Showtimes was invited to England to see some of the filming locations for Downton Abbey: A New Era, now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Over the course of the trip we stayed at Down Hall, an ancient medieval manor that was in existence as early as 1021, but the building that currently stands there was completed in 1873. It went through many incarnations over the years, and just after the time the latest Downton Abbey movie takes place, Down Hall became a "horsey and fashionable girls boarding school," where the mother of Diana Princess of Wales -- Frances Shand Kydd — was a student in the 1950s.
My room was on the second floor, which was accessible only by a grand staircase, then through a wooden door that led to two other secluded doors. I could easily picture English school girls living there. The room had a large window that I was able to open a crack to get fresh air. It’s common for English buildings not to have air conditioners -- because of the cool air and mild summers, they don’t usually need them. They also don’t have screens on their windows, but luckily, there didn’t seem to be any flying insects either. It was a beautiful, old fashioned room that perfectly fit the theme of our Downton Abbey press trip.
The first filming location we visited was Belchamp Hall, where Tom Branson’s wedding to Lucy Smith was filmed, as well as the reception afterwards on the lawn. This historic mansion in Belchamp Walter, Suffolk, is set within a 1500 acre country estate and has been owned by the Raymond family since 1611. The current owner, Charles Raymond, gave an introduction and briefly spoke about Downton filming there, saying that although the wedding was supposed to take place on a warm, summer day, in fact it had been rather cool and windy. There was a wedding cake on hand in the refreshments tent that he cut it for us – and was given a sword to do it with (just like Tom and Lucy do in the movie), much to his (and our) amusement.
I had the opportunity to chat with Anna Robbins, the costume designer for all of the seasons of the Downton Abbey show and the two subsequent movies. I was also given an old-fashioned film director’s megaphone to ham it up while the crew filmed. A flower-arranging class allowed us to make a carnation boutonniere as many members of a wedding party wear, and finally, we attended an etiquette class given by Philip Sykes, the founder and principal of The British School of Excellence, where we picked up all kinds of tips for dining with British aristocracy.
On the grounds of Belchamp Hall stands the church where Tom and Lucy were married — St. Mary the Virgin. The churchyard was closed for burials in 1920, and some of the tombstones were re-sited, but many of the Raymond family’s tombstones remain.
The property is gorgeous, with several outbuildings and beautiful gardens. There were peacocks roaming free and to my amazement, I learned that peacocks fly when one of them flew up to the top of a building.
The other filming site we visited was Wrest Park, a country estate in Silsoe, Bedfordshire. Currently owned by English Heritage, the immense mansion was completed in 1839, and the buildings and park are open to the public. There are several buildings on the 92 acres of land, including the Orangery, which was built in 1835. It was used for some of the party scenes that take place in the South of France.
Wrest Park has another Downton Abbey connection – Capability Brown, who designed landscapes for many estates, including Highclere Castle, which stands in for Downton Abbey in the film, also had a hand in shaping the landscape of Wrest Park. Similar to the monument at Highclere Castle to honor Capability Brown, Wrest Park also has a memorial dedicated to him, which gives his proper name as Lancelot Brown, situated in the eastern part of the gardens. The column is inscribed: "These gardens, originally laid out by Henry Duke of Kent, were altered by Philip Earl of Hardwicke and Jemima, Marchioness Grey with the professional assistance of Lancelot Brown Esq. in the years 1758, 1759, 1760."
The highlight of the visit was an interview with Jim Carter, who plays the beloved butler Mr. Carson, and Raquel Cassidy, who plays the gentle, soft-spoken Miss Baxter, as well as an interview with the film’s director, Simon Curtis.
The interviews were held on the first floor of the mansion, which was closed off to the public for the day, as was the Orangery, where in the movie the final party at the villa in France, complete with a jazz band, was held.
A tour guide with English Heritage showed us around the large property, which includes the Archer Pavilion, several gardens, quiet ponds, a creek and forest. While exploring on my own, I came across a pet cemetery with a tombstone for each of the owners’ beloved pets over the years.
With our work complete, we returned to Down Hall for a “Farewell Flapper” style party, complete with live entertainment, dancing, drinks and finger food.