Edney has now worked at Goodwood, the magnificent estate in Westhampnett, West Sussex, for 18 years. It’s an astonishing amount of time, but Edney has never been tempted to leave.
In his role as head butler he is responsible for overseeing Goodwood’s legendary events, which include the annual Festival of Speed, Goodwood Revival and, of course, the Qatar Goodwood Festival (formerly known as “Glorious Goodwood”) which is held this month.
Edney’s passion for his job is palpable. Within the first minute of our conversation he states that he has “the best job in the world”. His voice is firm and measured and exudes self-confidence, and as he describes his duties I can picture him managing even potentially chaotic situations with complete professionalism and a cool head.
“A good butler knows what a guest needs before they need those things,” he tells me. “You learn to anticipate exactly what they want and ‘no’ is not in our dictionary. Everything comes with experience.”
Edney’s own experience began by learning the basics of silver service on cruise ships, which included the QE2. A friend told him that there was a vacancy at Goodwood, he applied and “the rest is history”. He is now in charge of the operations of the house and a banqueting department which delivers approximately 150 events a year.
As we speak Edney is preparing for one of the busiest times in Goodwood’s calendar, the Festival of Speed (which was held 25-28 June). With 1600 guests to serve with dinner on the Saturday evening of the weekend, it’s a daunting task for even the most accomplished butler. But Edney shows no signs of feeling flustered.
“It’s certainly one of our biggest challenges. And you have to remember,” he is quick to point out, “that the dinner is delivered by our own team of staff. We don’t use any agency staff.”
It’s apparent how much pride Edney has in his job and team by the repeated use of the word “our” as we talk. He takes complete ownership of his considerable responsibilities and regards Goodwood as an extended part of his family. This, he adds, is an attitude that Lord March, eldest son and heir to the Duke of Richmond, and founder of the Festival of Speed and the Goodwood Revival, holds dear: “Lord March very strongly believes that when you come into his house you’re coming into his home, as either a guest or member of staff.” Edney shares this ethos.
“I like to think the staff want to work here and that they arrive with a smile and go home with a smile. Getting 250 people to deliver that dinner party on the Festival of Speed is not too much of a problem but the delivery has to be perfect, so we are very hot on training.”
Are there specific training courses you can take to qualify as a butler, or is it more a case of learning on the job? More of the latter, Edney explains, although he says that he was fortunate enough, a few years ago, to spend a week at Buckingham Palace where he was placed with the yeoman of the wine, silver and china – an “absolutely brilliant experience,” he adds. During his many years at Goodwood he has, not surprisingly, become a role model to staff.
“When those new people arrive you want them to look forward to coming to work and to go and tell their friends about it. I would like to think that our goal at Goodwood is to deliver the best service in the world. That’s not just a pipe dream. I really believe that.”
Once more, it’s clear from Edney’s voice that this is not just PR. He goes on to says that he has recently arranged for skills exchanges for members of his team, which include opportunities to work at places such as Blenheim Palace or on board The Cunard. The quest for impeccable service is, it seems, never-ending. But what, in Edney’s opinion, are the qualities of a top butler? He answers without hesitation: “Class, sophistication and discretion.”
“There are also lots of other skills that go along with that,” he adds. “Social and communication skills are vital, good manners, organisation and etiquette. You need to be dependable and diplomatic. And a good knowledge of wines, spirits and food is also important.
“And then there’s personality, of course. Multi-tasking is essential – you’re always having to think on your feet, and it goes without saying that a butler needs to be well presented and perfectly groomed at all times. Let’s just say it’s not advisable to turn up to a job interview in jeans and a leather jacket.”
Images of the butler are cemented in public consciousness. Thanks to TV costume dramas we all have our preconceptions of what he should look like and what his duties involve. How does Edney think the role of the butler changed over the centuries?
“A butler these days must wear many different hats. Quite often you also need to be a chauffeur, housekeeper and butler. Here at Goodwood Lord March has his own butler and chef, but we look after him when he’s at the big events.”
So just how different is it from what we see on Downton Abbey?
“Actually, it’s still very much like that. We try to keep tradition as much as we can. The little touches are very important: dimming the lights in the evenings and drawing the curtains, making sure that the lighting on the art work is just right.”
Diplomacy is a key quality for the job. A butler is privy to all manner of private conversations as he stands behind guests at a dining table. In this situation has Edney ever felt awkward?
“No, not at all. The best service is the service that goes unnoticed. You are there as a professional to do your job. Sometimes, when you’re standing there, you get some guidance from the diners on what they require and at others times you just know when to stand back.
“I quite often also play the role of master of ceremonies. Sometimes people want things to be announced in a very formal way and you become the big booming toastmaster shouting things out. At other times it is lower key, and it’s a matter of gently advising the guests to move from one room to the other because dinner is serviced. Timing is everything.”
For Edney the pleasure comes in seeing the guests enjoying themselves – in “making someone’s dream day come true. When a bride and groom come up that drive I still get butterflies in my stomach – after all these years. You never tire of working in such a splendid environment. There really are no negatives to my job whatsoever.”
As we finish talking he sums up with the words he opened with: “I tell everyone the same thing: I have the best job in the world.”
And once more, the sincerity in his voice is unmistakable.