More than 30,000 tourists walked past my kitchen window in 2019. Downton Abbey was filmed in Bampton and the library did duty as the Cottage Hospital. Our cottage – perhaps ten yards over the narrow lane from the library – featured too, although only in passing.
This bus would have been followed by at least eight minibuses and perhaps three 53 seater coaches plus four or five London taxis and a couple of limousine tours. May last year saw just over 3,000 tourists booked in at the Vesey Room, the small room given over as a Downton museum in the library. There were at least 1,500 more tourists in tour parties who just rolled up. That’s around 150 people a day wandering around a previously quiet, tucked-away residential village corner where people live, work from home and just try to get on with their lives.
The first we knew about Downton was in 2009 when the production company, Carnival, pushed a sheet of paper through the door. It explained that they’d like to film a new TV series in the village and asked if we’d mind if our homes featured. Being Bampton, no-one minded at all.
The filming for the first series was a pleasure. The crew and actors were delightful, they got on with everyone and even organised a wrap party for the village. We should have realised by the third series that its popularity, demonstrated by offers from paparazzi of big money for access to upper windows during filming, meant trouble.
Our first inkling was on a Sunday morning in 2010 when we woke to someone shouting “…and this is the cottage hospital where Thomas was…” outside our cottage just after 1000. We should have realised then and got out. Instead, we were naive enough to think it wouldn’t last. Surely the whole thing would blow over?
By the summer of 2019 we weren’t able to leave the house between April and September without fighting through hordes of tourists – we called them ‘Downton Peeries’ because of their habit of cupping their hands against private house windows and peering inside – blocking our gate.
Most of the Peeries are OK – after all, Downton’s demographic is hardly known for hard partying and substance abuse, unless the substances are prosecco and cake. These are people who, at the very least, take their litter home with them. Unfortunately, they also take souvenirs from what they think of as ’the set’ but we think of as ‘our home’. They’ve pulled roses off rosebushes, taken stones from our drystone wall, banged with their fists on our windows (they’re Victorian glass and fragile) to make our dog, who used to enjoy sitting in the sun on the windowsill, look at them for yet another Insta selfie.
The tourists have no sense that people – real people, rather than actors – live in Bampton. My partner was working at home on a client call, when an American tourist banged on the kitchen window demanding, “Do you live here?” I heard her say to her friend, “You know, there are real people living in those little houses” as though we were some sort of curious sideshow, laid on for their amusement.
The tourists seem to believe our village is a film set. I used to run an old motorcycle and sidecar combination. To the tourists, it was just another part of the Downton attraction. They’d sit their children on the bike for their Insta pictures. No-one ever asked permission. And the children, being children, poked, prodded and pulled the bike until it broke.
There was little point in remonstrating with them. They’d pretend not to understand, walk away, and as soon as my back was turned, hoist their flailing offspring into the saddle again.
The guides were little better. One Sunday in June 2017 I looked out of my living room window to see a Blue Badge Guide spreading her map out on the bonnet of my car.
When I suggested, none too kindly, that she might like to get her map off my bonnet, she summoned all her years of guiding around Oxford colleges to look down her nose at me and suggest there was no need to over-react.
The problem is, Bampton provides easy gains for the tour operators – there are no entrance fees, no charges and no restrictions. All they have to do is roll up in their minibuses and coaches, disgorge a cargo of tourists to wander round and gawp, and ship them out again half an hour later. The guided tours do pretty much the same thing, but a guide does a talk pointing at a little plastic flip-folder with pictures of the filming.
When we’ve written to the tour companies to explain what it feels like to be an exhibit in your own home, the responses channel Shaggy, circa 2000 – “It wasn’t me”. No matter which tour company one writes to, it’s never their fault. They only bring a few tourists and make sure they don’t look through windows or damage property. They are paragons; it’s all those other nasty tour companies that are the problem.
Typically, the managing director of Rabbie’s, one of the minicoach operators, wrote to me to say:
“Whilst on our tour our driver asked all our passengers to respect the communities privacy and that people lived there and it was not a ‘set’ – I was pleased to hear this. We will also try as much as possible to keep our groups staggered and our policy is always 16 seat minicoaches only to try and minimise our impact on communities and the environment.
Unfortunately I’m not sure other companies are advising customers and we cannot control advise those that travel in their own cars. I witnessed a double decker touring bus from another company and can only imagine what it’s like when there are more than one of them.”
It was a minibus tourist who, when I asked him not to bang on our living room window to make our dog bark for his picture, flipped me the bird and told me to f**k off. Neighbours have reported similar occurrences, including the same response from minicoach guides.
It seems neither tourists nor guides have any sense of how intrusive their presence and behaviour are. In the summer of 2019 the village church held the funeral of a serving RAF officer from RAF Brize Norton, our local base. As the officer’s family and two young children were walking into the church behind his union flag-draped coffin, a large tour coach party arrived.
The tourists milled around the hearse, taking photographs of the funeral party and the floral tributes. They attempted to walk in to look around the church during the funeral but, fortunately, were stopped by a churchwarden. After some searching and questioning, I eventually found their guide, sitting on a bench and chatting to some of his group outside the library. When I suggested he might like to get his tour party under control, out from the church, away from the hearse and the mourners, he suggested, casually, that he’d already asked them to stay away, it wasn’t really his problem and what did I expect him to do about it?
It was only after I made him aware of just how disrespectful both his behaviour and his group’s actions were that he reluctantly went to gather his party. One of them, an American, suggested to me that Bampton residents ‘had just better get used to it’.
The rest of 2019’s summer continued in similar vein. I wrote to EvanEvans, one of the mass tour operators who regularly ignored the ‘unsuitable for coaches’ signs and drove 53 seat coaches into the Church Close. They sent their Head Of Operations & Contact Centre to meet us. She was charming, helpful, sympathetic and splendid company. I hoped that things might begin to change.
The meeting achieved absolutely nothing. EvanEvans buses still blocked the road on the north side of the church and parked directly outside the houses there. The drivers feigned ignorance – “they just hire us in, we don’t know anything” and they claimed not to see the ‘unsuitable for coaches’ signs and drove through anyway.
International Friends, another tour company, sent a stream of minibuses to Bampton. By this point, we’d tried writing to their senior team, heard nothing back and so wrote to our MP, Robert Courts. Their reply to him said: “I am very shocked and saddened by the distress being experience by your constituent as outlined in your letter. We have had previous correspondence in the form of an email that was sent by our contact at Bampton Library to all tour operators visiting Bampton. This email detailed similar complaints from residents. Upon receiving said email we called a meeting with all of our tour guides and expressly stated that as a matter of procedure they must communicate to all customers that the privacy of local residents must be considered at all times when visiting Bampton.” Shades of Shaggy again but not shocked and saddened enough to give Bampton a miss in future. Again, absolutely nothing changed – tourists still peered in at our windows, took photographs through them and behaved as though the village was a film set.
It’s hard to blame the tour companies. A 53 seat EvanEvans bus tour will set you back just short of £90 a head. That’s nearly £5,000 a bus and we’ll often see three buses a day in peak season. A 16 seat mini coach from Rabbie’s – another operator who, I discovered via an Instagram post from one of their guides, very kindly no longer visits the village – could have potentially grossed nearly £1,800 per minibus and they operated three separate tours which visited Bampton; one once a week; one five days a week; and another every day of the week. That was a potential £22,700 each week from the village from just one tour company. Another minicoach operator charges anywhere between £149 per person and £599 for tours including Bampton.
The truth is that there’s serious money to be made and tour companies can behave exactly as they choose – and they know it. There is nothing in legislation that protects private citizens from their activities. The District council, after two encouraging meetings and a lot of thought on their part haven’t been able to find a way to set up a Community Protection Order that would have stopped the worst excesses. The Parish council have tried but struggled to even get replies to their letters from the tour operators. There’s no one left to appeal to – our MP has written on our behalf to the tour companies and received nothing but warm words.
In 2019, more than 30,000 tourists disgorged from buses and milled around taking photos outside our house and through our windows. Even without the vandalism and aggravation, every time we looked out we wouldn’t know who’d be pointing a lens, peering in or gawping back.
I lost count of the times I had to go outside to remonstrate with guides because I couldn’t hear work phone calls without their spiels in the background. Most would move a few feet away and then start again at the same volume.
The issue is not that we need better-behaved tourists, more considerate guides or smaller tour parties – although they’d all be a pleasant change – we simply need fewer tourists in Bampton. The village is not set up – and does’t want to be set up – as a tourist attraction. You only have to look at the solid mass of tour groups, guides and coaches in other Cotswold villages like Bibury to see where that road leads.
It’s not that we hate tourists. Far from it. We’ve often gone out, chatted with individual visitors, taken photos for them and enjoyed the conversations. We’ve met people from all over the world and loved every minute of it. The challenge comes with the sheer weight of numbers brought by constant tour bus and mini-coach parties.
2019 was the worst year so far. Having failed to find any solution, we decided to move from the village we love and have lived in for nearly 20 years – long before Downton was ever even thought of. We started talking to estate agents in late December.
Then COVID hit. The first lockdown meant a temporary halt to tour parties, coaches and guides and, as guilty as I feel for saying it, it was heaven. But the minute the lockdown was lifted, the coach and minibus tours were back.
Tourists were back peering into our houses, despite there apparently being a pandemic in full swing. If you ever wanted to see just how much tour companies ‘care’ about the places they visit, this is as good a proof as anything.
With travel restrictions and the latest lockdown we have, perhaps, until April 2021 before the tour operators start again and we need to think about selling the house and moving. But for now, we’ll cherish every minute of peace while it lasts.