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The Downton Abbey effect on Chinese pre-wedding photo shoots

It could be a scene from British television comedy The Vicar of Dibley. A female rector receives a panicked phone call from her churchwarden to say a bride and groom have swept into their West Country parish church in all their wedding finery but with no priest, choir or organist in sight.

Putting on her dog collar, the Reverend Katrina Scott races down to find, to her bemusement, flash bulbs exploding as an extravagantly dressed young couple from Shanghai pose at the altar of St Mary’s, in Lower Slaughter, for a Chinese photography crew.

“I was worried there had been a mix-up over wedding dates,” Scott says. Instead, her 13th-century Cotswold parish church had been caught in a trend sweeping nouveau-riche China: pre-wedding photo shoots in quintessential English locations.

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Hundreds of middle-class Chinese couples fly to Britain each year and pay thousands of pounds a time to hire teams of photographers for shoots in locations such as Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, York and Cornwall’s Land’s End.

Brides-to-be pose in up to six outfits a day for dreamy images against romantic English backdrops, which will be shown as slideshows and videos at their real weddings, back home in China.

The trend has been fuelled in part by the popularity of period drama Downton Abbey, which drew 160 million viewers in China, and a Chinese superstar singer-actor, Jay Chou, who married in Selby Abbey, in Yorkshire, then held a reception in Castle Howard, made famous by the 1980s TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

“England is culturally rich, and it is seen by Chinese people as being safer than other countries in Europe,” says Ray Wu, whose London-based JR Studio undertook pre-wedding shoots for 200 couples in locations around Britain last year, including the one in Lower Slaughter.

Some couples , however, are left crestfallen when they ask for a wedding shoot at the real-life Downton Abbey, Highclere House.

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“We can’t get access to it, unfortunately,” Wu says. “We checked and they are only available for real weddings, which cost a lot more.

“We can get into Castle Howard by paying a fee of £3,000 [HK$28,300],” says Wu. “For that, we can do a shoot that lasts the day, with a lot of interior shots. Before, they used to charge £10,000 plus VAT for weddings.

“We have only done two shoots there so far because it is still too expensive for many clients. But for couples who are looking for something really special, it is a unique location.”

Wu, 40, spotted the market for pre-wedding shoots after graduating in London and offers a range of packages starting from £1,350, for a shoot in three locations in London: St Paul’s, Big Ben and Tower Bridge. For another £700, couples can add two locations outside the capital, such as Oxford or the Cotswolds. Most expensive is the Castle Howard package, which, with the £3,000 entrance fee, costs more than £5,000 – plus another £550 to hire a horse and carriage for an hour.

For a shoot in the Cotswolds alone – where Wu says he spent months scouting out suitable locations – the price is £1,800 and includes pictures inside St Mary’s and in the picture-postcard villages of Lower Slaughter and Bibury.

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The reaction of locals is invariably positive, although they are often confused about what is actually happening, says Wu, who explains to them that pre-wedding shoots are common in China and across Asia.

“When we do shoots here, people think the couple are actually getting married that day,” he says. “I’ve tried telling them it’s a pre-wedding shoot but they don’t quite get the idea so I say it’s an engagement shoot.

“Outside London, people are particularly friendly. They congratulate the couple. We have never had any problems. We just have to explain to people they are not actually getting married.

“The couples themselves get a really good buzz from it. In China, these photo shoots are a tradition; it’s nothing unusual. The reaction from people is much more positive here.”

As we speak, Beijing couple Xin Wang, 28, and bride-to-be Lin Zhang, 26, arrive in Wu’s office to choose outfits for their £2,950 pre-wedding shoot in Cornwall, which will include photos by the sea, at the open-air Minack Theatre and at Land’s End.

“We looked at pictures of different locations and we thought of Brighton and Oxford, because Oxford has a famous university – but we decided Cornwall was the most beautiful,” says Xin, who graduated in accountancy in London. “Cornwall has the most famous beaches in England. In China, there aren’t many places with grass and forests and beautiful beaches left, but England has been kept very well.”

He adds: “All of our friends do pre-wedding shoots but they usually go to beaches in Asia and to places like Malaysia and Indonesia. They don’t come to the UK because it’s very expensive and you have to pay all your travel costs on top of the fee for the photography.”

Lin, who had the final say on the location, says, “We will show the pictures at our wedding ceremony in Beijing.”

Eighty kilometres north, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, computer programmer Zhang Yuan, 26, from Changde, in Hunan province, and his partner, Zheng Yi, 27, are frolicking in a lavender field for a photography crew from a company run by Vincent Cam, who moved to Britain from China 30 years ago. On a sweltering hot July afternoon, they spend four hours earnestly kissing, holding hands, striking film-star poses and running through lavender in what looks like an exhausting session. For one series of shots, Zhang carries his betrothed in his arms for 30 paces.

“We had a crowd of over 200 people watching us,” Zhang giggles, describing a previous picture session, outside St Paul’s Cathedral, in London. “I didn’t know where to look. I’ve never felt so embarrassed in my life.”

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The couple, who both studied in Britain, married in China last year but wanted something to show friends back home.

“Many people who do these shoots have studied or lived in the UK for a while,” says Cam. “They usually take them back and show them on a big screen at the wedding party. It gives them a lot of ‘face’.”

Business has exploded in recent years as China’s middle classes have grown, says the photographer, who offers shoots in locations including Bath, the Lake District, the white cliffs of Dover and Cornwall.

Within China, tour companies are touting whirlwind package tours to couples in groups of 30 or more for pre-wedding shoots across England. Changching Overseas Tour Service, which has branches across the country, offers a 19,800-yuan-a head tour that includes London and Bourton-on-the-Water, in the Cotswolds, which it bills as “a small Venice in the UK”.

Guangzhou company 9-tour Agency offers a 21,488-yuan-a-head, nine-day programme that includes London, Windsor, Edinburgh and Bourton-on-the-Water, and promises shoots by “famous professional photographers” based in Britain.

All of this could mean more and more Chinese couples descending unannounced on quaint parish churches such as St Mary’s, in Lower Slaughter – population 200 – to the surprise of churchwardens and rectors.

Wu admits he has taken couples for shoots at St Mary’s several times before his encounter with the vicar.

“There was never anyone around to ask so we just carried on but I always left a donation of £10 or £15,” he says.

Rather than give them their marching orders, Scott gave the couple from Shanghai a blessing at the altar of the church – an unexpected bonus Wu’s team pounced upon and video-recorded, to be screened on the big day, back in China.

“My wife was worried she had missed a wedding – that was her main concern,” says the rector’s husband, Nick, who is also a clergyman, recalling the unexpected meeting of cultures in the Cotswolds. “She was afraid someone had misbooked so she raced down to see what was going on and found this couple. It took a little while to untangle because their English was not brilliant and my wife’s Mandarin is non-existent.

“I think they were slightly confused more than anything by her presence.

“We think it’s all rather lovely and we wouldn’t stop people doing it at all. I’m not quite sure why you would have your picture taken in a church where you aren’t getting married. But we’re aware of the trend and we’re very happy for the couples involved – and, of course, we appreciate any donations they might want to make towards the work of the church.”