Wednesday, 30 November -0001
You rang, sir?
Grant Harrold has spent his life devoted to the service of others. The former bulter to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall, he tells The Lady why it is a dream job and how he never misses an episode of Downton Abbey...
Written by Fiona HicksWhen Grant Harrold was a 14-year-old boy living in Airdrie, near Glasgow, he used to offer to clean his parents’ bedroom for pocket money. He would clamber to the top of the wardrobes to make sure he cleaned from the top down. Such attention to detail hinted at his future vocation, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when his mother took a job as a housekeeper, that it all clicked into place. ‘I went to help out at the estate for the summer. It was fantastic fun and of course, I got to meet butlers. I remember thinking that it was an extraordinary lifestyle, and a great job.’
Clearly suited to the role, young Grant was offered a full-time position of an under butler.
He spent a couple of years learning the trade but was soon ready to expand his horizons. At the time, the popular programme Country House was on television, showcasing the lives of the family and staff at Woburn Abbey. Captivated, Grant wrote a letter to the Marchioness of Tavistock expressing how much he had enjoyed the show, and put himself forward for the role of butler, should they need one, and if so, to get in touch. Much to his surprise he received a reply a week later asking him to go and meet them.
‘I’d never left Scotland before,’ he says. ‘I thought it was a meeting rather than an interview, but at the end of it they asked if I would like to come and work there.’ He readily accepted, and spent many happy years working for the Bedford family, soon earning promotion to butler.
With no formalised qualifications, the profession of butler involves a lot of hard graft and learning on the job. ‘A typical day starts very early, at around 6am,’ he says. ‘There could be a bit of a fight for the bathroom among the staff, especially if you were travelling there from another house.’ The rest of the day would be spent performing a range of duties. ‘Modern butlers are more like personal assistants. My role would involve meeting visitors, looking after guests and of course laying up and serving at table.’
Grant, now 34, admits to enjoying the art of laying a table. (Indeed, as we sit eating in a smart restaurant in the Cotswolds, he can’t help but polish a rogue smear on his wine glass.) As well as arranging the table, he would be on hand to serve at it for three meals a day. ‘It’s a bit like acting, whatever mood you’re in, you have to put on a happy face and get on with the job.’
He recounts a time when something ‘hysterical’ happened at the table, and he and a fellow butler had to take turns to go behind the partition to mask their giggles. That’s not to say, however, that they could never partake in the conversation with the family.
‘You’ll know if you’re welcome into the conversation because the host might look over at you, or even ask you for your opinion. There would be times when you have to keep a straight face. The host wouldn’t want his butler laughing if he was discussing a private matter. It’s important to know when to switch it on and off.’
Appearance is also important. ‘It’s part of the role to be well-groomed, with good posture and manners.
’Most significant of all, however, is discretion. ‘Whether it’s the Royal Family, the Bedfords or any of their guests, the family has to trust you because you’re around them 24 hours a day. You get to know them inside out.’
While at Woburn Abbey, Grant received a tip-off from his brother (also a butler) that there was an opening for a job with the Prince of Wales.
‘I went to meet the Prince and the Duchess of Cornwall; it was one of the most nerve-racking meetings I’ve ever had in my life, but they were so nice to me,’ he says. He was thrilled to be offered a job at Highgrove, too.
I ask if working for the Royal Family is any different from working for a lower-profile aristocrat? Grant, of course, exercises his discretion.
‘These houses all run in a similar fashion. It’s the same whoever the employer is – all the staff will look up to the head of the estate.’
Part of his job included travelling to other Royal estates, including Balmoral. ‘I used to go pony trekking there when I had a free afternoon. On one occasion, suddenly there was something at my horse’s feet. I thought the horse was going to jump, but then I realised the little thing was a corgi;I looked across and there was the Queen, complete with her headscarf.’
Grant speaks with warmth about his relationship with his employers, but he concedes: ‘If new people arrive and become instant favourites, it can cause difficulties. There can still be jealousy between the house staff.’
The politics of grand houses are very much in the public consciousness, what with the third season of Downton Abbey in full swing. Is Grant a fan? ‘I watch it religiously,’ he smiles. ‘Service is obviously quite different in houses today, but from what I have heard from those who were trained by butlers of those days, it’s spot on.’
So there is no lack of demand for butlers in this day and age? ‘I know so many butlers and they are never unemployed,’ Grant reveals. ‘It is more unusual to have a big household staff, though.’
On leaving Highgrove, Grant set up his own company, Nicholas Veitch, and extends his services as Household Consultant. He is generous with his knowledge of etiquette: ‘If you’re inviting people to dinner, do make sure you know about your guests. I’ve seen people come to a smart dinner and sit down and say, “This isn’t lobster, is it?” It’s the host’s job to ask about their guests’ dietary requirements.’
There are guidelines if you’re a guest, too. ‘If they say to be there at half past, do not turn up at seven o’clock. You can be five minutes early, or a maximum of 10 minutes late. But it’s supposed to be a guideline, not a rule, and it’s supposed to be fun. The Royal Family likes to do things properly, but only if and when it is possible.’
So, too, does Grant: ‘When I go into my friends’ homes, I’ve developed a habit of tidying up. I really ought to be careful,’ he laughs. It’s good to know that the tidy 14-year-old is still going strong.
Grant Harrold is hosting an etiquette dinner at Foodworks, near Cirencester, on 26 October. For more information: www.nicholasveitch.com
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931