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Those who fancy their high tea with a spot of post-Edwardian melodrama will want to head straight for England’s Oxfordshire Cotswolds. Untouched by industrialism, the Cotswolds are home to several filming locations of the ever-popular British period drama, “Downton Abbey.”
“The Cotswolds are known for its limestone walls and its rolling, undulating hills,” explained Andrew Greenhalgh, a guide with small group tour operator International Friends. “The roads here were originally built by the Romans and, because the area was never industrialized, it is a popular filming location for television and film.”
International Friends, experts in all things “Downton Abbey,” offers guided day trips, overnight tours and bespoke tours of the show’s filming locations in the Cotswolds, as well as other cultural highlights.
During my spring visit, I opted for the full-day Downtown Abbey Filming Locations & Winston Churchill tour. On selected dates throughout the year, International Friends offers an add-on visit to Highclere Castle, the stately home of the Crawley family. Note that admission to the castle is in high demand and tickets often sell out early — and if George Clooney ends up planning his wedding at Highclere, as Time magazine suggested, it’s going to be even harder to snag a ticket. Keeping this in mind, assure clients that the tour is a blast even without admittance to the castle.
Spoiler alert: As I learned from experience, the filming locations tour will be filled with spoilers, so advise clients to finish season four and the Christmas special prior to the excursion. And of course, I would be remiss not to provide context about the filming locations in this story, so readers beware.
Tour TreasuresOur first stop on the tour was The Swan at Swinbrook. The real-life pub set the scene for Sybil and Branson’s elopement in Gretna Green, Scotland. The two star-crossed lovers, each from a different social class, stopped at The Swan to plot their elopement, one of the major controversies of the second season.
Apart from its brief cameo in season two, The Swan was also in the spotlight for recently hosting France and England’s prime ministers, Manuel Valls and David Cameron, for lunch. Our tour group followed in their footsteps and dined like dignitaries as well. The Swan proudly serves local produce from its farm and local beef, as well as lagers from the Cotswold Brewing Company. The Swan — owned by Debo, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the last surviving Mitford sister — also features six charming, individually designed bedrooms available for overnight bookings.
For me, the visit to Bampton, known as “Downton Village” on the show, was one of the major highlights of the tour. Here, we strolled the streets on our own and discovered settings from “Downton Abbey,” including St. Mary’s Church (called St. Michael’s Church on the show). The church served as the setting for several pivotal events in the series: It’s where Edith was jilted at the altar, where Mary and Matthew wed and where Lavinia’s burial took place.
Around the corner from the church is Churchgate House, which fans will recognize as Isobel Crowley’s home. Nearby is Bampton’s old Grammar School, now the town’s library, which serves as the Downton Cottage Hospital. Visitors will also spot the site of the Downton Fair and The Grantham Arms pub in this quaint Cotswolds town.
About 20 miles away from Bampton is the former Victorian Farm Museum, Cogges Farm, which served as the fictional Yew Tree Farm in season four. Fans will recognize the farm as the home of tenant farmer Mr. Drewe and the place where the famous “pig scene” with Lady Mary and Charles Blake took place. At the end of the season, the audience learns that Edith’s bastard son will live on Yew Tree Farm and be raised as one of the Drewes.
To top off our farm tour, our group had a delightful “cream tea” break in the rustic cow shed, Cafe at Cogges. The snack consisted of a freshly baked scone, clotted cream, jam and an English breakfast tea. After our rest, we were ready for our final leg of the trip, a visit to Sir Winston and Lady Churchill’s graves and Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born.
The palace is a masterpiece of baroque architecture and features 2,000 acres of landscaped parks and gardens. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a gift from Queen Anne to the first Duke of Marlborough following his victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704.
Full-day, small group tours cost approximately $200 per person, including lunch, entrance fees and gratuities. The maximum group size is 16 people.