Cows on Parade: A Swiss Celebration

Stein is one of hundreds of Swiss villages that hold traditional dairy farming celebrations. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Throaty cowbells clang as flower-wreathed heifers parade through the streets of Stein, a tiny Swiss village in the Appenzell cheese-making region.

Dressed in traditional costumes, farm children and yodeling cowherds drive the cows toward the Viehschau (cattle show) judging area for the “Miss Stein” bovine beauty contest. There, the cows’ stature and coloring will be evaluated. It’s not just about pretty faces—honorable mention goes to cows with the best-looking udders and highest milk production.

On this late-September Tuesday morning, I’ve joined crowds of people jostling to watch the cows. Hundreds of people are clustered along the parade route. Stands sell toys and food; someone hawks balloons.

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional carved or painted wooden milk pails over their shoulders.

The streets in Stein, in the Appenzell canton of Switzerland, are festive on Cattle Show Day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Schools are closed today, and the whole town is here,” Antonia Brown Ulli, a tour guide, tells me. She lives in Stein and is wearing a dirndl dress for the occasion. “This is one of the village’s biggest annual festivals.”

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional wooden milk pails over their shoulders. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, the locals are impressively dressed, especially the men who are decked out in Appenzell finery consisting of red embroidered vest-jackets, fancy braces decorated with silver plates, black hats ringed with ribbons and flowers, and spoon-shaped earrings. Many also wear carry a wooden milking pail over one shoulder.

In the days of up-to-the-millisecond Swiss watches, I’m comforted that age-old cow herding traditions are still heartily celebrated by the entire community. And these cattle processions happen in rural villages all over Switzerland. (Germany and Austria too.)

In fact, the lead cows for each farm are adorned with bright flowers, ribbons, and fir branches on their heads. I’m giddy. As a cheese lover, I think it’s a grand idea to celebrate the cows (and goats too!) who provide milk for my favorite food.

Contestants for the Miss Stein title ©Laurel Kallenbach

The day before, I had visited the Appenzell Show Dairy, where visitors can see how the world-famous Appenzell cheese is made—and can taste it too! There’s a full restaurant on site.

The pageantry and music—bell-clanging and the yodel-like singing of the cowherds—is my farewell to Switzerland. An hour later, I’m zipping on the train to the Zurich airport. There, on the shuttle train to the international terminal, the piped-in sounds of mooing cows and cowbells makes me tear up. Even though I haven’t officially left the country, I’m already nostalgic for this scenic country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

For more information, visit Switzerland tourist information and Appenzell Tourism

Originally posted: September 19, 2015

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Ireland’s Púca Festival: Where the Halloween Story Begins

It might surprise you to learn that Halloween originated as a Celtic celebration for the new year, which in the Celtic calendar began on November 1st. (The Celts lived about 2,000 years ago in the area that’s now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France.)

The Púca Festival is named for a shape-shifting spirit from Celtic folklore. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

This tradition of “Hallowe’en” (short for “hallowed evening”) originated as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “Sow-win”)—which means “summer’s end” in Gaelic (Old Irish). It was celebrated with bonfires and costumes to ward off bad spirits. Samhain was a festival marking the end of the Celtic year and the start of a new one. It was believed to be a time of transition, when the spirits of all those who had passed away since the previous Oíche Shamhna (Night of Samhain) moved onto the next life.

Samhain was the last great gathering before winter, a time of feasting and remembering what had passed and preparing for what was to come in the future.

Over time, Halloween became Christianized and was known as All Hallows Eve—the night before All Saints Day. Some of the original pagan Samhain traditions were incorporated into the day we now call Halloween.

Modern Ireland’s First Púca Festival

This year, an inaugural Púca Festival celebrates Ireland as Halloween’s place of origin. The festivities are vibrant and contemporary, even though they are strongly rooted in the traditions of the country where Halloween’s traditions all began.

Púca takes place from October 31 through November 2, 2019, in three historic towns located within two Irish counties, and the festivities promise to be an unforgettable celebration of all things unearthly.

Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Named after Púca (pronounced “pooka”), a shape-shifting spirit or goblin from Celtic folklore, the Púca Festival will capture the spirit of Samhain with three nights of authentic Halloween music, food, light, and spectacle. According to folklore, Púca is oftenseen in the form of a dog, rabbit, goat, goblin, or old man. Traditionally, a Púca appears as a dark horse with a wild, flowing mane.

The Púca Festival will salute the Halloween spirit with processions, light installations, Irish music, and harvest-inspired food. The festival kicks off in the town of Athboy, in County Meath, with The Coming of Samhain (October 31), a re-creation of the symbolic lighting of the Samhain fires in the shadow of The Hill of Ward, one of the earliest places where Samhain was celebrated.

Elsewhere in County Meath, the spectacular Trim Castle becomes the stage for three supernatural nights of music, light, and Halloween fun. The castle grounds come to life each night with aerialists, Púca performers, castle projections, and laser shows—along with the Púca Food & Craft Market.

The Celtic Halloween spirit is alive at Ireland’s inaugural Púca Festival. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

The castle will also play host to a world-class selection of musicians, including Jerry Fish’s Púca Sideshow, Just Mustard, Pillow Queens, AE MAK, and Kormac and the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Bringing the town of Drogheda (County Louth) to life, the third festival hub will be a haunting, three-day program of music, film, and light installations. The town will play host to projection artists de:LUX, whose artworks over the three festival nights will draw inspiration from tales of Irish folklore and the spirits of Halloween.

Púca Festival will be the ultimate celebration of this time when light turns to dark, the veil between realities draws thin, rules can be broken, and the spirits move between worlds.

For more info, visit Tourism Ireland and Púca Festival.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer, editor, and writing coach

Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle, framed by the branches of the Cedars of Lebanon, is the film location of the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” © Laurel Kallenbach

I admit it: I’m among the millions who are enthralled by the hit PBS television series, Downton Abbey, set in England during the early 20th century. We Downton Abbey fans are fascinated by the escapades of the Granthams and Crawleys, who live in an opulent country manor house.

So, as I was planning vacation in southwest England in 2012, it made sense that my husband and I should seek out the real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle. This beautiful estate—set on 1,000 acres of parkland in Berkshire, about 1.5 hours west of London—is the film location for the “upstairs” scenes of Downton Abbey.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Downton Abbey is a posh costume drama—OK, it’s really a souped-up soap opera—that follows the lives and romances of the aristocrats and servants who live in this lavish estate home.

The cast of the “Downton Abbey” TV series, which airs on PBS.

Meet the Carnarvons

In real life, the Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere Castle since 1679, and the history of the house rivals—and sometimes parallels—the dramatic storyline of the hit show that’s filmed here.

To get the scoop before we traveled, Ken and I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbeypenned by the current Countess Carnarvon, Lady Fiona, who is the Eighth Countess Carnarvon. Among the juicy historic tidbits—often more fantastic than the fictional TV show—are:

  • In 1895, Almina Wombwell married the estate-rich but cash-strapped George Herbert (the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon). Almina was the illegitimate child of the über-wealthy Alfred de Rothschild. Her generous dowry funded many improvements at Highclere Castle—and the tales of her shopping sprees are mind-boggling to us 21st-century commoners.
  • During World War I, Almina, the Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, transformed Highclere Castle into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers—as did the fictional Lady Grantham and Mrs. Crawley in Downton Abbey.
  • Lord Carnarvon, Almina’s husband, funded Egyptologist Howard Carter and was instrumental in discovering the tomb of King Tut in 1922. Some artifacts that Lord Carnarvon brought home from archaeological digs are on display at Highclere Castle.

Highclere Castle’s library.  Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

This last fact really piqued my interested, as I’ve had a lifelong passion for ancient Egypt. I’ve known who Lord Carnarvon was since I was eight years old—so imagine my excitement when at Highclere Castle I saw old photos of Lord Carnarvon studying maps of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in the same library where Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham gives instructions to Mr. Carson, the butler.

A Tour of Highclere Castle

Since Downton Abbey’s premiere, visitation to Highclere Castle has quadrupled, so I reserved tickets online 90 days before our visit—to assure that it wouldn’t be sold out. (Highclere isn’t open to the public every day because it’s a private home. Tickets gain you entry for 2.5 hours either in the morning or afternoon. There’s a separate admission fee for the Egyptian exhibition.)

The Crawley sisters from “Downton Abbey” Photo courtesy PBS.org

Our first glimpse of Highclere Castle was from the parking area; a bus was disgorging passengers. So we headed first to the loo, as we’d had an hour-long drive, which involved getting lost along the way. What’s a pilgrimage without a long, winding road filled with travail? In our case, we had to brave driving on the left side of the road, and we had to stop for directions twice. One sweet older man at a nearby village told us to cross the bridge, travel up the hill past the estate owned by Andrew Lloyd Weber (the composer of Phantom of the Opera and Cats fame), and straight on until we saw signs.

Once inside the Castle, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we passed through the Entrance Hall into the Library with its gold-plated leather-bound books, red carpets, and carved shelves. It’s odd to be in a place you’ve never been that seems so familiar. Such is the magic of film.

There’s no official tour at Highclere, but each room has a docent who answers questions about that room. Several of them work as stewards during Downton Abbey filming. Their job then—as it is while visitors stream through—is to be sure nothing is disturbed or broken while the light and camera crews are at work.

Highclere Castle’s Music Room is lined by beautiful tapestries displaying monkeys, rabbits, peacocks, and owls. This room isn’t used as a Downton Abbey setting, probably because it’s rather small, but it features a desk that belonged to Napolean.

The regal Oak Staircase. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Smoking Room doesn’t appear in the TV show either, but as the place where the men gathered after dinner, it was also the storage spot for a number of Egyptian artifacts. Funerary jars that were once used as umbrella stands are now in museums.

The lovely green-and-yellow Drawing Room, on the other hand, is the location for a number of scenes in Downton Abbey, as Lady Grantham and her daughters often meet there. During season 2 of the show, the wounded WWI soldiers slept on cots in this French-style room, which was decorated by Lady Almina in the early 20th century.

Throughout the house, tables and walls are covered with portraits of the Carnarvons—from the 17th through 21st centuries. The modern snapshots—far less formal than the paintings—are a reminder that this is still a private home.

There’s other evidence of modern use too. There’s a hair drier on the vanity in the Mercia Bedroom (Lady Grantham’s bedchamber on the TV show—much featured in the scenes in which she nearly died from Spanish flu). Occasional guests stay in the very bedrooms that are broadcast around the world.

Highclere’s Stanhope Bedroom became Mr. Pamuk’s bedroom in “Downton Abbey.” Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Stanhope Bedroom, decked out in red carpet and draperies, was the perfect setting for the scandalous television scenes involving the infamous Mr. Pamuk, who spent his last night in this bedroom following a lethal tryst with Lady Mary.

For the record, Mary’s bedroom and dressing room are actually a stage set and don’t exist in Highclere Castle. Neither do the kitchen and servants’ rooms. Downton Abbey’s entire downstairs is constructed in period style in the London studio.

The Saloon, Oak Staircase and Dining Room

The highlight of our Highclere Tour was the Oak Staircase leading from the Gallery-level bedrooms to the main part of the house. Ken and I paraded down the ornate-banistered staircase like Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary into a large room called The Saloon, the heart of this grand house—and a room that’s much featured on Downton Abbey. Its stone fireplace, carved cabinets, and arched doorways appear in famous scenes such as the Servants’ Ball and the concert for the soldiers. This spot just took my breath away.

The elegant Saloon is overlooked by the Gallery. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

It was delightful, also, to visit the Dining Room, where many an elegant meal—usually partaken of by the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith—is filmed. It must be quite an experience for the present-day Carnarvons to sit at the table under the watchful gaze of the portraits of their ancestors.

Just as we left the main part of the house to go to the Egyptian exhibit, one of the guides asked whether we’d seen Countess Carnarvon, who had been walking through the rooms chatting with them just minutes before. Rats! We missed her. She was probably wearing jeans and blended in with the visitors.

Perhaps it’s just as well…I hadn’t practiced curtsying. But I can’t help thinking it would have been fun to say, “Good morning, Your Ladyship.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

P.S. Many thanks to the Carnarvon estate for use of the photos of the interior of Highclere Castle. You can see slideshows of Highclere Castle photos at the castle’s website.

Originally posted: February 2013

Updated: September 2019

Read more Downton Abbey posts:

Highclere’s Georgian-era house was remodeled in 1849 and became the Victorian castle as it appears today. Architect Charles Barry built the spires in the style of London’s Parliament Building, which he also designed. © Laurel Kallenbach

 

 

 

 

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

Read more Downton Abbey posts: