Katherine Macalister retraces ancestral steps as Downton Abbey comes to an end

Esther Hepworth grew up in Bampton and her grandparents and great-grandparents lived there. So it seemed fitting to volunteer as a villager in Downton Abbey, starring in four of the award-winning series.

It meant that Esther dressed as her great grandmother would have and walked the same streets: “I did find myself stood in the square thinking about my family, and when I’d see a sign saying ‘Ripon five miles’ I’d have to remind myself that I was meant to be in Yorkshire not Bampton,” the 56-year-old laughed.

“I really enjoyed the whole experience and felt as if I was walking in my great-grandmother’s footsteps, because our family lived in those very streets featured in the filming.” And the highlight? “Lady Mary’s first wedding in 1920,” Esther says, the very church where Esther’s grandparents (he was a carpenter and she was in service) were married in the same year.

Esther also witnessed Bampton being put firmly on the tourist map as a result of Julian Fellowes’ ITV blockbuster. “People come from all over the world, but America especially,” said Esther. “It’s lovely meeting people who have taken so much pleasure from the show,” their pilgrimage expected to last well after the credits roll tomorrow.

As ever, the programme-makers are keeping mum on the major plot lines in the Christmas Day special, but what we do know is that the episode will see Mary (Michelle Dockery) trying to build bridges with her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) following their showdown in the penultimate episode.

Elsewhere, Henry (Matthew Goode) is settling into his new role as husband to Mary and stepfather to her son, George, but struggling to find his place at Downton. Carson the butler (Jim Carter) is facing some personal challenges; actors Lily James and Matt Barber return as Lady Rose and Atticus Aldridge, while Miranda actress Patricia Hodge makes a guest appearance as Bertie Pelham’s mum.

But if this isn’t enough Downton to see you through, ITV are screening a special Bafta Celebrates Downton Abbey, which was aired on Monday, December 21. Hosted by Jonathan Ross, the one-off special gives an insight into the drama with behind-the-scenes access to cast and crew, before Dame Julie Walters presents the Bafta Special Award to writer Julian Fellowes and the cast.

Downton is of course inspired by events from Fellowes’ own life – among them are the deaths of his grandfather and uncle in the First World War, his family’s rigid sense of etiquette, and a relationship he had in his youth with a Jewish beau that mirrored the experiences of Lady Rose in the show.

But before the series was given the green light in 2010, Fellowes had his work cut out convincing the rest of the team that the title was right. “The main hurdle was that we couldn’t call it Downton Abbey because the public might think it was about monks,” he laughs.

And while it’s hard to imagine Downton at anywhere but nearby Highclere, location scouts looked at 40 other castles before plumping for their initial choice.

The village-based segments are done in Bampton, the upstairs scenes filmed at the opulent Highclere, yet the servants’ scenes all take place in London’s Ealing Studios.

Downton has been a launchpad for many of its young stars: Dan Stevens, ‘Cousin’ Matthew’, made his Broadway debut opposite Jessica Chastain in The Heiress and has starred in a string of films, including last year’s Night At The Museum; Jessica Brown Findlay, who played youngest sister Sybil, picked up the leading role in BBC1’s Jamaica Inn and appears alongside Daniel Radcliffe in Victor Frankenstein, while Lily James has played Cinderella on the big screen and will appear in the upcoming adaptation of War And Peace.

And with no shortage of drama over the series – remember Lady Mary’s scandalous bunk-up with a Turkish diplomat who dies after their night of passion; Matthew’s car crash death just minutes after meeting his son and heir for the first time; the shocking sexual assault on Anna; Anna and Mr Bates’ fight to prove their innocence after being accused of murder, and Lady Sybil’s tragic end after giving birth to her baby daughter, it’s little surprise that Downton is the highest-rating UK drama of the past decade across any channel, and holds a Guinness World Record for the highest critical ratings for a TV show.

Shown in more than 250 territories, it’s the most nominated British show in EMMY history with 59 nominations and 12 wins.

But perhaps the final word should come from Bampton villager Karen Cowan: “It’s been great having the Downton crew here. It’s a bit sad now it’s all over but and we have all enjoyed them all being here – it’s been quite an excitement.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Where and when
The final episode of Downton Abbey will air on Christmas Day at 8.45pm on ITV