Monday, 21 July 2014

HOLLYWOOD COMES TO DARTMOOR: WAR HORSE



This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, a conflict which resulted in the deaths of 9 million combatants.  Of course, warfare was very different in those days, with mounted forces playing an important role.  The early part of the War saw cavalry units being deployed in an offensive and logistical role, although they were soon phased out due to the vulnerability of the animals to heavy artillery and machine gun fire.  In the Steven Spielberg film War Horse, based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, the main character Albert, the son of a couple living on a remote farm, has an exceptionally close relationship with his horse Joey, bought by his father for ploughing, and when the horse is sold to the cavalry he follows Joey into battle.  The early scenes in the film were mainly shot in a number of locations in Dartmoor and in the Wiltshire village Castle Combe. 

The scenes involving the farmhouse where Albert is shown training Joey were shot at a remote house in south-west Dartmoor called Ditsworthy Warren.  The house was built for the keeper of a nearby rabbit warren.   Further early scenes in the film were shot in the areas around the village of Meavy and the well-known beauty spot Sheepstor.  Another 'tor' called Bonehill Rocks, above Widecombe-in-the-Moor provided a further backdrop for filming.  The raw beauty of this windswept part of Devon evidently got to Spielberg, who spoke of the 'stunning scenery' and 'abundance of natural beauty' of the area.    

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Sheepstor. Photo by Gwyn Jones, via Wikimedia Commons
Dartmoor is the upland area which separates the gentle rias and bays of South Devon from the dramatic, windswept cliffs of North Devon.  For those not constrained by time, one of the joys of travelling through the south-west corner of the country is to take a slow meander across Dartmoor, passing through the village of Two Bridges and Princetown (site of the notorious prison).  The 'tors' such as those used in the film are a recurring feature of the landscape here, and a clamber up these elevated rocky outcrops is rewarded with panoramic views, some stretching as far as the coast.  Another major draw for visitors to the area are the cute Dartmoor ponies who are prone to congregating around the car parks at the beauty spots, hoping for freebies from the tourists.  It is actually illegal to feed them, but it is not uncommon for visitors to cave in when confronted with their hopeful faces.  These free-roaming ponies are a particularly hardy breed well suited to this harsh environment, and were once used for mining and quarrying.

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Dartmoor ponies. Photo by lostajy, via Wikimedia Commons

The village scenes, such as that depicting the auction where Joey is bought, were filmed in Castle Combe, an impossibly picturesque village in Wiltshire.  Many of the villagers were used as extras, and the cast and crew took over all the accommodation within a 15-mile radius.  In a bid to give the village an authentic early 20th century look, the tarmac surface of the road running through it was changed to mud.  The filming allegedly caused tensions with the local populace, who were irritated by the tightened security which was in place.  However, it was not a new experience for them: Castle Combe's film star looks has led to it being used in a variety of film and TV productions, such as Lark Rise to Candleford.  

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Castle Combe. Photo by Adrian Pingstone, via Wikimedia Commons



Castle Combe started life as a hill fort occupied by the Romans.  The castle implied by the name no longer exists, but it occupied a site half a mile north west of the Manor House.  The church of St Andrews dates from medieval times and comes complete with the Castle Combe Clock, a rare example of a still functioning medieval clock.  The market cross is from the 14th century.  The honey-coloured cottages, the small river running through it and its position nestling in the southern Cotswolds has earned the village the title of 'prettiest village in England'.  There is a disused RAF airfield which is now used as the Castle Combe Circuit motor racing venue.  

Map of Dartmoor 

Map of Castle Combe

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