If York, Thirsk, Ripon, Kirbymoorside and Moulton were not regularly mentioned in Downton Abbey, we might never know where it was set. Apart from a very brief appearance of York and a very brief appearance of Alnwick Castle, Downton Abbey is filmed entirely in the South, not Yorkshire or the North at all. Any proud Yorkshireman/woman or transplant resident like myself should not be happy about this. Yorkshire should have a presence in the series, not just because it is a location worthy of promoting in its own right, but also because Downton Abbey could have been a means to really putting Yorkshire on the international tourism map.
No one knew that this series, which at first appeared to be just another ITV period drama, was going to become such an international sensation, including, I would have guessed, ITV’s executives. To be fair, it all seemed to be going a bit downhill when at the end of the first series, the dowager countess closes an argument with Mrs. Crawley by telling her to “put that in your pipe and smoke it”. But it didn’t go all the way downhill, ITV’s writers brought it back up to a non-cringeworthy standard, and the series become more and more popular internationally. In fact, Downton Abbey filming locations are now popular tourist destinations that can be visited on day tours from London or, if you are a very dedicated fan, there are full week tours.
The problem? None of the advertising for these tours ever mention that the location of the story is actually Yorkshire, hundreds of miles from the filming locations. Downton Abbey location tours have also made it into the burgeoning travel blogging press, which is currently filling up the internet with ever more travel advice and plugs for hotels, trips and activities. Both Skyscanner and Visit Britain, two major international tourism sites, have recently featured Downton Abbey tours, but not a single mention of Yorkshire or a location in Yorkshire is made in either article. Has the British public suddenly accepted that North and South are precisely the same and that there is one generic England that needs to be represented in that guise alone on the international stage? Not likely.
Rather, the representation of England in Downton Abbey is so generic the actual location of its events seems to be almost completely unimportant. Downton Abbey’s England is a well-bred, gentle, sunny place with neat gardens and cozy romantic cottages, where benevolent masters consider their servants part of the family. This leaves me distinctly uncomfortable. I can’t help but wonder if this is the reason for the series’ popularity. Is this what the international marketplace of television and tourism really thinks of England? And if it is, should we be feeding that stereotype?
I am eternally grateful to the makers of Trainspotting, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and This is England for providing alternative views of Britain that did well on the international market. I just hope the international audience for Downton Abbey does not indulge too thoroughly in its extremely romanticized version of early twentieth-century England. To be fair, the series does make the occasional allusion to alternative interpretations of history. One fantastic example is Lord Grantham’s comical dismissal of concerns over a male servant’s attempt to sneak a kiss from another male servant. He claims that at Eton: ‘If I’d screamed blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me, I’d have been hoarse within a month’. Far-fetched, yes, but at least it accepts gay men existed and were in supply at public schools.
Why Not Yorkshire?
So, if the representation of England offered by Downton Abbey is so generic it could be anywhere, then that begs the question of why it wasn’t actually Yorkshire. I don’t have a good answer for this. Clearly the South is more convenient for filming for various reasons, but throwing in a few shots of the outside of buildings in Yorkshire couldn’t be too complicated to work around. Yorkshire can offer equally stunning locations to those of Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. If the series had focused on a few actual locations in Yorkshire, it may well have brought a lot of tourism further north, disrupting the usual pattern of London-only or London-and-environs visits to Britain. I think the dedicated fans of week-long tours of Downton Abbey locations would have happily come this far north if a few Yorkshire locations were featured prominently in the series.
In honor of such dedicated fans, who may still want to get to know the county where the series is set, let’s take a look at what Downton Abbey might look like if it were actually filmed in Yorkshire.
We’ll start with the abbey itself. For the real Yorkshire version of Downton Abbey, Harewood House would do nicely. It was built in the eighteenth century and has since been the family home of the Lascelles, who arrived in England with William the Conquerer. Like Highclere Castle, it’s a Grade I listed building with grounds designed by Capability Brown and has been the set for two adaptations of the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited. Highclere Castle has nothing on its Yorkshire counterpart.
There are plenty of beautiful little villages in the Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors, but I think our authentic Yorkshire Downton Village should offer something Bampton, Oxfordshire cannot. I choose Robin Hood’s Bay for its atmosphere and beautiful historic buildings as well as its dramatic positioning on the edge of a cliff above the North Sea.
A Bustling Market Town
Thirsk and Ripon are the market towns mentioned in Downton Abbey and they certainly could serve as the market towns in the series with some very careful filming and a bit of a facelift. The late twentieth- and twenty-first centuries have had their way with both locations. However, just a short drive away is the slightly better preserved market town of Richmond, offering a lovely backdrop of pretty streets and quaint cottages.
Home of the Dowager Countess
Designed by Christopher Wren in the late seventeenth-century and enlarged in the eighteenth century, Newby Hall is a Grade I listed building, providing a step up for the Dowager Countess from the Grade II* Byfleet Manor used in the series. Newby Hall was also the set for the 2007 adaptation of Mansfield Park with Billie Piper while Byfleet Manor can only claim a few scenes from the much lesser known Cranford.
Authenticity and Setting
The moral here is that generic representations of people, places and cultures can be really tricky to pull off without opening yourself up to lots of criticism. Or, worse, looking like you just haven’t done your research. Sure, this sort of thing is what we might expect from (and forgive in) a popular TV series like Downton Abbey, but I think serious writing needs serious research. That’s to say that I think if you’re going to represent a place you don’t know well, that you’d better make a lot of effort to getting to know it well before committing it to paper.
Readers, what sort of research do you do before representing a place you don’t know well? How do you know when you’ve done enough to make your setting seem authentic?