gold medalists, for which he received the title Member of the British Empire and a spiffy medal of his own. (Other MBEs include figures in sports, business, the arts and more, among them tennis great Margaret Court, singer PJ Harvey and composer and conductor Philip Brunelle.)

On Downton Abbey they hunted foxes, but Mr. Coley’s guns are for shooting birds: partridge, pheasant, grouse or, thankfully in my case, clay pigeons. He fitted me out with the all important protective gear – visor cap, goggles and ear protection, and with the patient, kindly demeanor of a country doctor, he showed me how to load, hold, aim and fire the shotgun (hint: keep just slightly ahead of the moving target). Good form isn’t just for its own sake; it helps to avoid recoil, the jerking pushback when the gun is fired, which can cause severe rotator cuff injury.

A proper hunt, I learned, is not merely for sport. 150 years ago, a bird hunt would have fed an entire mansion, upstairs and down. Nowadays, birds are bred for the hunt, and given today’s smaller households, birds that the hunters don’t want are taken to local butchers for export to countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. “Europe eats a lot of game,” Mr. Coley told me, “but they don’t have a lot of the birds.”

When Mr. Coley received his MBE, he met Queen Elizabeth, who, he said, was knowledgeable, personable and genuinely engaged in their conversation. “Great Britain would be a sad place without the royal family,” he told me. “We’d be a lot poorer for it.”

Table Setting

I returned to Ellenborough Park for a lesson in table setting from Elizabeth Schartner, assistant house manager. The Austrian-born Schartner attended tourism school and has lived in Britain since her late teens. A decade later, she oversees a waitstaff that serves 60 to 70 dinner guests nightly. Just some of the tips I picked up:

  • The first decision point is the nature of the table: small or large, square or round. Everything else will flow from that: number and location of seats and spacing of settings. Round tables are harder to work with because the alignment of the table elements is trickier.
  • Iron the tablecloth. That crisp, clean look doesn’t happen all by itself. At Ellenborough Park, the tablecloths can be ironed right on the tables.
  • Start with a place plate (called a charger in the States, a large, decorative plate on which no food is served) in front of each seat, one finger-width from the table’s edge. The rest of the setting goes around or on top of the place plate.
  • Stand behind the chair for the best perspective on the alignment of the place setting.
  • Proper alignment of the plates is crucial. The bread plate, for example, goes on the left (of course you knew that) and its upper rim should be in line with the tines of the fork. Exceptions can be made on a round table.
  • Positioning of accessories. “I like it when the P on the peppermill is facing toward the guest,” Schartner said.
  • Forget elaborately folded napkins. Ellenborough Park’s standard is a simple folded square. “It’s more hygienic,” Schartner explained. Since guests will be touching their faces with their napkins, staff should touch napkins as little as possible.


Racehorse Training

Racehorses, Jonjo O’Neill told me, “are like your next door neighbors. Some are cheeky. Some are really kind. My job is to bring out the best in them.” He should know. He’s one of Britain’s best known horse trainers, with over 1,000 winning horses under his tutelage since 2001.

You have to get up pretty early in the morning for that kind of success. The horses’ breakfast is at 4am, and then Jonjo (short for John Joseph), a former jockey, and his staff of 50 take them out for training – walks to full gallops, baths and physical therapy, indoors and out, until about 11am. It all takes place at Jackdaws Castle, a 500-acre estate centrally located within about 9o minutes’ drive from any of 32 race tracks where the horses might spend the afternoon. There are about 120 horses training here at any one time, with as many as 40 different owners.

Jonjo likens horse training to that of Olympic athletes. Every detail is accounted for: walls and floors rubberized for safety, high water pressure so that horses can drink immediately and stay hydrated, a horse solarium for therapy and to keep the horses warm in winter, an aqua-therapy pool, and hay imported from Canada – British hay doesn’t get enough sun to dry thoroughly, which can create moisture in the horses’ lungs.

“If you can keep your staff happy, you can keep your horses happy,” Jonjo mused. “If you can keep your horses happy, you have a chance of winning.”

I can imagine Lord Grantham saying much the same of success with his own staff.

Source: Forbes Business


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