Bampton, England: Film Location for “Downton Abbey”

St. Mary’s church in Bampton, Oxfordshire, is a film location for the Downton Abbey TV show. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The spires of Highclere Castle set the elegant tone of the PBS Masterpiece TV series Downton Abbey (see my post: “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) but fans of the show and movie want to know more. Anytime one of the show’s characters has business in Downton village, the Oxfordshire town of Bampton gets its turn in the spotlight.

As of 2013, a fair, two weddings, and a funeral have been among the big events filmed in Bampton, just 20 miles west of the city of Oxford. When my husband and I discovered that the National Trust cottage we rented for three days was just 15 minutes away, we were ecstatic that we could see another piece of Downton Abbey lore.

A Photogenic Church

We arrived in town just about teatime, parked in the market square, and had tea and scones at the Bampton Coffee House. There we got directions, but as we left, the church bells began tolling exuberantly.

Bampton’s church has been the setting of Grantham family weddings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We simply followed their sound as we wandered down pretty Church Street until we arrived at St. Mary the Virgin, a 12th-century parish church with Romanesque architecture. No doubt about it: this was the church where Lady Edith took Matthew sightseeing during Downton Abbey’s season 1—when she was hoping he would woo her instead of her sister Mary.

The church’s TV-land alter-ego is St. Michael’s and All Angels, and its interior and exterior have appeared on American tellies most famously as the scene of Lavinia’s burial (season 2), Mary and Matthew’s nuptials (season 3), and Edith’s jilting at the altar (also season 3).

On the August afternoon we visited, the church bells were pealing for a real wedding. We watched as the bride and groom had some last photos taken before braving the gauntlet of rice-throwing wedding guests and into a vintage Rolls Royce.

I’m standing at the gate where Lady Mary entered the churchyard for her wedding to Matthew Crawley. ©Ken Aikin

Then Ken and I wandered inside the church as the wedding candles were extinguished and the flower arrangements carried away. The sanctuary has a lovely pipe organ, elegant stone arches, vaulted ceiling, stained glass, and ornate pews. (We also picked up a free, photocopied guide of Downton Abbey locations in Bampton, which helped us with the rest of our impromptu tour.)

Outside, the little churchyard is dotted by lichen-covered tombstones and a few red-berried hawthorns. We speculated that Matthew and Mary would be wed in this church—but we had to wait until January 2013 to confirm that.

Strolling with the Granthams and Crawleys

Churchgate House, the exterior film site for the Downton village home of Isobel Crawley. ©Laurel Kallenbach

All the Downton Abbey scenes filmed in Bampton are confined to the picturesque Church View lane, a row of old buildings, houses, and stone walls. Right beside the church is Churchgate House, which serves as the exterior for the Crawley house where Isobel and Matthew lived. (The interiors are filmed elsewhere.)

This bench shows up in a number of Downton Abbey episodes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Just outside the churchyard walls is the church green—with a huge tree and park bench that often shows up in the TV series. This area was the setting for the fair, which was featured in a season 1 episode in which Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, met an old beau.

Next comes the Bampton Library, which for TV’s purposes sheds its literary facade and poses as a medical building. The library is the exterior for Downton Hospital where Dr. Clarkson treats villagers and the wounded soldiers during WWI.

Bampton Library, just down the block from the church, serves as the exterior for Downton Hospital. ©Laurel Kallenbach

So, when Mrs. Hughes walks up to the hospital for her cancer checkup, that’s Bampton’s library you see. If it’s open, visitors can go in; the library sells souvenir postcards and Downton Abbey books there.

[Nice to know: The library might have closed by now from lack of funding for upkeep and repairs, but donations are helping save it, including a £20,000 donation to the village of Bampton from the Downton Abbey production company and fundraisers endorsed by cast members (including actor Hugh Bonneville).]

Finally we ambled down Church View Road, noticing doorways that become the Downton Post Office and the Dog & Duck pub. It’s fun seeing locations that look vaguely familiar…but not quite. After we returned to the States, we watched reruns of the early episodes and paused the DVD player so we could see spots where modern fire hydrants were covered by bushes or fake postboxes to complete the early-20th-century look.

Bampton’s Church View Lane gets used in numerous shots. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before the Downton Abbey craze hit, Bampton was a sleepy town known for its morris dancers (traditional folk dancers who wear bells on their shins), its May flower-garland festival, and the colony of swifts that nests in the village every summer. Bampton was quiet when we visited in 2012, but with the show’s popularity, tour buses now stop there.

Bampton, in Oxfordshire, is a beautiful village. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Bampton, one of England’s oldest towns, has a number of pubs, inns, and B&Bs, so it would be a nice place to spend a few days. (It’s within an easy drive or bus ride from other quaint Oxfordshire Cotswold villages such as Burford, Lechlade-on-Thames, and Minster Lovell, so there’s plenty to do in the area.)

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more information, check out Visit Oxfordshire’s website.

Originally posted: February 2013

Updated: September 2019

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King Tut Meets “Downton Abbey” at England’s Highclere Castle

What do King Tut and Downton Abbey have in common? England’s Highclere Castle, the film site for the costume-drama TV series that airs on PBS and the Downton Abbey film.

Highclere Castle is the ancestral home of the Carnarvon family, and during the early 20th century, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon became fascinated by ancient Egypt when he traveled to its warm, dry climate for health reasons. Soon the Earl began to fund archaeological digs in Egypt—including Howard Carter’s excavations, which eventually resulted in the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

In my last post about my visit to Highclere Castle, I didn’t say much about the Egyptian exhibit, so I thought I’d share some impressions.

First, this exhibit is modest compared to the one not far away at London’s British Museum, where you can see the Rosetta Stone. That said, at Highclere Castle, I felt a more emotional connection to the Egyptian artifacts than ever before—even when the King Tut exhibit came to Denver two years ago and I saw actual artifacts from the pharaoh’s tomb.

I believe there’s a certain intimacy—or maybe it’s history—you sense when you’re in a place with an actual physical connection to something or someone. Knowing I was standing in the same house where Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter pored over maps of the Valley of the Kings—the greatest Egyptology discovery in history—gave me goose-bumps.

The Carnarvons: Avid Amateur Egyptologists

Lady Almina and Lord Carnarvon in England, 1923. Archival photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Highclere’s Egyptian exhibition is very personal for the Carnarvon family. The Fifth Earl’s family—especially his wife, Lady Almina, and their daughter, Evelyn—often accompanied him to Egypt and sometimes helped with excavations.

After reading Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, written by the current Countess Carnarvon about her family’s ancestors, I felt a kinship with Almina. So it was delightful to see exhibited a beautiful calcite jar (dating to the reign of pharaoh Ramses II) that Almina helped dig from the ground.

(Or so the story goes. Wearing a corset and heavy, long skirts during the early 1900s, Almina’s contribution might have amounted to brushing off the last of the sand from the calcite jar after someone else did the painstaking hands-and-knees job of unearthing it. But I rather like the idea of Almina getting her hands dirty to excavate a jar that might have been held by an Egyptian pharaoh/god 3,200 years ago.)

The Ramses II calcite jar that Almina reportedly helped excavate. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Another exhibition highlight was a 3,500-year-old painted coffin of a 35-year-old noblewoman named Irtyru, that Carter and Carnarvon excavated from Deir el-Bahri in 1908. The paint on this wooden coffin was so brightly colored that it almost looked fresh. The feet on her coffin showed a lovely pedicure—rendered in gold paint.

The exhibition also displayed recreations of Tutankhamun artifacts, including a convincing reproduction of Tut’s mummy, wrapped in hieroglyphic-covered cloth with jewelry and amulets tucked into the folds. His mummy wears gold sandals, and each of his toes were encased in gold toe covers so that the boy-king could walk in the afterlife. (Tut died at about age 19; he was on the throne for nine years from roughly 1333 BC to 1323 BC.)

What stays with me about seeing these artifacts is their artistry, rendered with exquisite skill. Although we think of the ancient Egyptians as being obsessed with death, I started wondering if they weren’t really more interested with the afterlife. Pharaohs were buried with models of ships that would bear the departed king or queen on their journey across the sky to the afterlife.

These shabti figurines were discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter, who was funded by Lord Carnarvon. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Figurines of workers were included in tombs; they accompanied the pharaoh into the afterlife so they could perform the manual labor needed to live for eternity in the luxury to which the royalty had become accustomed. (Remember, the pharaoh was not just a ruler but a god.)

At Highclere Castle, I noticed that these figurines had been created with sensitive, expressive faces. The artists didn’t fill the tombs with work they cranked out for the masses; they did their best work—even though Tutankhamun died suddenly and unexpectedly, probably of an infection from a fractured leg. Tut had a genetic bone disorder and probably other genetic defects, because Egyptian royalty were famous for marrying close relatives, often siblings. (Tut himself married his half-sister.)

Seeing history through the lens of the Carnarvon family was exciting. Lady Evelyn was the first woman to step into King Tut’s tomb, as she accompanied her father to Egypt in November of 1922 when Howard Carter wired about his find. (Due to illness, Lady Almina was unable to travel for the tomb’s opening.)

The Pharaoh’s Curse

After Carter and Carnarvon opened Tut’s tomb, the event became a media circus with enough drama that it would have rivaled the Lady Mary/Mr. Pamuk sex scandal on Downton Abbey.

At the entrance of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 (from left to right): Lady Evelyn Carnarvon; her father, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon; archaeologist Howard Carter; Carter’s assistant.

The discovery of the tomb was followed by many squabbles among the English archaeologists, accusations (unproven) that Carter and Carnarvon stole artifacts from the tomb, rumors that Lady Evelyn was enamored with Howard Carter, and bitter fighting between the Egyptian government and Carnarvon and Carter about who owned the tomb’s treasures.

And then there was death of Lord Carnarvon, less than five months after the Tut discovery, which fueled the legend of the Curse of the Pharaoh. In reality, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito on his cheek and nicked the bite while shaving. The wound got infected, and Carnarvon became seriously ill from blood poisoning. Weakened, he contracted pneumonia and died in Egypt in April of 1923 at age 57.

Supposedly, the lights went out in Cairo when Carnarvon died. And there’s a story that at the same moment in England, the Earl’s pet terrier howled and dropped dead. Thus the hysteria over Mummy’s curses mounted.

Wonderful Things to See

This all goes to prove that the true stories of people can be more compelling than fiction—and in the case of Highclere Castle, they added layers of color to my visit there.

Highclere Castle in 2012: 90 years after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. © Laurel Kallenbach

Would I have enjoyed a tour of the historic house if I didn’t care about Egyptology or had never seen  Downtown Abbey? I’m sure the beauty of the Saloon, Library and Music Room would have impressed me, but aside from that and the magnificent exterior of the building, would Highclere Castle glow in my memory? Because I had read the Lady Almina book, am an Egyptology buff, and became passionate about the PBS series, the halls of Highclere were alive and filled with wonder.

Our glimpse into the treasures of this English estate house brought to mind the famous quotes from Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon when they first opened King Tut’s tomb. As Carter chiseled a hole in the sealed entrance and peered in, Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied with the famous words: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

Originally posted April 2013

Updated September 2019

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Santa Fe Casita: A Southwestern Eco-Retreat

Few cities capture the essence of a region like Santa Fe. This 500-plus-year-old small city displays its history, multiculturalism and artistic flair boldly, making it a thrilling destination year-round.

The living room in Casa Juniper has a lovely wood-burning fireplace. Photo courtesy Hacienda Nicholas

When you stroll the streets of Santa Fe, you absolutely know you’re in northern New Mexico. The sweet, piney smell of burning juniper fills the air; people dress in clothing influenced by Navajo and Pueblo tribal patterns. You encounter public art everywhere. And most unique to this part of the world: the buildings are adobe—an architectural style literally built from the land because adobe is a mixture of earth, clay and straw molded into bricks and dried in the desert sun.

Santa Fe has a number of fabulous hotels, but during our 2011 stay, my husband and I discovered an outstanding option: a casita, or “little house.” Casa Juniper is part of the Alexander’s Inn Vacation Rentals—associated with two delightful eco-friendly B&Bs: the Madeleine Inn and Hacienda Nicholas.

[2019 update: Casa Juniper is no longer available, but Hacienda Nicholas does offer a comparable rental called La Casita. In addition, the Nicholas Suite in the main B&B has a similar feel to the place we stayed at in 2011.]

Staying in a casita is such a great way to go in Santa Fe. We were about eight blocks from the central Plaza—a little farther than the pricey hotels—but we had a large, 100-year-old adobe home with a wood-burning horno fireplace and banks of panoramic windows all to ourselves. It was our home away from home.

The wood and windows at Casa Juniper increase its Santa Fe flavor.

We learned the benefits of having a spacious casita our very first day. An early November storm blew through the area, which made walking around town daunting. So, Ken and I bought some groceries at the Whole Foods and hunkered down at Casa Juniper. While the wind howled outside, we lit a fire and sipped fair-trade coffee and organic tea that was stocked in the casita’s fully equipped kitchen.

Sheltering from the storm, we felt so lucky we weren’t huddling in a generic hotel. Instead, we fully experienced Santa Fe’s aura without stepping into the frozen rain. Inside the sturdy adobe walls, we felt safe. And because our casita had a gorgeous living room, we invited friends to join us. Amid Southwestern rugs on the saltillo-tile floors, wood beamed ceiling, and art from native and New Mexican traditions, we sat out the storm in style and comfort. Best of all, we felt like locals.

Queen bedroom at eco-friendly Casa Juniper

Fortunately, the Southwestern sun came out the next day—and we had plenty of time to explore Canyon Road’s art treasures, the Georgia O’Keeffe museum, and the city’s world-famous restaurants. After days of exploring Santa Fe, Ken and I came home to our spacious bedroom—a split-level retreat with closable wooden doors and a queen-sized four-poster bed.

In addition to loving Hacienda Nicholas, we felt good that our accommodations incorporated sustainable, earth-centered policies, such as:

  • Eco-cleaners with no chlorine bleach, dyes or perfumed detergents
  • Towel and linen program that reduces water consumption
  • Energy- and water-efficient appliances
  • Recycling program for glass, paper and plastic
  • Xeriscape gardening (irrigated with graywater) grown with nontoxic fertilizers
  • Stationary that’s printed on recycled paper with soy-based ink
  • Energy-saving compact-fluorescent light bulbs
  • Low-flow faucets, showers and toilets

    Casa Juniper’s bathroom is decorated with Mexican tiles.

  • Soap, shower gel, lotion, shampoo and conditioner dispensers to eliminate the waste of small plastic amenity bottles
  • Filtered water rather than bottled
  • Reusable glass or plastic cups instead of paper cups
  • Rooms painted with no-VOC paints

In addition, the owner of the green Madeleine Inn and Hacienda Nicholas also runs the all-natural Absolute Nirvana spa. Its Indonesian décor is exquisite and relaxing.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted January 2012

Updated September 2019

The Past and the Present at England’s Salisbury Cathedral

Not far from the ancient megaliths of Stonehenge in the Wiltshire countryside, is the city of Salisbury, home of Salisbury Cathedral, another magnificent achievement of sacred architecture.

Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire County, England ©Laurel Kallenbach

Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire County, England ©Laurel Kallenbach

Set in the largest Cathedral Close in Britain—it covers 80 acres— Salisbury Cathedral is well known for its iconic spire and for being home to one of the four copies of the Magna Carta.

The ornate spire was built between 1310–1330 and is octagonal in shape. It rises 180 feet above the tower, making the combined height from ground level 400 feet—the tallest in Britain.

Imagine the awe of people during medieval times when they saw this amazing cathedral spire from every hill and valley within miles.

Back when we visited in 2012, Ken and I were staying at the historic Rollestone Manor in Shrewton, just two miles from Stonehenge. To get to Salisbury, we drove to a nearby park-and-ride and took the bus into Salisbury. Though it’s a small city, we dislike driving on the left side of busy roads, and finding parking is always tricky. So it was delightfully relaxing to hop on the bus, which stopped just a few blocks of the cathedral.

Buskers in the city of Salisbury ©Laurel Kallenbach

Buskers in the city of Salisbury ©Laurel Kallenbach

As we strolled through the old part of Salisbury, we enjoyed seeing the pretty shops and historic buildings of the town. And we paused to listen to buskers playing along the way.

Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty

When we arrived, the cathedral was fairly quiet, so we opted to see the Magna Cart first before the crowds arrived. The Magna Carta (Latin for “Great Charter”) has been called a “cornerstone of liberty.” It’s one of the most celebrated documents in English history, and its revolutionary content influenced European civilization—and much of the rest of the world.

Written in 1215, the Magna Carta was signed to avert civil war in medieval England. Negotiations took place on “neutral” territory at Runnymede, near the royal castle at Windsor. In the Magna Carta agreement, King John guaranteed many rights that his officials had previously disputed, including freedom of the Church, the rights of towns, and that justice could not be bought or sold.

A handwritten original copy of the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral. Photo courtesy Visit Wiltshire

A handwritten original copy of the Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral. Photo courtesy Visit Wiltshire

Only four copies of the Magna Carta have survived the centuries, and Salisbury Cathedral is home to the best-preserved original manuscript. Because the pages are kept securely behind glass that also shields them from the light, it’s a bit difficult to see them, but even thick glass can’t diminish the fact that these words, penned a little more than 800 years ago, changed the world and were an important step toward establishing basic human rights.

The New Amid the Old

We went outside into the cathedral’s beautiful cloisters and sat for a bit on a bench enjoying the fresh air and reflecting. After seeing the Magna Carta, those lessons in elementary-school world-history class seemed much more relevant.

The Cloisters at Salisbury Cathedral ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Cloisters at Salisbury Cathedral ©Laurel Kallenbach

We searched for a bit to find the peregrine falcons that sometimes hunt around in the cathedral, but we didn’t spot them. So we dodged a rain shower and went back inside to see the cathedral itself.

A gargoyle, Salisbury Cathedral ©Laurel Kallenbach

A medieval gargoyle, Salisbury Cathedral ©Laurel Kallenbach

Legend has it that the building has a window for every day of the year and a marble pillar for every hour of the year (8,760)!

There are indeed many beautiful traditional stained glass windows, but we paused in the Trinity Chapel to admire a modern stained glass window dedicated to prisoners of conscience. Created by artist Gabriel Loire of Chartres, France, it depicts the crucified Christ as an archetypal prisoner of conscience. Nearby burned an Amnesty International candle surrounded by barbed wire. That chapel was a wonderful reminder that human rights aren’t just something established long ago—they are values we need to redefine and create and protect all the time, in every country of the world.

Another piece of modern “art,” a beautiful baptismal font, blends contemporary look into Salisbury Cathedral’s 800-year-old architecture.

Salisbury Cathedral's modern baptismal font created by artist William Pye ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stillness and flow: Two contrasting aspects of water are woven together in the church’s baptismal font: the calmness of the reflecting surface and the flow and movement of water through the four spouts. Salisbury Cathedral’s modern baptismal font was created by artist William Pye. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Created by renowned British water sculptor William Pye, the cruciform-shaped baptismal font was installed in 2008 to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the consecration of Salisbury Cathedral.

I loved how the water’s smooth surface reflected the surrounding architecture before passing through spouts at each of the four corners and disappearing through a bronze grating set into the floor. It was rather mesmerizing to look at.

I highly recommend a visit to this fantastic monument. It would be lovely to come at a time when you can hear the choir filling up the huge space with song. And incidentally, I read that Salisbury Cathedral was the first cathedral to have a girl’s choir in addition to the traditional boys-only choir. I’ve always wondered why only boys had the privilege in contemporary times. Just another example of human equality at work in this great church!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Find more information at Visit Wiltshire.

Salisbury Cathedral and it cloisters ©Laurel Kallenbach

Salisbury Cathedral and its elegant cloisters ©Laurel Kallenbach