It’s not everyday an American is invited to afternoon tea with British nobles.
One might suddenly become self-conscious of chipped nail polish, knock-off jewelery or a hem line that’s a little too short. But if a back isn’t straight enough while sipping from a tea cup, or a too big bite is taken from a scone, the nobles would never cast a judgmental glance. Great Britain’s real Lords and Ladies are anything but snooty.
In fact, they’re uniquely intriguing. The Duchess of Northumberland, who lives in Alnwick Castle, keeps a world-famous garden, in which she grows cannabis, fatally poisonous plants and aphrodisiacs. The Duke of Devonshire resides at Chatsworth House, a 297-room mansion in Derbyshire. Lady Ashcombe, of Sudeley Castle, was born in the U.S. and is the longest residing resident of the property, which once housed Henry VIII’s wife Catherine Parr.
You’ve likely seen their homes if you’ve ever watched a Harry Potter movie,”Downton Abbey”, or the film “Pride & Prejudice.” They occupy England’s most impressive stately homes and castles, which are hundreds of years old. Those stately homes are some of England’s biggest tourist attractions, yet nobody is talking about them during the Olympic games.
Several British nobles, including Lady Ashcombe, the Duchess of Northumberland and the Duke of Devonshire, came into London today to remind visitors that there is much more to the U.K. than the Olympic host city. Metro sat down with the Lords and Ladies (with ankles crossed and back straight) to ask their thoughts on the 2012 Olympics, including the opening ceremony, which has taken some heat from British politicians for incorporating socialist values.
Metro: Have Olympic organizers put enough emphasis on England’s stately homes? Or has the spotlight only been on London?
The Duchess of Northumberland: They are the London Olympics. I’m representing an area which has terrible problems with unemployment, three generations unemployed and serious deprivation in parts of it. So they would say 100 percent that people aren’t traveling in a moment. But maybe in a year or two year’s time, things will change.
Lady Ashcombe: I think the Olympics are an opportunity for the heritage to connect and to talk and tell about England in its other form, which is a country of greatest heritage, history and beauty. I think people who come here for the first time are really surprised by what England, the English countryside and the stately homes have to offer.
The Duke of Devonshire: With Greenwich and with Hampton Court Palace, that’s a great shop window for historic heritage, so I think that’s a really good thing that Olympic organizers have done. Visitors will see a lot of the old buildings, in and out of London. What I hope is that after the Olympic games, people will have a really good impression and they’ll want to come back with a little more time when they’re not watching sport. They’ll have a look at the heritage a little bit away from London.
Some British politicians have criticized Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony as being socialist. Do you agree with that?
The Duchess of Northumberland: I felt maybe the National Health Service was given quite a long time. Apart from that, I loved everything else. I thought it was quintessentially British. It was slightly quirky, which I loved. It’s so easy to criticize things, but golly, I’d love to see someone else do it half as well.
Lady Ashcombe: I absolutely loved it. I thought it was totally charming and original. I thought it had such a spirit of not being frightened, with the Sex Pistols, the queen jumping out of a helicopter, English humor, English history. I didn’t quite understand that criticism. Although, when you look at it through the eyes of somebody.. so when they illustrated the Industrial Revolution.. I don’t think that’s necessarily socialist. It’s truth. I thought it was very brave, actually.
The Duke of Devonshire: I’m really proud that we invented the National Health Service. I think the fact that the Industrial Revolution started in England… I think the emphasize that cultural heritage of industry was absolutely brilliant. I thought it was a wonderful, wonderful opening ceremony. People are always going to find something the criticize because that’s their default. I’m afraid I’m not of that nature.
Have you been keeping track of the games?
The Duchess of Northumberland: I like watching all of it. Especially, when Great Britain wins a gold medal.
The Duke of Devonshire: I’ve been lucky enough to see two gold medals won by Britain at canoeing and rowing. That was fantastic. I’ve never known an experience like it. When we won the first British gold medal, everyone down at the rowing lake sang the national anthem. It was the most amazing moment, very emotional. It was something which made me very proud.
If you had to choose an Olympic sport to compete in, which would you choose and why?
The Duchess of Northumberland: It would have to be something outdoors. Possibly rowing. Not bicycling because your head is down and you can’t look at things. Rowing I like because you are in a boat and looking around. But I only like to ever do something I’m going to win at [laughs].
Lady Ashcombe: Can you knock 30 years off? When I was in fifth grade, I was the fastest runner in the school. So, I’d be a sprinter.
The Duke of Devonshire: It would be the rowing. I was very, very bad a very long time ago.
Lady Ashcombe, you’re an American by birth. Where are you from?
Lady Ashcombe: I’m from Virginia. I was just starting a course at the Parsons School of Design. I had spent a year in Europe and spent some time in England. Then I met this absolutely gorgeous Englishman. In 1961, it was very difficult to carry on a trans-Atlantic romance. We exchanged visits once or twice and then decided we would make it permanent.
When you’re watching the Olympics, are you secretly cheering for Team USA?
I’ve become a great Anglophile and it’s not that I’m not American and I am proud of my children. My son lives in Maui, my daughter went to school in New York. Do I have to answer that question? [laughs]
Say whatever comes to mind.