FAMILIES across the country sat down to enjoy the Downton Abbey Christmas special on Christmas Day, no doubt while tucking into the chocolates and turkey sandwiches.

The hit ITV show has taken the world by storm and has become a much-loved fixture in the festive TV schedule, with fans waiting in anticipation to see what drama will befall the Crawleys as they get to grips with the 20th century.

And Oxfordshire, which provides many of the familiar backdrops for the show, is reaping the economic benefits of the so-called ‘Downton Effect’.

Hayley Beer, tourism services manager for West Oxfordshire Council, said Downton Abbey’s impact on the region’s tourism industry had been “phenomenal”.

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“The Downton factor has been incredibly good for the local economy,” she said.

Between November 24 and November 28, the council, in partnership with Visit Britain, met with about 90 Chinese tour operators and media representatives in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

“Mainland China is very interested,” she said.

Also in November, the council hosted a group of Russian travel journalists, ahead of the launch in Russia of about 500,000 DVD box sets of Downton Abbey that will include marketing material about West Oxfordshire.

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Filming Downton Abbey in Bampton, above and below

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And from early January 2015 the council will advertise the prize of a luxury holiday in West Oxfordshire to Americans during PBS’s broadcast of the show’s fifth series.

Ms Beer said she expected two more international tour operators to sign contracts with the council, to add to its existing deal with International Friends, which began conducting Downton tours to the Cotswolds in April 2014.

Tourism is the largest contributor to West Oxfordshire’s economy.

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Dame Maggie Smith filming at Cogges

The industry provides 12.5 per cent of the region’s total jobs, and was worth £274m in total turnover in 2013, up 2.1 per cent on 2012, according to figures supplied by industry body Experience Oxfordshire.

Although Highclere Castle, the real abbey of the show’s title, is in Berkshire, many of the locations are in Oxfordshire.

Among them are Bampton (Downton Village), Shilton (the village pub), Cogges Manor Farm (Yew Tree Farm) and Greys Court (Downton Place).

Now in its fifth season in the UK, the period drama depicting the lives of upper and lower class England in the early 20th century is attracting devotees from all over the world.

National tourism agency Visit Britain hosted tour operators from the US, Canada, China, Japan and Russia to inspect Downton tourism products during 2014.

Lewis Swan, director of London-based Brit Movie Tours, said the number signing up for his Downton Abbey tours had increased 20 per cent a year since he began running them after the first series.

He expects about 2,500 paying customers in 2014.

Brit Movie Tours now runs various one-day tours and a three-day tour for Downton fans. “We’ve got several versions of the [one-day] tour because there are so many locations now,” said Mr Swan, who liaises with the show’s location manager.

“Some of them we’re keeping secret to keep a mystique of the tour.”

Tour operators told the Oxford Mail that visitors from English-speaking countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada made up the bulk of international Downton fans.

Yet Mr Swan said his three-day tours were almost entirely booked out by Americans, who are “big fans of the monarchy” and “fanatical” about the show.

Other overseas fans come from Europe, Scandinavia and, more recently, China.

Mr Swan’s one-day tours consist of 40 per cent British and 60 per cent international fans.

Director of Cogges Manor Farm, Colin Shone, said: “Downton Abbey is a significant factor for us.”

Visitors to the Witney attraction rose to 42,000 in 2014, compared to 7,000 in 2007 when the farm reopened to the public.

The Cogges farmhouse was used for filming the set of Yew Tree Farm, where Lady Edith’s child is being raised.

Mr Shone said the farm had been visited by journalists from Russia and China checking it out as a tourism attraction.

Helen Porter, owner of Shrewsbury, Shropshire’s P and P Tours, said of her Downton one-day tours: “We can’t meet the needs. We’ve still got a few tickets left for 2015, but they’re going fast.”

She estimates her bookings are split evenly between local and international fans, with about 400 people taking her Downton tours in 2014.

In June this year, Experience Oxfordshire launched its Bampton and Downton Abbey walking tour for groups.

But even the most popular shows have to end some time. So how long can the Downton gift keep giving?

Mr Swan said: “I would anticipate the level of interest should go on for at least another three, four years.”

Business selling products based on period drama

MANY people relax as they sit down to watch Downton Abbey, but Joanna McKerlie spends her time searching for inspiration.
The 54-year-old, of Windrush, near Burford, takes ideas from the ITV show for her mail order catalogue Downton Abbey at Home.
She launched the online business in September, selling furnishings and home accessories based on the period drama.

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Joanna McKerlie with some of the products she sells, above

Mrs McKerlie, who has an office in Witney Business and Innovation Centre, said: “Since setting up my business it’s just as enjoyable but now I’m sitting there looking a little bit more closely at the costumes and taking inspiration from every character – everything they use and touch in each scene.”
She has permission to use the products by NBC Universal, which owns the rights. 
Her products inspired by the show include butler’s bells, classic key sets, ornaments, boudoir chairs, a candelabra, iron firescreen and poker game set.
Mrs McKerlie, who was allowed to visit the set at Ealing Studios to photograph products, said: “I believe there is a market for people who live, or aspire to live, in period properties, country cottages and traditionally-styled homes and who want to buy classically-styled or period-style furniture and home accessories.
“This is for people who want to bring some of the old magic into their own homes.” 
Visit downtonabbeyathome.com 


Brit Movie Tours: one-day tours, from £95; three-day tour, £867 (single room)
International Friends: one-day tour, from £119
Experience Oxfordshire: Bampton and Downton Abbey walking tour (one hour), £101 plus VAT per group. 

Witney Gazette:

Colin Shone

Witney Gazette:

Hayley Beer

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