More than 30,000 tourists walked past my kitchen window in 2019. But looking out this morning I can see the stone of the old Grammar School – the village library – starting to warm in the last day of May’s sun. 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.
I’m sitting at my kitchen table, coffee at my elbow, writing this and waving every now and then to neighbours walking past with their dogs; our windows face directly onto the street at the front and sides of the cottage. We’ve lived here for nearly 20 years and it’s the sort of friendly place where the three minute walk to the village shop is impossible in under half an hour.
If I’d been writing this last year, in 2019, pre-Corona, the first Downton tour bus of the day would be about to pull up outside. It would be a minibus with somewhere between 15 and 18 people on board, plus a tour guide. The guide would stand outside the library, the church or on the corner of the green by our cottage to give her tour, all within easy earshot of the houses on the south side of the church – even on a Sunday morning. Tourism in Bampton is a seven-day-a-week industry, even for those of us who are unwilling participants.
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 A4 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.
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’ll pull roses off rosebushes, take stones from our drystone wall, bang 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. That bike took me all over the country, from family weddings in Cornwall to meetings in Hampshire. I loved it. I’d restored it myself, spending days stripping and rebuilding the engine, part-by-part, outside the cottage the summer before Downton came to town.
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. They’d tug on the mirrors until the stalks snapped. They’d use the gear lever to push themselves up into the saddle, bending it irreversibly in the process. They’d push the nice, red kill-switch (designed to stop the engine in an emergency) repeatedly until it snapped off.
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.
I sold my bike before I did something I’d regret.
The guides were little better. One Sunday in June 2017 I looked out of my living room window to see a Blue Badge Guide (apparently an indication of a professional qualification), spreading her map out on the bonnet of my classic Volvo Amazon while she poked at it with a pen. I’d just had this car, built in 1966, restored at a cost that would have bought me a new, modern vehicle.
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 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 buses, disgorge a cargo of Peeries to wander round and gawp, and ship them out again half an hour later.
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.
Typically, the managing director of Rabbie’s, one of the mini coach 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 (sic) 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 Rabbie’s 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 guides.
Sadly, it’s not just a problem for Bampton’s residents. In the summer of 2019 the village church, St Mary’s, held the funeral of a serving RAF officer from RAF Brize Norton, our local base. As the deceased 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 that read, simply, DAD. They tried 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 in the sun 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 and it wasn’t really his problem.
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 ignore the ‘unsuitable for coaches’ signs and drive 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 block the road on the north side of the church and park directly outside the houses there. The drivers feign ignorance – “they just hire us in, we don’t know anything” and they claim not to see the ‘unsuitable for coaches’ signs and drive through anyway.
International Friends, another tour company, send 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. And yet 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 – will gross nearly £1,800 per minibus and they operate three separate tours which visit Bampton; one once a week; one five days a week; and another every day of the week. That’s a potential £22,700 each week from the village from just one tour company. But, to be fair, it’s not all take; Rabbie’s donated £500 to the parish church organ fund.
The truth is that the tour companies can behave exactly as they choose – and they know it. There is little in legislation that protects private citizens from the activities of tour companies. 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 a response 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. Every time we went out, we’d have to push through a crowd to get to our car.
People constantly cuped their hands to peer through our windows. Our cars were constantly sat on, leaned on and scratched because of the sheer number of tourists packed into the lane outside. My bike got treated as a kids’ ride-on toy. There was, perhaps worst of all, a constant stream of people outside and shouting tour guides repeating the same script perhaps four or five times a day.
I lost count of the times I had to go outside to remonstrate with them because I couldn’t hear the conference call I was supposed to be taking. Imagine that every day from April to October – without a break.
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. We started talking to agents as the season ended.
There is nothing we can do to stop the tour companies and the tourists. There’s no legislation, no support and no help. Councils and local authorities are powerless. They can put up a few signs that the tour companies will ignore, but that’s about it. Yet this sort of mass tourism blight is now a common problem. According to the World Tourism Organisation, 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals were recorded in 2019, globally — 4% up on 2018 and the tenth consecutive year of growth.
We saw 1,200,000 tourists hit the Cotswolds in 2018, 11% up on the previous year. In 2016, the number was just 725,000. Residents need protection from the problems this sort of mass tourism brings.
Now, in June 2020 the contrast is stark; these are bleak times for so many people, but very selfishly, we have our home back. Covid has meant an end to tour parties, coaches and guides and, as guilty as I feel for saying, it’s pure heaven.
With travel restrictions and quarantine we have, perhaps, another year before the tour operators start again and we need to think about selling the house and moving. But we’ll cherish every minute of peace while it lasts.