Sleepy British village baffled by flocking Chinese tourists

Mystery as busloads of visitors photograph houses and lawns of nondescript town

Chinese tourists take pictures in Kidlington, England . The rather ordinary village has found itself a popular stop for Chinese visitors who snap photographs of their simple homes and streets. Photograph: Elizabeth Dalziel/The New York Times

Chinese tourists take pictures in Kidlington, England . The rather ordinary village has found itself a popular stop for Chinese visitors who snap photographs of their simple homes and streets. Photograph: Elizabeth Dalziel/The New York Times


The Chinese visitors fanned out of a tour bus, and suddenly stopped, transfixed, as if marvelling at the Venus de Milo or the Eiffel Tower. Then they began photographing an unremarkable 1970s suburban home, an oak tree, a rosebush and a garbage bin.

“It’s beautiful,” Liu Jingwen of Guangdong province said as one of her travel companions crouched with his camera on the edge of a lawn and took a selfie in front of a small red brick bungalow. A porcelain schnauzer smiled from a nearby window. An angry passer-by yelled: “No photos! We’ll call the police!”

Ever since busloads of Chinese tourists began arriving in this sleepy, nondescript English village this summer, the 13,723 residents of Kidlington, about 5 miles north of Oxford, have been variously baffled, annoyed and delighted.

The sudden influx of Chinese has also grabbed headlines and spawned a national mystery. Why, for example, do the Chinese tourists ignore the village’s handsome 13th-century church and its thatched-roof cottages, preferring instead to peer through windows, film parked cars and traipse on the lawns of Benmead Road, a humdrum and modern residential street? One tourist asked a stunned resident if he could help mow her lawn. (She politely declined.) Another jumped joyously on a child’s trampoline in the front yard.

One theory, reported feverishly by the British news media, is that Chinese tourists had been told by a rogue tour operator that the village was the location of 4 Privet Drive, the childhood home of Harry Potter, the fictional wizard. (In fact, it is in Bracknell, Berkshire.) The Sun asked if supernatural forces had delivered the Chinese to Kidlington.

Others suggested that the Chinese had been drawn by Kidlington’s claim to being one of the largest villages in the realm. Or perhaps they wanted to see the Kidlington mansion previously occupied by Richard Branson, the shaggy-haired billionaire?

Such is the interest in the enigma that the BBC dispatched a camera crew to Kidlington, along with a questionnaire in Mandarin to ask the Chinese why they were coming. On a Facebook page devoted to the village, solving the conundrum became a popular parlour game.

Kidlington has had its moments. A history of the village notes that in 1937 three Siberian wolves escaped from the local zoo, causing great panic. And in 1987, the chairman of the parish council touched off a revolt when he tried to turn the village into a town.

But until now, that was about it. A slice of middle England, Kidlington contains, among other things, a public library, seven pubs, two cafes, four restaurants, a main shopping street with a Domino’s Pizza outlet, an immigration detention centre and a Baptist church with a sign outside saying, “Try praying.” A three-bedroom semidetached house sells for about $430,000, local real estate agents say.

On a recent day at The King’s Arms, a popular local pub, several Kidlington natives feasted on £6.70 plates of lamb, mushy peas and mint sauce, and puzzled at the town’s newfound fame, as Millie, the pub’s one-eyed dog, padded by. The pub is haunted by a resident ghost called Martha, who worked in the pub in the 1950s, and who is sometimes seen knitting, said Christine McGrath, its jovial manager. A “grumpy old men’s club” sign hangs over the spot where three regulars sit weekly and grouse.

The consensus at the pub was that the Chinese guests had unintentionally helped the anonymous village gain international attention, and were good for the local economy. McGrath said Chinese tourists occasionally entered the pub, ordered Guinness, pulled a face and left. “The Chinese have put us on the map,” she said.

Fran Beesley (74) an occupational therapist, said she was startled to walk out of her house one day and find a Chinese man photographing her front yard as his family waited nearby. “I’d like to organise cream teas and welcome them,” she said. Other residents have been less amused and have called police.

In point of fact, there is a perfectly logical explanation for why droves of Chinese tourists are coming to Kidlington, and it is hardly going to burnish the local reputation.

Sun Jianfeng, a 48-year-old tour guide with Beijing Hua Yuan International Travel, said guides were routinely depositing in Kidlington tourists who did not want to pay an extra $68 for an optional Chinese language tour of nearby Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill’s majestic ancestral home.

He added that some wily tourists had figured out that buying tickets at the palace would cost only about £20, and were secretly sneaking there on foot, irking other tourists, who had already paid full price. As a result, he said, those who opted out of the Blenheim tour were being dropped in Kidlington, which is not within walking distance.

Sun said Kidlington was also a convenient stop on the way to Bicester Village, a must-go discount luxury retail destination for Chinese shoppers. The Chinese are big spenders, and European countries compete hard for their business.

Sun stressed that the Kidlington phenomenon was also an outgrowth of modern China and globalisation. Many tourists are a part of China’s rapidly growing middle class, many of whom live in anonymous concrete tower blocks in huge cities, he said. They are enchanted by the village’s tranquillity and intrigued by daily life in the English countryside.

“The environment in the countryside in China isn’t so great,” he said, noting that it could be run-down and gritty compared with England’s typically bucolic atmosphere. “In Kidlington, the environment is great. You see farm fields and ranches here. Also, many newly built houses here have brick or brick-and-wood structures, which you no longer see very often in urban China.”

As a tourist bus pulled out of town, a group of Chinese visitors waved from their windows, smiling widely. The Kidlington tour had lasted about 15 minutes, but that was more than enough for Liu. “It’s so romantic,” she said, looking dreamy eyed. Then the bus sped away.

New York Times