photography by Dave Burlison
The fourth season of PBS’ wildly popular British television drama Downton Abbey is over, while a fifth is now currently filming. But for Mary and Jeff Simpson’s fortunate friends, fond memories of the actual place itself will transcend many, many seasons.
Mary and Jeff are native Memphians who recently returned home after 40-year careers in technology and private equity. (Now retired, the couple have lived all over the country, including San Francisco, where Jeff worked for Larry Ellison in the early days of the Oracle technology company.) So to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary last fall, the Simpsons took 34 of their nearest and dearest friends and family on a magical, unforgettable “town and country” trip to England, the high point of which was, yes, a private, black-tie dinner at Highclere Castle, ancestral home of the Carnarvon family and the setting, of course, for the fictitious Downton Abbey series.
This story began with a cocktail party, held almost a year before last September’s grand trip, at the home of Dr. Bill and Gayle Bourland, close friends of the Simpsons who were privy to what was in store. At the gathering, the Simpsons proceeded to thank the assembled guests for their friendship and hospitality through the years and then, to the surprise and delight of all present, invited them to be their guests in the fall of 2013 for a celebration they called “Forty at the Four Seasons in London and Hampshire, England.” Not surprisingly, the RSVPs were instantaneous!
Five months before the actual event, Mary and her friend, Gayle, took a reconnaissance trip to England where they met with party planners and hotel general managers and ate at the pubs and restaurants which were recommended as perfect for the group. A highlight of this expedition was a visit to Highclere, where it just so happened that the Downton Abbey production crew was filming; the ladies were escorted into the home for their first “real” glimpse of the famous castle.
Later that summer, there was a pre-trip cocktail party in Memphis with special guest Curt DiCamillo, an American historian of British architecture, who whetted everyone’s appetites for the upcoming trip. Mary and Jeff provided Highclere Castle goodie bags with brochures, English mints, and maps and magazines to further get everyone in the mood … the shape of things to come!
After months of anticipating this fairy-tale adventure, the Simpsons and their guests set off September 13th for six days and five nights in England. In London the group stayed at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel at Park Lane, in the heart of Mayfair, and dined at the legendary Ivy restaurant. The next day they were transported to the magnificent grounds of the Four Seasons Hampshire, which was base camp while they were “in the country.”
The group dined at a great gastro pub in the area, the Gamekeeper’s Inn, where the friends enjoyed traditional English dishes such as beef pot pies and sticky toffee pudding. On Sunday, the group attended church services at the lovely, historic All Saints’ Anglican parish church of Dogmersfield. (Jeff Simpson says that this was one of his favorite events of the entire celebration.) Everyone later lunched at Cliveden, one of Britain’s most famous stately homes, an estate once owned by American millionaire William Waldorf Astor and now part of Britain’s National Trust.
Then came the night everyone had been waiting for — an evening at Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey. It began with a one-hour ride through the beautiful Hampshire countryside. Pheasants wandered alongside the road, the views were spectacular, and the castle rose up out of the mist. Lo and behold, “Lord” Jeffrey and “Lady” Mary were out front waving and welcoming their guests at 6 p.m. sharp!
Once inside, a harpist began with the musical theme to television’s Downton Abbey, while the group was greeted with glasses of champagne and offered private tours of the castle’s main and second floors. Award-winning photographer Dave Burlison, recently named Photographer of the Year by the UK Master Photographers Association, was on hand to capture the guests in their stunning formal evening attire.
Cocktails were served in the grand salon, at which point the “lords and ladies” for the evening were ushered into the candlelit dining room, taking their seats behind placecards prepared by talented Memphis calligrapher (and party guest), Nancy Dorman. Toasts were offered including one “Lady Mary” delivered to her husband of 40 years, “Lord Jeffrey.”
An elegant three-course dinner was served. Afterwards, everyone retired for post-prandial glasses of port in the library. There the Simpsons and their guests shared many warm memories of friendships forged in high school, college, and professional careers. It was a night to celebrate life and love, and friendship and marriage. When the evening ended just before midnight, the merry guests partied on in the bus — singing and dancing all the way back to the hotel. “Oh, What a Night!” was surely in the music mix!
In the days that followed, events in the countryside included clay pigeon shooting, canal boating, and falconry. The group gathered for its final evening together with a dinner dance at the Four Seasons Hampshire. And what could possibly be a more perfect way to end this special celebration than with a fireworks display set to the strains of Puccini?
The Simpsons’ grateful group of friends presented Jeff and Mary with a beautiful pair of sterling-rimmed, crystal vases designed by Lindley, the company established by Lord David Lindley, Queen Elizabeth’s nephew. Claudia Smith, a delighted guest on the trip, prepared a personal journal as a keepsake; for her, a highlight was observing Jeff throughout the trip “watching us all having a glorious time.”
And now it seems only fitting to end this idyllic story with a quote from Mary’s previously mentioned original toast: “Here at Highclere Castle, in this home of such acclaim, tonight we are the Granthams, and we share with them their fame. But more than that we thank our God. Just look at all of you, here at Downton Abbey. ’Tis a fairy tale come true.”
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Upon arrival at Highclere Castle, ancestral home of the Carnarvon family, the regally attired Memphis guests fanned out in a V-formation pose.
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Among Highclere’s most recognizable rooms is the saloon, a Gothic-style entertaining parlor paneled in 17th-century Spanish leather and featuring triple height ceilings that soar 50 feet. It is the physical and social heart of the house.
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Lord Jeffrey and Lady Mary, the gracious and very glamorous hosts, who are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, look every bit their aristocratic parts, as they take time out to pose together in front of the library’s fireplace.
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The expansive library, said to be Lady Carnarvon’s favorite room, contains thousands of volumes dating back to the sixteenth century.
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Memphis’ Kay Lait, bird-watcher extraordinaire, wears a proud expression of pure pleasure as she “hosts” a Kestrel on her arm.
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The guests all agreed their hosts had thought of everything, even down to the fireworks display that ended a perfect six days of “celebrating with the Simpsons.” A few raindrops merely added to the ambiance — after all, this was England!
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