Downton Abbey’s final series premiere kicked off with a fox hunt, with servants on hand and the local aristocracy decked out in their finest hunting outfits against the background of Highclere Castle, where the series is shot.

But from the first scene, it was immediately clear that times are changing: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has given up riding side-saddle, sitting astride her horse like the men.

Downton Abbey fox hunt(Nick Briggs/Carnival Films)

Changing times for the Abbey will be a major theme of the sixth series of ITV’s Downton, set in 1925 – and Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), finds himself reflecting on the future of Downton as his friend and neighbour Sir John Darnley (Adrian Lukis) is forced to sell his Mallerton estate.

Watching Sir John’s family silver being auctioned off, and hearing his cautionary tale of how he tried to hold on until it was too late, is a sobering wake-up call for Robert.

Thinking of the wage bill, he mentions to a shocked Carson (Jim Carter) that he may soon slim down the staff even further.

Robert and Cora, Lord and Lady Grantham, at the auction at MallertonRobert and Cora, Lord and Lady Grantham, at the auction at Mallerton (Nick Briggs/Carnival Films)

The auction also proves dramatic for Daisy (Sophie McShera), whose father-in-law Mr Mason is set to be evicted by Mallerton’s new owners, the Hendersons.

Robert agrees to argue his case, but to no avail. Angered at the injustice, Daisy loses her temper at the Hendersons – but just makes things worse for Mr Mason.

Daisy with Mr Mason Daisy with Mr Mason (Nick Briggs/Carnival Films)

Upstairs, Lady Mary is having problems of her own. A mysterious woman appears during the hunt, causing Mary to lose focus and tumble off her horse into the mud.

Later, the woman reveals herself as Rita Bevan (Nichola Burley). She worked at the hotel where Mary stayed for her tryst with Lord Gillingham, and she has the guest register to prove it.

Mary agonises over whether to let herself be blackmailed, and decides to refuse Rita’s demands for a large sum of money – but her father finds out about the “proof” and sees her off with a small payment. Mary is embarrassed, but her father is understanding, and praises her good judgment in handling the attempt at blackmail.

Rita BevanRita Bevan (Nick Briggs/Carnival Films)

The end of last series saw Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) finally engaged to Mr Carson, but Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) notices something wrong, and vows to find out why. Mrs Hughes is putting off setting a date, but admits to Mrs Patmore that she needs to know whether her fiance is expecting a “full” marriage – that is, involving a sexual relationship.

Mrs Patmore agrees to find out, and after an awkward chat with Mr Carson, finds out that he does indeed hope for more than “companionship”. Ultimately, his explanation of his hopes for the marriage brings Mrs Hughes around to the idea of overcoming her embarrassment.

An awkward conversation between Mrs Patmore and Mr CarsonAn awkward conversation between Mrs Patmore and Mr Carson (Nick Briggs/Carnival Films)

At the end of series five, viewers were left on tenterhooks about the fate of Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle), under suspicion for the murder of Mr Green, Anna’s rapist. Anna has also suffered another miscarriage, which leaves her upset and grieving.

But now new evidence – and a confession – has come to light, and Sergeant Willis (Howard Ward) visits the Abbey to share the good news. The family come downstairs, there’s music and champagne and dancing – and Robert even steals a snack from Mrs Patmore’s fridge.

The Sergeant with a glass of champagne The Sergeant with a glass of champagne (Nick Briggs/Carnival Films)

Downton Abbey airs on Sundays at 9pm on ITV.