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Photograph: Time Out/Studio Courmont/Ben Blackall/Focus Features

Six glorious ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ film locations to visit

How to holiday like the Crawleys this summer

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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The ultimate in posh porn, Downton Abbey: A New Era arrives just in time to bring a large helping of low-stakes Downton magnificence to our lives this week. There will be complicated dinners, unnecessary hats, trips on opulent yachts and glorious sunny vistas as far as the eye can see as the Crawley family and their loyal band of servants navigate weddings, mysterious inheritances and the onset of the Jazz Age.

If the trailer piqued your interest in the film’s exotic locales, you might be wondering where they’re found. A Downton pilgrimage will now take you a bit further than Highclere Castle in Berkshire: France, Scotland and Essex are all now firmly on the map. We asked the film’s supervising location manager, Mark Ellis, to get the skinny on where to go to visit A New Era’s locales for the ultimate Downton pilgrimage. 

‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ locations to visit

As well as (obvs) Downton Abbey itself, still filmed at Highclere Castle, A New Era’s key location is found in a sunny, seaside corner of France. It’s a large Mediterranean villa called Rocabella that finds its way into the possession of Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), prompting a family trip to the Med. 'We flew into Nice, jumped in a car and raced around these four or five places,’ remembers Ellis of finding the location, ‘including Karl Lagerfeld's old place in Monaco. But once we saw Villa Rocabella, it was just “wow!”. It has everything: views over the sea, the terrace, the classic French look, lovely gardens and that pink staircase you see in the trailer.’ And you don’t need the Crawley wealth – or an inheritance – to stay there. ‘I was surprised to discover that it's affordable,’ says Ellis. ‘It'd be a great party venue.’

The uncertainty of filming during the pandemic left the production needing a fallback plan, in case it proved impossible to shoot in France. ‘What we called “Plan Z” was to go to France and the other plan was to stay in the UK and cheat France here,’ says Ellis. Plan Z got the go-ahead in the end, but one English location that does double as France in the film is Bedfordshire’s Wrest Park country estate. Its Grade I listed gardens stand in for Rocabella’s outdoor spaces, with the orangery hosting a big party sequence in A New Era. ‘We had the magic hour, people were dressed up and there was a jazz band,’ says Ellis. ‘We looked at using some of the house, because it’s got this French feel to it, but it’s so big – bigger than Highclere. The orangery was always in the plan because it’s so beautiful. You wouldn't even twig that it’s not in Rocabella.’

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In the film, the Crawleys get to France via a cross-Channel ferry, but in practise a bit of movie magic was employed to recreate the scene. The vessel used for it, explains Ellis, is pretty famous in its own right: ‘We did this amazing sequence on the Royal Yacht Britannia. We talked about building the deck of the ferry [on a set] and doing a load of green screen, and I stupidly said: “Why don’t I approach the Royal Yacht Britannia?” And everyone was sure it wouldn't happen.’ It did, a coup that the location guru puts it down to ‘the power of Downton’. ‘We [even] did costumes and make-up in the royal dining room.’ If you want to visit the Royal Yacht, head to Leith, just outside Edinburgh, and book a tour for £18 (adults) and £9 (children).

The budding romance between Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton) that began in Downton Abbey takes them all the way to the altar in this sequel. ‘For the church used in Tom and Lucy’s wedding, we had to find a beautiful house with a church on the same estate,’ says Ellis. ‘And we found this amazing place on the Suffolk/Essex borders called Belchamp Hall.’ The Queen Anne-style country pile has three holiday cottage to rent on the estate, though Downton fans might end up duking out with Lovejoy fans for bookings: Belchamp Hall was a regular fixture in the classic BBC series.

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A New Era introduces the Crawleys to the glamorous world of Hollywood motion pictures when a director pitches up to shoot a film at Downton. On screen, that film-within-the-film will get its premiere at a local Yorkshire picture house. In reality, the moment was filmed at Harwich’s historic Electric Palace Cinema on the coast of Essex. ‘We were looking at old cinemas all around the UK and I went down to Harwich with Donal Woods, Downton’s production designer,’ remembers Ellis. ‘Once we saw the inside of the cinema, we knew we had to use it. It’s absolutely breathtaking.’

Needless to say, Downton’s ancestral home, Highclere Castle in Berkshire, is back in a big way for this sequel. ‘Highclere looks breathtaking in this film,’ says Ellis, ‘and [it offers a] contrast with this stylish, chic, sleepy French villa.’ The location manager can’t promise hitherto unseen corners of the castle in the movie but is pretty sure the world of Downton will provide plenty of comfort viewing for fans. ‘I think it's what everyone needs right now,’ Ellis says.  

Downton Abbey: A New Era is in Australian cinemas Apr 28, UK cinemas Apr 29 and US theaters May 20.
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