What makes the Cotswolds such a great filming location?
PUBLISHED: 14:09 01 April 2019 | UPDATED: 14:29 06 November 2020
Cider with Rosie to Poldark and Father Brown: the Cotswolds’ exceptional natural and built heritage has provided the perfect backdrop for many films and TV
“Standing on the south-facing lawn you can look out over 24 miles of countryside without any manmade structures – excluding the ramparts of [medieval] Beverston Castle,” says Caroline Lowsley-Williams. As the BBC returned this winter to film the fifth (and reported last) series of its hit remake of Poldark, Winston Graham’s romantic saga set in 18th-century Cornwall, Caroline knows exactly why Chavenage House near Tetbury (real-life home of the Lowsley-Williams) was chosen for the role of Trenwith, the Poldark family pile – and why the Cotswolds generally catches period film and TV makers’ eyes.
“It really is the date of the buildings in the Cotswolds that is critical, because the area was booming with the wool trade, buildings were built well and have lasted. Film makers can use these buildings as a backcloth for any period drama from the date [they were] built. So the palette for Chavenage is anything from 1576 exterior onwards [and] interior 1520 onwards; and hence we have had Wolf Hall ([1530s], Poldark [starting 1783–1787], Lark Rise to Candleford 1890s, Poirot – The Mysterious Affair at Styles set in the 1920s, and we have had our share of contemporary shows, including adverts such as Maserati.
“The Cotswolds has one of the greatest densities of both National Trust properties as well as Historic Houses members.” Needless to add, filming can bring welcome income to support the upkeep of such historic houses, also helping to boost visitor numbers.
Landscapes in the frame
The ‘unspoilt’ Cotswold countryside combined with the vernacular limestone architecture of towns, villages, wool churches and manor houses offer a unique location and first-choice film inspiration. Unsurprisingly, dramatisations of Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie have availed themselves of stomping grounds the author knew when he wrote of his childhood during and just after the First World War including Slad and Stroud, as well as Miserden.
With some 86% of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) classified as agricultural, its farming personality also recommends itself to film and TV, not least thanks to Adam Henson’s presenting skills on Countryfile while his Cotswold Farm Park, renowned for its rare and historic breeds, has supplied animals for David Attenborough films, Emma, Middlemarch, Braveheart and more. The historic farmstead of Cogges Manor Farm, Oxfordshire, doubled as Yew Tree Farm in Downton Abbey, and appears in Arthur & George (about Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) plus Number 9 Films’ Colette, released earlier this year in January.
Quintessential rural England
Cotswold villages are often celebrated as pictures of quintessential rural England with places like Castle Combe and Arlington Row (counting Stardust among their credits) regularly popping up on screen.
The harmony of village and town snug in their landscapes is also a visual shorthand for ‘all’s right in the world’ – exactly the sort of places where writers or film crews like to reveal dark secrets and murder most horrid, whether in Agatha Raisin or Father Brown set in and around the fictional village of Kembleford (with Blockley church and vicarage, Winchcombe, Upper Slaughter, Kemerton and Ilmington among ‘cast’ members).
Meanwhile, subverting the picture-perfect motif, BBC mockumentary This Country, shining a light on the downsides as well as the upsides of rural life, has brought a new fan base to Northleach.
Quarrying in the Cotswolds dates from Roman times and its famous mellow limestone has been put to good use from the Roman Baths of Aquae Sulis (Bath) to the World Heritage City’s sweeping Georgian streetscapes.
So it seems entirely fitting that the Roman Baths (among other locations) hosted the archaeologists of the BBC’s Bonekickers (2008), and that the city provided the Assembly Rooms, Pump Room and similarly elegant venues for the likes of The Duchess (2008), Northanger Abbey (BBC 1987) and Persuasion (BBC 1994, ITV 2006). Jane Austen, resident in Bath 1801–1806, would surely have been delighted that the backdrop to her novels are still so clearly recognisable to this day.
Park, palace and manor
Remarkable for its density of historic parks and designed landscapes combined with great houses, the AONB gives film makers plenty of options – both Dyrham Park and Badminton House were used for country house classic The Remains of the Day, for example. Or you can follow the ‘Lights, Camera, Action!’ trail around Blenheim Palace to discover film locations as diverse as the Saloon and Water Terraces (The Libertine starring Johnny Depp, 2004), The Great Court (The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt,2008 / 007 Spectre with Daniel Craig, 2015), and The Italian Garden (The BFG starring Mark Rylance, 2016).
Chavenage, Dyrham Park, Newark Park, Owlpen Manor and Sudeley Castle all played period roles in the BBC’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008), while Owlpen’s Tudor manor house, medieval Cyder Barn and grounds also became the country bolthole for fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis in his last-ever film) in Phantom Thread (2017).
“Daniel loved the beauty of the valley, and also Arts and Crafts furniture in the house, partly because he once wanted to be a cabinet maker himself,” says Owlpen’s owner Nicholas Mander. A fitting reminder that the real-life features of the AONB are every bit as captivating as any on-screen incarnations.
Poppies that took over when Ian Boyd was trying to establish a wildflower meadow at Whittington Lodge Farm, Cheltenham, were seized on by location scouts for the striking poppy-field scene in Atonement (2007). Ian has since successfully created a permanent wildflower meadow that forms part of his environmentally friendly farming practices.
For further information on the Cotswolds AONB and the Cotswolds Conservation Board, visit cotswoldsaonb.org.uk.