Wednesday, 6 December 2017


Kenilworth Castle, on the outskirts of the Warwickshire town of the same name, dates from the 12th century, but the period most closely associated with it is the Elizabethan period.  Queen Elizabeth I granted the castle to her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in 1563.  Dudley set about transforming it into an extravagant palace, and Queen Elizabeth was among the visitors.  One visit in particular stands out, lasting 19 days from the 9th to the 27th July 1575.  Dudley was after the queen’s hand in marriage, and for the 1575 visit he pulled out all the stops, making improvements to the state apartments, transforming the Gatehouse into a suitably grand entrance and making the surrounding landscape into “pleasure grounds” where a lavish fireworks display was laid on – these were just some of the lengths he went to to impress his queen.  However, some years earlier in 1560 Dudley’s wife Amy Dudley, nee Robsart, died in suspicious circumstances and the scandal surrounding this put paid to any chance of marriage between the two.

The Castle Keep

It is against this backdrop that the novel Kenilworth was written by Sir Walter Scott, published in 1821.  In the novel Amy secretly marries the Earl of Leicester, ditching her Cornish fiancĂ© Edmund Tressilian. Leicester keeps the marriage secret from Queen Elizabeth, being her favourite, fearing the loss of his court position.  Meanwhile, Amy is holed up in Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire, where she is a virtual prisoner.  The novel is based around the resulting intrigues involving Dudley, Tressilian and Dudley’s Master of the Horse, Varney, with an awkward scene in which Amy makes her way to Kenilworth, where she comes face to face with the Queen.  The novel was given a good write-up in The Edinburgh Review for its portrayal of Queen Elizabeth’s character “with the most brilliant and seducing effect”.

Kenilworth Castle is managed by English Heritage, and today is a ruin, though still with much of interest to visitors.  Reminders of Dudley’s devotion to his Queen are still on view, such as the aforementioned Gatehouse, known as Leicester’s Gatehouse, built by him in 1571.  The top floor of the Gatehouse houses an exhibition telling the story of Dudley’s relationship with Queen Elizabeth.  There is also an Elizabethan Bedroom complete with a 16th century ‘tester’ bed.  The fireplace in the Oak Room has the Dudley family motto ‘Droit en Loyal’ and the ragged staff and Leicester cinquefoil.  The Elizabethan Garden provided for the Queen’s entertainment has been lovingly recreated.  The mighty form of the Castle Keep is still on view – this was modified for entertaining by Dudley in 1570.

The Elizabethan Garden

Kenilworth is about 3 miles south-west of Coventry and a few miles from the M40.  For a map of the area follow this link

Tuesday, 21 November 2017


The cathedral city of Wells in Somerset has more of the feel of a market town than a city, but a city it is due to the presence of the aforementioned cathedral.  Its size has led to it being commonly described as England’s smallest city.  Traditionally, visitors have flocked to the city to admire the cathedral and the adjacent Bishop’s Palace with its famous swan-filled moat.  However, in more recent years film and TV buffs have started coming here, what with Wells’ starring role in a number of film and TV productions.  One film in particular is linked to the city, and that is Hot Fuzz, an action comedy about a police officer who is moved from the crime-ridden streets of London to the sleepy village of  Sandford (aka Wells) expecting to be bored stiff, only to find that the village is a hotbed of violent crime.

When filming took place in 2006, much was made of the city’s picturesque centre, in particular the main street and the Market Place, with its Bishops Eye Gate and the Penniless Porch, two arched entrances leading to the walled precinct known as the Liberty of St Andrew, within which are the Cathedral, the Bishop’s Palace and the Vicars’ Close.  The Penniless Porch, built around 1450, was named after the beggars who used to hang around there in those days.  The moat surrounding the Bishop’s Palace is where PC Angel is seen jogging in an early scene.  The Palace is also where Angel is seen meeting with the Neighbourhood Watch, and a night-time meeting described as taking place at the "castle" was also filmed outside the Palace (Wells does not have a castle).

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Market Square with the cathedral in the background. Photo by Barry Lewis, via Wikimedia Commons
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The Bishop's Palace and moat.  Photo by Derek Harper, via Wikimedia Commons

Two of the city’s pubs feature heavily in the film.  When PC Angel first arrives from London he is put up in the Swan Hotel.  The local watering hotel where the cops meet up for a drink is the Crown, whose exterior features in many shots, although the interior scenes were filmed in The Royal Standard of England in Forty Green, Beaconsfield.  The city’s pint-sized entertainment venue, appropriately named The Little Theatre, also makes an appearance.  

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The Swan Hotel. Photo by Sharon Loxton, via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the most unlikely star location of the film is the Somerfield supermarket (no longer a supermarket since the demise of the Somerfield chain).  The supermarket’s charming but sinister manager, played by Timothy Dalton, is at the centre of the series of grisly murders taking place in the village, and the supermarket is one of the scenes of a prolonged gunfight towards the end of the film.  Apparently, the director of the film used to work at the store.  Another scene featured in the violent climax is a model village, but visitors in search of Hot Fuzz locations need not bother looking for it as Wells does not actually have a model village in real life.

Other film and TV productions which have featured Wells include Wolf Hall, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Libertine, The Hollow Crown and Poldark in which the Town Hall doubled ast the Warleggan Bank.

Wells is to the south of Bristol, just under an hour by car from there, or reachable from junction 23 of the M5 motorway.  There is also a regular bus service from Bristol, but no rail service.

Friday, 27 October 2017


After much tutting and fretting about the change of presenters and the intrusion of commercial breaks to the show, the Great British Bake Off successfully made its transition from BBC1 to Channel 4 for this year’s series, which reaches its climax next Tuesday.  At first I was adamant that I wouldn’t watch it anymore, but I soon found myself sucked into the new format.  Yes, the commercials are annoying, but the bakes are as magnificent as ever, the dramas and tears just as poignant, and the surroundings just as lovely.  One aspect of the show which was not changed for the move to Channel 4 was the filming location, Welford Park, a privately owned mansion in Berkshire which had already been used twice for the BBC version.  As is so often the case, the collaboration between Welford Park and Bake Off came about as a result of a conversation at a party involving the Park’s agent, and filming began there just three weeks later.

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Welford Park House. Photo by Des Blenkinsopp, via Wikimedia Commons
Anyone wanting to visit the scene of all this baking will have to wait until the New Year, as the estate only opens to visitors between January and March, when the main draw is the magnificent display of snowdrops in the grounds of the estate.  The snowdrop season ends just in time for the marquee to be erected in April for the filming of the upcoming series.  The same cafeteria used to cater for snowdrop watchers is used to feed the show’s production team.  The interviews with the contestants take place in the estate’s gardens, which are much loved by the team for the changes which take place from spring through to summer.

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The snowdrops. Photo by D Gore, via Wikimedia Commons

Welford Park was built in 1652 for the son of the then Lord Mayor of London.  In keeping with the baking theme, additions made in subsequent centuries included the addition of a kitchen block and a very large dining room.  Before the creation of the estate, the site was occupied by a monastery and village.  Baking was a serious business in those days:  the Berkshire Record Office unearthed a document dating from 1337 from the Welford Estate archives described as an ‘assize of bread’.  The document gives strict instructions for baking a white bread known as a wastell loaf as well as a simnel cake.  This was used as the basis for making sure that bakers were not diddling their customers by falling short of the set standards.  If found guilty they were fined or, if persistent offenders, sent off to the stocks for a day.  Makes one of those ‘looks’ from Paul Hollywood seem like child’s play in comparison!

Welford Park is just off the M4, to the north west of Newbury.

Monday, 23 October 2017


When the Caleighs, the family at the centre of The Secret of Crickley Hall - Gabe, Eve and their children Loren and Cally - arrive in the sleepy seaside village of Hollow Bay for a temporary stay at the riverside property Crickley Hall in a bid to heal the pain of their son’s disappearance, they look forward to walks along the “beautiful deep-sided and tree-lined gorge” marked as Devils Cleave on the map – down to the sea or up to the moors.  They anticipate weekends exploring the “craggy coastline”, and they are met with the sight of the “swift-moving, boulder-strewn Bay River”.  Early on in their stay they pay a visit to the local whitewashed and thatched inn, the Barnaby Inn with its low-ceilinged, beamed interiors.

Anyone who has visited Lynmouth on the North Devon coast will recognise this description, and indeed Hollow Bay was based on this beautiful little harbour village.  The reference to lime kilns is further proof, these being a feature of the village and surrounding area, formerly used for burning imported lime.  That, plus the fact that Hollow Bay is on the shores of the Bristol Channel, as is Lynmouth.  The craggy coastline referred to brings to mind the Valley of the Rocks to the west of Lynton, just above Lynmouth, while the Barnaby Inn may well be based on the charming harbourside inn The Rising Sun.  The only part of the scene described which doesn’t ring true to me is the reference to the “stranger-shy” locals.

Harbourside, with the Rising Sun

Devil’s Cleave must surely be the fictional equivalent of East Lyn Valley whose river tumbles down to the sea from Exmoor, although in an interview with the author of The Secret of Crickley Hall, James Herbert, he reveals that what he had in mind was a valley near his Sussex home called Devil’s Dyke.  As for Crickley Hall itself, which turns out to be a hotbed of supernatural phenomena, there is no particular building in Lynmouth that inspired it, but one can easily imagine such a pile lying alongside the river, where there are a number of impressive properties from the Victorian era lording it over the valley.

The 'boulder-strewn' river and the start of the East Lyn Valley

As well as the village and its surrounding landscape, The Secret of Crickley Hall manages to weave through the story two features of Lynmouth’s history.  During the war, Lynmouth played host to wartime evacuees from the big cities.  In the novel Crickley Hall is used to house some of the evacuees.  Several years later, in 1952, Lynmouth experienced a devastating flood which killed 34 people.  In the novel this event is moved back in time to 1943, with many of the evacuated children among the dead.  The horrors the Caleighs are met with at Crickley Hall are born of this event, with the spirits of the children haunting the property, along with the ghost of the sadistic Augustus Cribben, who subjected them to beatings and starvation.

In 2012 the Secret of Crickley Hall was dramatised for TV, but Devon was nowhere to be seen in the TV version.  Crickley Hall itself was represented by Bowden Hall in Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire.

The real-life Hollow Bay, Lynmouth, is a reassuringly charming and quiet seaside village.  Attractions on offer to visitors include the Victorian cliff railway linking it to the clifftop town of Lynton.  The walk up the valley to Watersmeet is popular with walkers, who are rewarded for their efforts with a pleasant National Trust tearoom with a garden overlooking the rushing river.  Another gorge accessible to visitors (for a fee) is the Glen Lyn Gorge, where among other points of interest is an indication of the 1952 flood level mark.  See my other blog Postcards From The Edge for a write-up on Lynmouth.

Thursday, 28 September 2017


In 1876 Queen Victoria became Empress of India, some years after the British protectorates and possessions in India were incorporated into the British Empire. This new role led to a growing fascination with the Indian Subcontinent, and eleven years later Victoria decided to bring two Indian nationals to Britain to act as attendants to the Queen.  One of them, Abdul Karim, developed a close platonic friendship with Her Majesty, which led to some considerable friction among members of the Royal Household.  This story forms the basis of the recently released film Victoria and Abdul.

Abdul spent time at a number of the royal properties, but one which features heavily in the film is Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s beloved retreat on the Isle of Wight.  This was an exciting time for the English Heritage staff at the property, it being the first time a feature film had made use of the sumptuous interiors, which include many Indian influences.  For example, the Durbar Room, with a ceiling designed by Lockwood Kipling, father of the author Rudyard Kipling.  There is a portrait of Abdul Karim hanging in the Durbar Room and it is redolent with Indian touches such as the beautiful peacock fireplace.  The Drawing Room also makes an appearance, with its yellow satin curtains and full length mirrors, as does the Grand Corridor with its classical statues and busts and decorative tiled floor.

The Durbar Room
As well as the interiors, the grounds of the house are also seen in the film.  The exterior architecture is Italianate in style.  When I visited last year I had recently been to Lake Maggiore and the exterior of Osborne House took me right back there.  The grounds range from a more formal style immediately outside the house to the landscaped parkland in which red squirrels can sometimes be found – we thought we saw one belting along, but it was moving too fast to be sure it was a red.  There is a lovely walk down to the private beach with views over the Solent, where the Queen’s personal bathing machine can still be found, as well as a cafe.  Probably the most surprising thing encountered by visitors to the property is the Swiss Cottage, an authentic wooden chalet where the Queen’s children enjoyed hours of fun and where they were taught about ‘normal’ life activities such as growing and cooking vegetables.

The Italianate exterior

As mentioned before, Osborne House, which is a short distance to the south-east of East Cowes, is run by English Heritage and is open all year round except for Christmas.  Allow plenty of time for your visit as there is lots to see.