Fran Beesley was still in her bathrobe early one morning in June when she emerged from her home to find a Japanese family taking photos of her flowerbeds.
She lives in a 1970s-style one-story bungalow in the rural village of Kidlington, about a 90-minute drive northwest of London. It’s a quiet place. Doesn’t get many visitors. Beesley is retired and cares for her invalid husband. They’re both in their 70s.
It was what Brits call “wheelie bin day” — garbage collection day. Beesley walked down her driveway to retrieve her empty trash cans.
“And I saw this gentleman putting his camera away. Well, as you can see, it’s just my vegetables and geraniums!” she says, taking NPR on a tour of the flower beds. She says the Asian tourists politely put away their cameras. Their tour bus idled out front.
Beesley tried to offer tea to her unexpected guests, but they didn’t speak English. She managed a few words with their Polish bus driver but he didn’t say much.
Meanwhile, more tourists were busy exploring her neighbors’ gardens. One family has a trampoline in their yard. The tourists — adults — asked if they could jump on it. Others asked if they could have a go with a neighbor’s lawn mower.
This began back in May, with one busload of Asian tourists. The next day, another arrived — and then another. Kidlington’s roughly 13,000 residents are bewildered. They’re suddenly on the international tourist map. But they have no idea why.
“It’s very flattering. Kidlington is great! But there are other more attractive villages,” Beesley says. “There’s nothing here for them. There are no tea shops or gift shops. There’s nothing to look at, apart from our wheelie bins and houses.”
Kidlington does have a medieval church, nestled among a few 17th century stone cottages. But that’s not where the tour buses went. Instead, they pulled up on the main road, near a modern Baptist church, and unloaded their passengers into a residential neighborhood constructed in the 1960s and 1970s.
They would spend less than an hour on the ground, and then set off again. Residents assume the tourists headed next to London or Bicester Village, a suburban complex of outlet malls about 8 miles north, but they can’t be sure.
“Suddenly a coach [bus] turned up out in the front, and they just started walking along, taking photos,” recalls Gerry McGrath, who tends bar at the King’s Arms pub in Kidlington. “They went and asked if they could sit beside people in the pub.”
The King’s Arms is known locally for its beer — traditional English ale, served at room temperature. But the tourists all ordered orange juice. McGrath didn’t have enough.
He was worried about their safety, walking in the middle of the road. But Kidlington doesn’t get too much traffic, he acknowledges.
Several theories have emerged: Perhaps Kidlington popped up on a Chinese or Japanese travel blog or website, mistakenly identified as where some scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Some Hogwarts scenes were filmed and set in the city of Oxford, down the road about five miles south. But not in Kidlington.
Sir Richard Branson, the English business tycoon and philanthropist, once owned property in Kidlington. But no longer.
A British detective TV series, Inspector Morse, was also filmed in Oxford. One of the actors is said to have once stopped for a drink in a Kidlington pub. Could they have heard about that, locals wonder — all the way over in Asia?
This sudden influx of tourists is the talk of the town. Locals set up a Facebook group to report sightings. Everyone has a theory. Some worry they’re the butt of a rather complicated practical joke or psychology experiment. No one seems to have been able to communicate with any of the tourists in any meaningful way.
And as quickly as they arrived, they have now disappeared. It’s been more than two weeks since the last tour bus pulled into — and out of — Kidlington. The streets are eerily quiet. People who first questioned why busloads of tourists would want to come now mourn their departure.
“Oh, I love the place! I understand why they’d come,” says Maurice Billington, head of the local parish council. He points out that Kidlington is the largest unincorporated village in England — a village rather than a town — and perhaps in all of Europe.
Billington says he’d love to put together a slate of tourist offerings, if and when the Asians return — and he’s sure they will. There’s the medieval church with stained glass, the village recreation hall, a regional fire rescue station and the River Cherwell, where he swam and ate jam sandwiches as a child, one of 10 siblings in his family.
“We’re going to put up a couple tables and sell cream teas” in front of the church, Billington says excitedly.
As we chat, he keeps a hopeful eye on the narrow road that leads into the village.