Watching the minutes tick slowly by at my desk on a rainy Friday afternoon, I was getting impatient. Usually my Friday evenings consist of getting home and being in my pyjamas by 5.30pm, but this Friday was special: I had been invited to spend my weekend as a lady of the manor at Eynsham Hall, deep in the Oxfordshire countryside.
Eventually, 4pm rolled around and I was off along with my friend Breda (Laura was busy this weekend), in my little Fiat 500, bound for a very luxurious break.
As my car turned onto the long sweeping drive of Eynsham Hall, my friend Breda seemed a little shocked; confessing that she thought we were staying in a little B n B. A little Bed and Breakfast, Eynsham Hall is not. A grade 11 listed mansion, it glowed against the winter sky, with the trees outside twinkling with fairy lights. What a difference an hour’s drive can make: from sterile office lighting to a mansion of chandeliers and the smell of warming wood smoke.
Hurrying as fast as we could into the reception area, we were greeted by the sight of large deer heads adorning the walls, sumptuous sofas surrounding the fire and the sound of happy Friday night chatter coming from the bar area. This was so much better than my usual pyjama-filled Friday night.
After check in we were led up a grand staircase to our room – aka a princess room – with large windows looking out over the entrance of the mansion. Classic FM was already softly playing on the radio as we entered and after sinking down into our enormous bed, I could have drifted off there and then for the rest of the night.
The rooms at Eynsham have all been recently refurbished, including the brasserie and Main Hall. The new design is definitely quirky, combining the traditional with the modern. My favourite touch was the rabbit and hare theme, which featured throughout (these little critters are the emblem of Eynsham Hall). Cute!
The bathroom was also equally eccentric, with the most beautiful floor tiles, which I would quite like to put in my own bathroom. The shower could have housed at least ten people and the bath was bigger than me. My favourite part of the bathroom was the added touch of White Company products, including a lavender ‘sleep spray’ that we immediately spritzed over our pillows. This was the cosiest hotel room I’ve stayed in and the struggle was real when the time came to make our way back down the grand staircase for dinner.
We couldn’t resist treating ourselves to a drink in the colourful bar before our dinner, having learned it had won an award for its interior design. It didn’t take an expert to see why. The bar was crammed full of stylish sofas, animal skins and bold yellows and blues, all contrasted against the traditional wood panelling. It was quirky yet traditional: a now reoccurring theme at Eynsham Hall.
After warming ourselves by the fire and spending an intense half an hour trying to work out how to emulate this beautifully British design in our own homes, we made our way across the hall to the new Brasserie, which opened in January, for dinner. We were in for a treat.
Settled by the fire we dined like kings over the course of the evening. Despite my deceptively small size I managed to pack away a considerable amount including mussels, pork belly and a sticky toffee pudding. Yum.
The Brasserie had an equally eccentric feel to it with a copper bar, shelves full of antiques and bright green chandeliers. Despite being in a rather imposing mansion, both the bar and brasserie had a cosy feel. As the night drew in, with our bellies stuffed, we made our way back up the sweeping staircase to our bedroom, praying that any ghosts would stay away as we slept.
I slept like a baby that night and according to my friend, I was so buried in the comfy duvet that she couldn’t find any evidence of me at one point in the night. I liken myself to a small squirrel in hibernation; full on delicious food and perfectly warm in my beautiful room.
After a delicious full English breakfast (who would ever turn that down for a bit of fruit and toast?), it was time to say goodbye to the beautiful Eynsham Hall and explore the surrounding towns and villages, starting with the village of Bampton: the village where the worldwide hit series Downton Abbey was filmed.
Lying only twenty minutes from Eynsham Hall, this is a perfect location to visit, even if you haven’t (like me) watched the Downton series (scandalous, I know). We had kindly been invited to attend a tour with Experience Oxfordshire Official Walking Tours and were met by the lovely Alistair at the local Post Office, who would be our guide around this beautiful village. My friend Breda, a huge Downton Abbey fan, was almost skipping along as we set off.
Surprisingly, the actual shooting of any village scenes were confined to a very small corner of the village: around St Mary’s Church, or St Michael and all Angels, as fans would know it. This small slice of the Cotswolds was picked for the ease with which they could transport the street back to post-Edwardian England, simply by removing the cars (owners would get a bottle of champagne for moving) and removing the telephone pylons. Walking around this small area, it’s easy to see how quickly the production team could transform this little corner of Oxfordshire. It was completely charming.
We toured the Church and saw the exterior of what would have been Mrs Crawley’s house (above), actually known in reality as Churchgate House and the old rectory in Bampton. We also saw the Downton Cottage Hospital and the ‘Dog and Duck’ pub. None of the houses (fully occupied in real life) were used inside for filming, with most indoors scenes shot in studios in London. Reality can be hard sometimes.
The actual exterior to Downton Abbey itself is filmed in Highclere Castle, which once I’ve caught up on a few series, I’ll definitely be visiting. The Experience Oxfordshire Official Walking Tours even offer a complete tour of Highclere, along with a champagne reception with the Countess of the Castle. How fancy!
Despite not having watched the series, I found the tour fascinating and our guide Alistair was a treasure trove of information. He was clearly a true Downton fan! My favourite, but possibly most disturbing fact of the whole tour, was that as a result of Downton Abbey and its influence, in 2014 China opened its first school for butlers, due to a growing demand for them. Who knew a series filmed in such a quiet spot of England could influence the service industry of China. Crazy.
After a lovely tour, we decided to finish our day with cream tea in another Cotswolds town of Burford, just down the road from Bampton. By this point, the English weather was doing what it does best: rain. We were so happy to get in from the outside for a big pot of tea and hot scones with jam and cream. Perfection!
If you’re visiting the Cotswolds area, I couldn’t recommend Eynsham Hall enough in providing you with a real lady of the manor experience, complete with picture perfect villages nearby to explore.