On location filming Downton Abbey in the Cotswolds

Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery and Jessica Brown Findlay

Downton Abbey: Series 3, episode 3. The marriage of Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) should have taken place at St Mary’s, Bampton or rather the village church in Downton. Edith is pictured here in her wedding finery with sisters Mary Crawley on the right (Michelle Dockery) and Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay). Sadly, on this occasion, the unlucky Edith was jilted at the altar - Credit: courtesy Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

Stephen Roberts goes location-spotting in the pretty Oxfordshire village of Bampton

Back in the June 2020 issue of Cotswold Life, I went ‘In Search of The Archers’, visiting the village of Inkberrow which inspired the long-running radio soap.  

This time it’s ‘In Search of Downton’, a quest for the TV series, Downton Abbey, that I enjoyed over several series with ‘Mrs Steve’. On this occasion, I’m heading to the Oxfordshire village of Bampton where a lot of outside filming took place. I’m talking TV series rather than films, incidentally. Bampton is on the southern edge of the Cotswolds, so assuredly fits within the pages of this illustrious magazine. 

Downton Abbey - Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery and Allen Leech

Downton Abbey: Series 5, episode 4. Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley) in the centre with Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley) and Allen Leech (Tom Branson) in the village - Credit: courtesy Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

Downton Abbey first aired in September 2010, running for six series and 52 episodes to December 2015. There were also feature films in 2019 (Downton Abbey) and 2022 (Downton Abbey: A New Era). It’s a tale of ordinary aristocratic folk living in a stately pile betwixt Ripon and Thirsk (Yorkshire) and is set in the post-Edwardian early-20th century, specifically 1912-26. Of course, there’s another set of ordinary, considerably less-aristocratic folk, who inhabit the ‘downstairs’ to the fictional Crawley family’s ‘upstairs’; for those who remember ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ (1971-75). The series offers a window on to real events from the sinking of the Titanic (1912) and outbreak of the First World War (1914), to the UK General Election and Munich Beer Hall Putsch (both 1923). This conflation of historical event with fictional drama is fascinating as is the symbiosis of fictional setting (Downton) with real place (Bampton). Perhaps the locals in Bampton (Downton) discussed these newsworthy events as they occurred.

St Mary’s parish church, Bampton

St Mary’s parish church - Credit: Motacilla/Wikimedia Commons

Interior of St Mary’s, Bampton

Interior of St Mary’s, Bampton - Credit: Hugh Llewelyn/Wikimedia Commons

Churchgate House in Church Close, Bampton, Oxfordshire

Churchgate House in Church Close, the former rectory - Credit: Seth Whales/Wikimedia Commons

It’s fascinating to trawl through stills from the series trying to work out which ones might be Bampton. I know they used St Mary’s Church, the Old Rectory (Churchgate House), the public library, plus houses in Church View that doubled as pubs. Could I find shots undeniably in these locations then match them with reality? I’ll be searching for Isobel Crawley’s pad, the Downton post office, the Grantham Arms, Downton’s Cottage Hospital and maybe all the fun of Downton Fair if I’m there at the right time. While I’m at it I might as well tell you something about Bampton too as it’s a little place with history (I know you’d expect nothing less of me): A mention in Domesday Book when it was ‘a large town with a manor’ and a ‘thriving market’; a onetime castle; Medieval prosperity courtesy of the wool trade; and also the birthplace of the poet John Philips (1676-1709). It reverted to sleepiness during the 19th century.

The public library, Bampton, which was originally the free school

The public library, which was originally the free school - Credit: Seth Whales/Wikimedia Commons

What attracted Downton to Bampton was the place acknowledging little of modernity, so taking us back to the early-20th century presented few headaches to the production team. That’s good for us as we can visit the Oxfordshire village-cum-town and recognise it as Downton, fully expecting an aristo Crawley to march imperiously around the next corner. St Mary’s, of course, had a big part to play as the setting for all those Crawley gatherings, the births, marriages and deaths that litter any soap. In fact, all the filming locations are near the church, so start there and follow the trail (the ‘Downton Abbey Mile’; copies in the church). We shouldn’t forget that some locations are private houses so shouldn’t nose up people’s private parts (as it were).  

The gatehouse from the old castle incorporated today into Ham Court, Bamford

The gatehouse from the old castle incorporated today into Ham Court - Credit: Richard Nevell/Wikimedia Commons

But firstly, St Mary’s, surely the most recognisable of Downton/Bampton locations although in the series it becomes ‘St Michael and All Angels’. There was the wedding of Matthew (Dan Stephens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery), a marriage cut short by the untimely death of the Crawley heir in a car crash, poor Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) being jilted at the altar (very Corrie) and the christening of sad little ‘Sybbie’, the tot of Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Tom Branson (Allen Leach), Sybil being another young casualty as the Downton body-count increased. The funeral meanwhile was provided courtesy of Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle) who succumbed to Spanish Flu. Filming took place inside and out and you’ll find photographs inside. They think of everything here.

Downton Abbey - The christening of 'Sybbie'

Downton Abbey: Series 3, episode 7. The christening of ‘Sybbie’, the daughter of Tom Branson and Sybil Crawley. L-R: Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Dan Stephens (Matthew Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley), Allen Leach (Tom Branson), Ruairi Conaghan (Kieran Branson), Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley) and Laura Carmichael (Edith Crawley). St Mary’s comes into its own again as the venue for Downton births, marriages and deaths - Credit: courtesy Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

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First impressions? I may have been erroneous in terming it a village; it’s a ‘quiet little market town’ according to my trusty guide to England. Formerly it was known as the fetching Bampton-in-the-Bush, apparently because of the difficulty of actually getting to it during the 17th century when the best way of finding the tucked away place was to espy its church steeple. It’s on a busy road today, the A4095 south of Witney heading towards Faringdon, but it's still ‘flat sleepy country on the upper reaches of the Thames Valley’.  

Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stephens)

Downton Abbey, Series 1, episode 2. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stephens) outside Isobel’s house which is actually the old rectory, Churchgate House, Bampton - Credit: courtesy Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

Jim Carter and David Robb in Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey: Series 3, episode 3. Jim Carter (Mr Carson) converses with David Robb (Dr Clarkson) with that tell-tale Church View entrance into Bampton Library in the left background - Credit: courtesy Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

The library, previously a school, is easy to find. It’s a venerable building of 1653 and its Church View entrance often appears in the background, the building morphing into Downton Cottage Hospital which matriarchs Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) seem to be forever having verbal spats about, so of the sparring rather than fisticuffs persuasion; all very ladylike and aristocratic. It’s also the place Sybil is taken to when Dr Clarkson (David Robb) suspects she is suffering from pre-eclampsia. There are photos and souvenirs inside the library. The post office was in another house on Church View and featured in more than two dozen episodes: Posting a letter was important back then.

Downton Abbey - Phyllis Logan in Bampton

Downton Abbey: Series 2, episode 5. Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes) in the village. The Church View entrance to Bampton Library can be seen clearly in the background - Credit: courtesy Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

Church View was popular as a Downton hostelry, the ‘Dog & Duck’, was located here. Isobel’s home in Downton village is the rather impressive Churchgate House, close to St Mary’s, which was once Bampton’s rectory. In Church Close there’s a row of houses opposite St Mary’s that housed another pub, the Grantham Arms, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) being Lord Grantham. Tom Branson and Alfred (Matt Milne) both lodged here at different times. Another house in this street became a poultry shop which sourced the roast chicken of cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol). 

Michelle Dockery and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey: Series 1, episode 4. Michelle Dockery (Mary Crawley) and Joanne Froggatt (Anna Smith) visit Downton Fair on Bampton’s Church Green - Credit: courtesy Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

My sources state that this quiet, unassuming place came alive twice a year, although we should revise this down to just the once now. There was the Horse Fair in August which dated to the reign of Edward I, and reached its zenith in the first decade of the 20th century, so just before the Downton era. There’s still the Whit Monday Fête where I’m told the visitor will witness ‘genuine English Morris dancing’. Beware of cheap imitations, I say. In the centre of the market place is the small-town hall with elegant Georgian-fronted shops hereabouts: Good backdrop for filming I hear you suggest. The parish church is topped by a 170-foot-tall buttressed spire which sits atop a bulky part-Norman tower. I like a good buttress (they stop walls falling over). These ones are decorative, being ‘pinnacled at its base by an apostle in flowing drapery’. Just west of the church is an impressive Tudor manor, tittivated by the Georgians, and known as the Deanery. This was once the summer residence of none other than the Dean of Exeter. 

Downton Abbey, series 1, episode 4

Downton Abbey: Series 1, episode 4. The Downton Fair was held on Church Green in Bampton. Here Thomas Howes (William Mason), Rose Leslie (Gwen Harding), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow) and Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason) get time off from the drudgery downstairs to enjoy all the fun of the fair - Credit: courtesy Movie Stills Database/moviestillsdb.com

Church Green, or Downton’s village square, is the meeting place, and can be found at the bottom of Church Close towards the Library. Conversations take place here and gossip is exchanged. Early on, in series 1, the village fair is located here. It’s also a bit of a thoroughfare as folk from the big house head through here to run errands. In the series a memorial is established here following the Great War. 

Ham Court, Bampton

Ham Court, Bampton - Credit: Amanda Slater/Wikimedia Commons

And the castle? Well, Bampton must have had more importance in times past, say in the early Middle Ages when the Empress Matilda had a fortress constructed here (she was vying for the throne with her cousin, King Stephen). An impressive castle then followed courtesy of Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke. Sadly, there’s just a doorway remaining today which is embedded in an old farm house, Ham Court. I have a tome for most purposes and my trusty castles book reckons on 1315 as the date this particular stronghold was built. It later passed to the mighty Talbot family and later still to Jesus College, Oxford.  

Watch out if you decide to head to Bampton to check out the provenance of everything I’ve told you. There’s another place of the same name in Devon, which still has a charter fair. Be careful setting that sat-nav. 

Old view of Bampton with St Mary’s in the background

Old view of Bampton with St Mary’s in the background - Credit: Photos of the Past/flickr.com