Tuesday, 1 August 2017


During the spread of the Roman Empire large swathes of Europe came under the rule of these powerful conquerors.  Traditionally associated with Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, it is easy to forget that the Empire also spread to more northern regions, from our own Britannia in the west to Eastern Europe and the shores of the Baltic.  Germania was the name given to the part of the Empire mostly inhabited by Germanic peoples, and it extended from the Danube to the Baltic and from the Rhine to the Vistula. 

Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott,  is one of my favourite films, mainly for the superb acting by Russell Crowe as Maximus and by Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus (he was robbed at the Oscars in my opinion), not to mention the late, lamented hellraisers Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, who actually died during filming.  Some amazing computer and filming wizardry brought Reed back to life for the scenes involving him which were yet to be filmed. 

However, the film is also notable for its camerawork, making use of an array of stunning locations.  The stirring opening scene of Gladiator, depicting a battle in the forests of Germania set to the warlike music of Hanz Zimmer, was actually filmed in Surrey, in an area south of Farnham known as Bourne Wood, an area of mainly coniferous woodland.  The woods here have been purposely designated as a filming area, the Forestry Commission allowing them to be used for this purpose for up to 8 months a year, subject to certain restrictions such as the use of helicopters.  Other films making use of the woods include Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and War Horse.  On the small screen the woods featured in the miniseries Band of Brothers, and they were used as jungle for It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.  They also appear in a number of adverts and in the video for Coldplay’s The Scientist.

File:Bourne Wood - geograph.org.uk - 317184.jpg
Photo by Ben Gamble, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 24 July 2017


Summer’s here and it’s time to head for the beach, but in between leaping into the waves and sunning yourself, why not stop to consider all the wonderful film and TV scenes produced over the years featuring the nation’s stunning beaches.  Here is a baker’s dozen of British beaches which have featured on the big and small screen.

Holywell Beach, Cornwall

In the latest series of Poldark Geoffrey Charles, stepson of George Warleggan, is seen visiting a beautiful beach and declaring it the best beach in Cornwall.  In another episode the same beach forms the backdrop for the romantic reunion of Geoffrey Charles’ governess Morwenna and Demelza’s brother Drake.  The beach in question is the one at Holywell Bay, easily recognisable from the two pointy islets just offshore known as Gull Rocks.  This is not the first time the beach has been seen on screen: it appears on the big screen in Summer In February, the 2013 film about an Edwardian artists’ colony in Cornwall, in which Gilbert Evans and Alfred Munnings are seen riding together on horseback and discussing the love interest, the fragrant Florence Carter-Wood.  The bay’s name derives from St Cubert’s Holy Well, which is to be found in Holywell Cave, accessible at low tide.  The cave features in one of the above-mentioned Poldark episodes, when Drake leads Geoffrey Charles and Morwenna to it.

On a much grimmer note, in 2002 the beach was transformed into a North Korean battlefield for the opening scenes of the  James Bond film Die Another Day, although apart from a brief glimpse of Gull Rocks you would never recognise it.  The lifeguard hut was turned into a pill box and barbed wire was arranged all over in order to achieve the desired effect.

File:Dunes at Holywell Bay (6124).jpg
Photo by Nilfanion, via Wikimedia Commons

West Bay, Dorset

The distinctive orange-hued cliffs backing the beach at West Bay will be forever remembered by Broadchurch fans as the place where the Latimers’ son Danny was found dead on the beach, a tragic event which formed the central focus of the first series and continued to weave its way through the two subsequent series.  The beach is repeatedly seen thereafter, often with dramatic waves crashing onto the shore.  The rocks forming the cliffs date from the Early Jurassic age and consist of Bridport Sand Formation and Inferior Oolite.  There are also frequent glimpses of the harbour adjacent to the beach in the series.

Brighton, East Sussex

Brighton Beach has featured in many productions over the years.  Among the most memorable scenes is the one in Quadrophenia in which the central character Jimmy is sitting on the shingle after an eventful night out gazing pensively out to sea, accompanied by the strains of  The Who’s ‘Love, Reign O’er Me’.  Then there is the scene from Mona Lisa, in which Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson are seen larking about in comedy sunglasses on the Palace Pier.  The beach and seafront also appeared in The Boat That Rocked about a 1960s pirate radio station, and of course both the 1947 and 2010 version of  Brighton Rock, based on the Graham Greene novel of the same name, featured the seafront, in particular the pier.  This is just a small selection of appearances by the film makers’ favourite resort.

File:20070813 brighton10.jpg
Photo by Jean Housen, via Wikimedia Commons

Camber  Sands, East Sussex

Camber Sands near Rye is a riot of dunes, a rarity in the south-east.  The makers of the Carry On film Follow That Camel evidently thought the beach resembled the Sahara Desert, only without the attendant heat and lack of infrastructure.  The sands were also seen in a beach scene in The Theory of Everything, about the life of Stephen Hawking.  But most of the appearances by the sands have been in war films.  The 1958 version of Dunkirk used the beach as the backdrop for a recreation of Operation Dynamo, and in the 1962 film The Longest Day it was used to depict the Normandy beaches, a role repeated in the more recent film The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, about an attempt to save art treasures from the Nazis. 

Holkham Beach, Norfolk

This sweeping mass of sand manages to upstage Gwyneth Paltrow in the final scene in Shakespeare in Love.  The actress is seen striding along the beach, meant to be Shakespeare’s Illyria, in a flowing gown while Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare sings her praises in a voiceover.  More recently, the beach became “Area X” in a sci-fi film called Annihilation starring Natalie Portman.  Visitors to the beach will no doubt want to look in on the nearby Palladian masterpiece Holkham Hall, which has also been used a fair bit in filming.

Redcar, North Yorkshire

Like Camber Sands, Redcar’s beach has been used to depict the beach at Dunkirk, this time in the film version of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.  The harrowing wartime scenes filmed at Redcar included local people who were brought in as extras to play the soldiers.  One of the excited inhabitants of the town commented that they wished they could put a price on what the film was worth to the town, quite justifiably, since visitor numbers jumped by some 70% during the filming.

Bamburgh, Northumberland

As well as being a stunning beach, Bamburgh has the added attraction of being overlooked by one of the country’s most impressive castles.  This has inevitably made it irresistible to film makers.  The castle and beach were used for the filming of the 1971 version of Macbeth, directed by Roman Polanski, and during the production of the 2015 version the cast and 200 extras were seen at the castle.  The castle also made an appearance in the 1998 film Elizabeth.  On the small screen, the castle served to depict Belleme Castle in Robin of Sherwood.  Another appearance on the small screen was in an episode of Most Haunted, a ghost hunting series best known for Yvette Fielding screaming her head off  and Derek Acorah speaking in tongues.  The ghosts in the castle reportedly include a stunningly beautiful “pink lady”.

File:Bamburgh MMB 39 Bamburgh Castle.jpg
Photo by mattbuck, via Wikimedia Commons

St Andrews, Fife

The opening scene of the film Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of two athletes who, after years of training, are accepted to compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics, features a race along a beautiful sandy beach with the athletes dressed in their white period racing gear, their feet splashing in the shallows, with the stirring theme tune by Vangelis ringing out.   Towards the end of the scene the skyline of the university and cathedral city of St Andrews comes into the camera shot, revealing that the scene of the race is the city’s West Sands beach, backed by St Andrews Links, this being “the home of golf”.

Camusdarach Beach, Arisaig, Highland

In the heartwarming film Local Hero, which tells the story of a rich American oil company’s efforts to buy a small Scottish coastal village for oil prospecting purposes, much of the action takes place on the east coast, in the village of Pennan.  However, one of the most beautiful locations used in the film was actually on the other side of Scotland at Camusdarach Beach, between Morar and Arisaig.  The beach is the setting of the amusing scene in which the local populace gather in the little church overlooking the beach to hold a meeting about the oil company's bid to exploit the area, while the oil men stand on the beach, oblivious to the line of people filing into the church.

File:Looking North up Camusdarach Beach - geograph.org.uk - 68305.jpg
Photo by David Crocker, via Wikimedia Commons

Blackpool, Lancashire

Blackpool has made repeated appearances in the long-running soap opera Coronation Street.  From the early days in 1961, when Ena, Minnie and Martha took a trip up the Blackpool Tower, to 1985 when Bet Lynch declared that "Everybody's letting their hair down. You can cut smell of shrimps and best bitter with a knife."  Fast forward to 1989 when one of Coronation Street's worst villains, Alan Bradley, met his end at the hands of a Blackpool tram while stalking Rita Fairclough, who had moved to the town to escape from him.  Then there was the recent heart-rending scene involving Roy and Hayley Cropper who went to Blackpool to try to blot out Hayley's terminal cancer.  On the big screen, the resort is the focal point of the British comedy film Bhaji On The Beach about a group of women from the Indian subcontinent enjoying a day trip to see the famous Blackpool Illuminations. 

Freshwater West, Pembrokeshire

The year 2009 was a big one for filming on the spectacular beach at Freshwater West.  In May of that year the beach was taken over by the Harry Potter team, when filming took place for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  The most striking prop was Dobby's Shell Cottage, which is seen in the film with the dunes as a backdrop.  Then, the following month the production crew of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood arrived and put on a dazzling display for any casual onlookers as they filmed the scene depicting a battle against French invaders with Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) leading his men into the fray.  The scene was so massive that it involved 800 actors and 130 horses as well as dozens of the boats that were built for the filming.   

File:Freshwater West - geograph.org.uk - 239022.jpg
Photo by Jeremy Owen, via Wikimedia Commons

Southerndown, Vale of Glamorgan

Many Doctor Who fans will have been touched by the relationship between the David Tennant version of the Doctor and his sidekick Rose Tyler (Billie Piper).  So the tearjerking scene in which the Doctor is about to declare his feelings for Rose when he suddenly dematerialises must have had them reaching for the tissues.  The scene of all this heartache was the beach at Southerndown in South Wales, meant to be Bad Wolf Bay in Norway in the series.  The production team evidently thought highly of the beach in question as a filming location: it was used in several other episodes including Journey's End, which saw Rose being joined by her successor Donna (Catherine Tate). 

Portstewart Strand, County Londonderry

One of the most magnificent beaches in Northern Ireland, and just one of a host of scenic coastal locations seen in Game of Thrones, which has just begun its seventh series, Portstewart Strand was where Jaime Lannister and Bronn were seen duelling with the Dornish guards in series 5.  The filming took place in August 2014, which was unfortunate, this being one of Northern Ireland’s most popular summer holiday spots, because the beach was completely closed for the filming.  The locals didn’t mind, though, considering the closure a small price to pay for the exposure given to Portstewart by its role in Game of Thrones.

File:A westerly view along The Strand, Portstewart - geograph.org.uk - 1312074.jpg
Photo by Des Colhoun, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 27 June 2017


Those who have holidayed on the North Devon coast may be familiar with the small resort bearing the only place name in the country with an exclamation mark: Westward Ho!  For bookworms, meanwhile, the name will call to mind a 19th century novel by the author Charles Kingsley about an expedition to the Spanish Main.  Confusingly, the early part of the novel is set, not in the eponymous resort, but in nearby Bideford, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.   Property developers of the time who were planning to build a resort around the Northam Burrows Hotel and Villa Building Company decided to capitalise on the success of the novel by christening the resulting village Westward Ho!  The “Ho!” part of the name derives from an expression used by water taxis on the Thames, who used to yell “Eastward Ho!” or “Westward Ho!” to indicate where they were going.

File:Bideford from Seven Oaks.jpg
Bideford from Seven Oaks. Photo by Nilfanion, via Wikimedia Commons

The main inspiration for the story was drawn from the exploits of the Elizabethan corsair Amyas Preston, whose name was changed to Amyas Leigh in the novel.  Preston set sail for the New World with such luminaries as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.  Probably his best known exploit occurred in 1595 when he led an expedition alongside naval hero George Somers – known as the Preston Somers Expedition or the Capture of Caracas.  The expedition members made an arduous trek through the mountains of the Spanish-held Province of Venezuela before capturing Caracas from the Spanish forces.  It was this expedition which formed the basis of the Westward Ho! story.

Bideford is described by Kingsley as “the little white town of Bideford, which slopes upwards from its broad tide-river paved with yellow sands”.  Nowadays the white is interspersed with more recent red brick buildings, such as the Town Hall built in 1850 and the Police Station.  Kingsley recalls how the port “furnished seven ships to fight the Armada”.  A reminder of that time exists in Victoria Park, where eight cannons known as the Armada Guns are on display.  The guns were discovered when the quay was being widened in 1890, having been used as mooring posts.  In Chapter XII Kingsley turns his attention to the Bideford bridge, which he describes as “the very omphalos, cynosure, and soul, around which the town, as a body, has organised itself”.  The bridge was begun in 1280 as a wooden structure graced with two chapels and a large cross in the centre.  The bridge was subsequently rebuilt in stone and widened, and now stands at 677 feet long with 24 arches.  In 1968 a part of the bridge collapsed, causing much disruption due to the diversions which had to be put in place.

File:Bideford Old Bridge - geograph.org.uk - 36235.jpg
Bideford Old Bridge. Photo by John Spivey, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the main characters in the novel is Sir Richard Grenville, a local nobleman, who is the godfather of the main character.  He is described as looking Spanish more than English, with “the nose long, aquiline, and delicately pointed”, and with “the mouth fringed with a short silky beard”.  The real life Sir Richard Grenville was born at Buckland Abbey in Devon, but evidently grew up in Bideford.  There are a number of reminders of him around the town, such as a housing development known as Grenville Place and a whitewashed building known as the Grenville Manor House.  There used to be a Grenville College, but it closed in 2009.

Visitors to Bideford who want to find out about the town's history should look in on the Burton Art Gallery and Museum, which has displays on the town's heritage.  Other attractions in the town include the day trips to Lundy Island and the Pannier Market

File:The River Torridge by Victoria Park - geograph.org.uk - 1392930.jpg
River Torridge by Victoria Park. Photo by Steve Daniels, via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 12 June 2017


Normally my pieces about Britain on the small screen centre around locations featured in TV dramas and suchlike.  However, this time I have decided to feature the location of this year’s Springwatch, the eternally popular wildlife spectacular which has the whole nation cheering on fledging blue tits and cooing over playful badgers and fox cubs among other engaging creatures.  More often than not the series comes from an RSPB reserve or similar, but this year’s Springwatch HQ is Sherborne ParkEstate, a swathe of beautiful Cotswolds parkland and farmland adjacent to the former hunting lodge at Lodge Park, all run by the National Trust.

The area covered by the estate includes a variety of habitat for the wildlife.  The woodlands provide a home for birds such as jay, chiffchaff and the obligatory Springwatch blue tits, as well as raptors in the form of buzzard and red kite.  The series also features a kestrel family which has set up home in the church in the nearby idyllic village of Sherborne, and other stars of the show include the magnificent barn owl.  Chris Packham explains that these raptors manage to co-exist due to the fact that they eat different things and employ different hunting methods.  For example, this part of the Cotswolds has a plentiful supply of rabbits for the red kite chicks to gorge on. 

File:Sherborne Church and Sherborne House - geograph.org.uk - 257088.jpg
Sherborne Church and Sherborne House. Photo by Philip Halling, via Wikimedia Commons

The farmland on the estate is a perfect habitat for birds such as skylark and yellowhammer, and hares can also be found there.  The hedgerows provide shelter for a variety of birds including the gorgeous bullfinch, and stoats find the typical Cotswold dry stone walls perfect for their dens, although the mother stoat regulary moves her offspring from place to place as the dens become a bit whiffy from all the prey consumed there.  The diversity of flora on the estate attracts insects including a range of different butterflies.

During the spring, the water meadows of the estate’s tranquil River Windrush are the scene of a mass emergence of mayflies, providing a feeding frenzy for the resident trout.  This incredible event was shown during the first week of this year’s Springwatch.  The river looms large in the series, looking magnificent in the evening sunshine, with gently sloping sheep pastures rising from it.  

File:Sherborne Brook - geograph.org.uk - 258322.jpg
Photo by Philip Halling, via Wikimedia Commons
The estate is located just off the A40 between Cheltenham and Oxford.  Visitors to the area where Springwatch is being filmed can park at Ewe Pens Barn, from where there are a number of walking trails, including one down to the water meadows.  There is another car park at Northfield Barn, but if visiting during the filming of Springwatch you will not have access to that one.  Lodge Park is some distance away on the other side of the A40 and the former hunting lodge can be visited for an entrance fee (free to NT members).
File:Lodge Park.jpg
Photo by John Menard, via Wikimedia Commons