Ever dreamt of casting your fly rod with the Earl of Grantham, or sharing cucumber sandwiches with Lady Mary by the riverbank?
The TV series Downton Abbey depicts the aristocracy and their servants living in an enchanting era. But what was life really like in those days?
To get a sense of the real Edwardian experience – let’s spend a day with the Earl’s fly fishing set:
Much of the household is up and about. The earliest riser – the scullery maid is busy stoking the fires. The gentleman’s valet readies things for the busy (for him) day ahead. It’s his job to make sure life runs perfectly smoothly for his master.
He makes the most of the early hours, going over the itinerary for the day. The gamekeeper will have a big role to play, but the bottom line is, if the master is displeased – it’s the valet who’ll pay the price.
Upstairs in his bedroom – the master slumbers on.
The valet wakes his lordship with a cup of tea in bed. He’ll run him a bath, empty his chamber pot, shave him, lay out his clothes and even help him get dressed. Silk undies, and tweeds are the order of the day. Harris tweed of course. Attention to detail is absolute – even shoelaces must be ironed flat.
The master sits down to a full breakfast served by the butler and footmen. On the menu today fruit, eggs, sausages, a pair of kippers, kedgeree and perhaps some devilled kidneys. Meanwhile, the valet snatches the opportunity to grab his breaky – bread and butter washed down with a cup of tea. Then he’s off to find the gamekeeper.
In the kitchens, the activity is intense. The fishing trip means there’s even more work to do than normal. There’ll have to be a three course lunch for the household and a sumptuous picnic for the master, served on the river bank.
A loud braying from the hall announces the arrival of the master’s fishing chums. A quick drop of whisky, and they crunch their way outside, attended by the valet, gamekeeper and a couple of boys.
They don’t have far to go. The country house is situated close to one of England’s finest chalk streams. Fishing rights extend for miles on both banks. They’re jealously guarded too – a fact that several local poachers can attest to – their backsides being full of subcutaneous buck shot.
10:30 – 13:30
A couple of excellent trout have already been landed. A boy is dispatched to the kitchen to announce that his Lordship is peckish. The cook responds to the call with a cart load of goodies. Servants attend. That’s what they’re there for. They serve the food whilst avoiding all eye contact with their betters.
Ever wondered why servants wear white gloves? Their hands are filthy. Why? They live in cramped dormitories with no bathroom or washing facilities, and work such incredibly long hours they have no time to wash themselves, let alone their clothes.
15:00 – 17:30
The fly fishing continues. In soft tones, the gamekeeper whispers that perhaps his lordship would like to try a different spot – one that he thinks will work well considering the change in wind direction. The master declares the gamekeeper a jolly good fellow and the party moves on.
The valet’s patience is endless. All this time he’s been standing by, just in case his master needs anything. He spends the time checking over the evening plans in his head and looking forward to his next half day off. His wife and children live in the nearby village. He only gets to see them for a few hours a week.
It’s a relief when daylight fades and the party returns to the house.
Time for the master to freshen himself up and change for dinner. The valet has of course, seen to it all.
19:00 – 01:30
Dinner drags on and on. The youngest footman took a tumble with the peas and is now packing his bags. With no reference, he’ll find it hard to get another job. He’ll probably have to head north to the factories.
The valet feels a pang of pity for the poor chap – factory life is a living hell for the working classes. He stands a good chance of being killed or injured in an industrial accident – or dying of disease owing to the dreadful living conditions. He’ll be lucky to make 35.
The party finally breaks up. The bleary eyed valet puts the master to bed, takes his soiled clothes away to be cleaned, and has a quick tidy up.
The valet climbs into bed. He has to be up in four hours. It doesn’t occur to him that anything can ever be any different. But unknown to him, the First World War looms.
His master will be cut in half by machine gun bullets – a fate that not even he deserves. The servant will live on but life will never be the same. The Bolsheviks will execute the Russian Royals. Trades unions are on their way – as is female suffrage.
In time, folks at home will flick on their TVs in eager anticipation of the latest episode of Downton Abbey – and look back with relish on ‘the good old days’.
Don’t miss the Downton Abbey Christmas special, when Matthew Crawley really does go fishing.