THE fictional lives of the Crawley family at Downton Abbey continue to have a tangible effect on the Oxfordshire economy.
According to an October 2013 report from VisitBritain, almost one in three tourists to the UK visited an historic house or castle, which could, in part, reflect the popularity of British costume dramas seen worldwide.
Even the Oxfordshire village of Bampton has found itself the centre of global fascination as the location for some of the village scenes in the hit television programme Downton Abbey.
Dr Oliver Cox
In Oxfordshire alone, the country houses attract more than 1.5 million visitors a year.
We are now experiencing the high point of not just a domestic boom but a global fascination with the English country house.
The veil between past and present is at its most permeable in a place where families lived and loved, thrived and died, often over multiple generations.
For Oxford University students and staff the country house contains a wide variety of research projects beyond the complementary, and at times competing, personal stories of those who lived upstairs and downstairs.
Wage books help economic historians work out purchasing power; the history of science records the first, faltering steps in country houses; and business students can explore the potential of the heritage industry to drive innovative investment strategies in rural areas.
In 2013 I created the Thames Valley Country House Partnership (tvchp.org) as a way of encouraging sustainable collaborative projects between the University of Oxford and an ever-increasing number of country houses in the region.
There is a staggering density of country houses just outside the Oxford ring road. The challenge is to make these properties, and the stories they contain, more accessible and relevant to a broader section of Oxford’s population.
I am working with partner organisations, including the National Trust, Historic Houses Association, English Heritage, Society of Antiquaries and Visit Oxfordshire, on a number of exciting, innovative and engaging projects.
Volunteers from Lord Nuffield’s country house, Nuffield Place (managed by the National Trust), now come into the University of Oxford for study days on Nuffield’s life and work, and I am actively developing closer links between them and Oxford’s industrial heart at BMW Mini.
At Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxford students are scouring the palace archives to research the lives of the palace servants because of recent links forged with the education team at Blenheim.
At Broughton Castle near Banbury and Basildon Park in Reading, Oxford University researchers are uncovering the properties’ poignant links with World War One, with the letters and keepsakes from the War being digitised on the website Europeana 1914-1918.
Meanwhile, at Waddesdon Manor near Aylesbury, a group of Oxford students is piloting a different kind of museum guide called TalkAbout that uses conversation prompt cards to encourage visitors to have meaningful discussions about art.
If you are interested in the history of Oxfordshire’s country houses and would like to contribute to the Thames Valley Country House Partnership Project I am keen to work with as many interested local and family historians as possible.
I will be holding a series of study days over 2015 to create a blueprint for new research and engagement projects involving the University and those with an interest in country houses in the region.
Whether you are an individual, a group of enthusiasts or an organisation, I would welcome your contribution. The real stories behind the country houses in Oxfordshire are every bit as intriguing and exciting as Downton.
For further information about joining the project, go to tvchp.org/about.html
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