Earlier this year I mentioned that I was deferring from my Open University module due to a combination of ill-health and family issues. The email to the Open University confirming my deferral had barely been launched into the ether when I was asked if I would be interested in doing two things. One, was to help produce a new guidebook for Cogges, the present one being about twenty years out of date, and the second was to become a tour guide. This would involve taking groups around Cogges and showing them where filming for Downton Abbey had taken place. I immediately said yes to both.
I was especially excited about the tour guiding, as it meant that I could combine two of my passions; Downton Abbey and Cogges. As any of my friends will tell you, I like to talk and the prospect of being able to do so about these two subjects seemed like my ideal job, especially as I was asked if I would be happy to dress in period costume, although sadly I was asked to dress as Mrs Drewe, not Lady Edith. Not easy. but I managed to put some sort of costume together and was very pleased when one of the set dressers from Downton Abbey told me that I looked the part.
Being of an industrious, studious nature, I duly set about doing my research for both projects. I had the onerous task, well OK the enviable task for a fan, of having to watch the complete series of Downton Abbey. Technically I only needed to watch series 4 and 5 along with their corresponding Christmas specials, but like I said, I like to be thorough. I also decided to watch it twice, the second time to make a note of the scenes that were filmed at Cogges.
My homework complete I eagerly awaited the day of my first tour. It was for a group of Japanese tour operators who were visiting the various filming locations for Downton, to see which ones to include in their tours. As you can imagine, I was extremely nervous as I’d never done anything like this before. What didn’t help was when they arrived I found out that I had to speak through an interpreter.
That was the first hurdle I had to overcome that day. The second was, the Japanese had only just finished series three of Downton Abbey so they didn’t even know of the existence of Yew Tree Farm, let alone about Lady Edith having an illegitimate child. But one thing I hoped would sell it to them was that filming was due to take place in a couple of days and the house had already been dressed for the filming. Talk about a baptism of fire.
The tour had been organised by Experience Oxfordshire and also in the party was a gentleman who has been a tour guide for a number of years and he was surprised to learn that this was my first tour which was very encouraging.
The second was for a group of tour guides from a company called Golden Tours who were planning on including Cogges on their Downton Abbey Tours and my job was to show them the areas that had been used for filming. So I gaily set about taking them to the various places and talking about the scenes that had been filmed there. I thought that they looked a bit lost at times and I found out later that most of them hadn’t even watched Downton and therefore hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. A couple of them did say that they were going to get the box set and we also passed on a copy of my notes, so hopefully that helped. They regularly bring groups to Cogges, so at least I didn’t put them off.
My third group consisted of a number of Downton fans. It was great fun to see them hang on my every word, or so I like to think, and laugh at the little anecdotes I shared about some of the things that had happened during filming. Like the time that the film crew left a gate open and the sheep got out. The leader of the group did comment that they were all quiet and listened as I talked, which she said was a sign of how interesting I was making it for them. Praise indeed.What a difference it makes to have an appreciative audience.
There’s certainly been some challenges. Like the time a group from Northern Ireland arrived an hour and a half early. I received a panic phone call from Colin asking me how quickly I could get there. I was dressed and on site in under ten minutes, only to have to wait for about half an hour while they had a cup of tea. To be fair, they hadn’t realised that we were providing them with a tour guide so didn’t think that it would be a problem to arrive early. But they really seemed to enjoy the tour, so it was worth it in the end.
Of course not everyone was satisfied. We show them a film of how the art department turn the kitchen into Farmer Drewe’s cottage and after one tour an elderly gentleman told me that this had been the highlight of the tour for him. Oh well, you can’t win them all.
I certainly feel that I have found my niche. We’ll be closing for the season soon and at the moment I haven’t got anymore tours booked. But the new season of Downton Abbey has started and I’m enjoying doing my research for next season’s tours. There was quite a bit of filming at Cogges this year, so I’ve got a lot to learn and a few more anecdotes to add to my repertoire.
This season we’ve had almost 4,000 visitors due to the Downton factor, including other tours which come with their own guides. I expect that next year the numbers will be even higher. Meanwhile, I’ve restarted my Open University module and will be immersing myself in Ancient Greece and Rome until resuming my tour guiding next year.
Here is a link to a speeded up version of the art department transforming Cogges into Yew Tree Farm.
Photographs courtesy of Downton Abbey and Isabel.