After finally navigating my way out of Bletchley, former home to the secret team of cryptologists who cracked the Nazis' "unbreakable" Enigma code, there was no mystery as to where my "travels by telly show" holiday would take me next - Yorkshire, place of my birth and, more importantly home to the retired gentlemen that feature in the comedy series Last of the Summer Wine.
The journey "up north" was surprisingly short; just a couple of hours, but it could have been half a world away. The differences between southern and northern England are immense. Southerners, for instance, tend to be more discerning before tagging complete strangers with the term "love" or "luv", to use the proper Yorkshire vernacular.
Pomfret cakes (liquorice lozenges), parkin (ginger cake with oatmeal and treacle) and pikelets (small, sweet pancakes) are also unique to Yorkshire, and while Yorkshire pudding is enjoyed as a Sunday dinner accompaniment all over England, only in Yorkshire is it served plate sized as a starter filled with gravy. Chip butties (a French fry sandwich), mushy peas (thick, green, lumpy and soup-like), black pudding (congealed pig's blood) and bread and dripping (solidified fat from the roasting pan) are popular in the North as well - which probably accounts for the differing mortality rates.
Bread and dripping.
"People living in the north of England have a greater risk of dying early than those in the south", so stated a table released by the government earlier this year. But according to another survey, 9 out of 10 of the unhappiest places to live are in the south. So take your pick.
Apart from their unrestricted diet of lard sandwiches, another reason for Northerners' supposed cheeriness could be all the poppies - the fields are strewn with them. Something I assume having to do with the British government permitting the cultivation of opium poppies back in 2006 to ease the National Health Service's Diamorphine shortage.
A field of poppies.
Almost as addictive as the heroin produced by the cultivation of poppies is a British telly series that aired for 35 years in the U.K. and is still being shown on PBS stations all over America. Last of the Summer Wine is the world's longest running comedy series, following the misadventures of three elderly gentlemen tramping around the Yorkshire town of Holmfirth and the surrounding countryside.
The Yorkshire Dales.
Sitting in the heart of the breathtaking Holme Valley, Holmfirth was once home to film pioneers, Bamforth & Co Ltd., and during the early 1900s West Yorkshire's output of films surpassed that of Hollywood. Holmfirth was the British Hollywood of silent films. In 1915, the film production side of the company changed its name to "Holmfirth Producing Company" and moved to London, while Bamforth & Co started making illustrated "saucy" seaside postcards. Some of the naughtiest postcards I've ever seen were on display in shop windows throughout the town. They'd have produced quite a chuckle from LOTSW's Compo as he walked through the streets of Holmfirth in his wellies and trousers held up by string.
The late Bill Owen, who played Compo, lived for a while in Holmfirth and was a big part of the community. He was also heavily involved in the creation and design of the Summer Wine Exhibition, where for the price of an admissions ticket you can find yourself in "Compo's house". Thousands of tourists flock there every year. Which is probably why it took me forever to cross the road, even longer to find a pub that had a spare table at which I could eat. And when did "burgers" become typical pub faire? Or are Holmfirth's eating establishments purposely catering to the tastes of American tourists? My stay in Holmfirth, therefore, was a short one, as I ventured further north to Downton country.
Downton Abbey it turns out is as fictional as the non-existent traffic on the streets of Holmfirth. Highclere Castle in Hampshire was used for exterior shots of Downton Abbey and most of the interior filming was done at Ealing Studios in London. Filming of the outdoor scenes took place in the village of Bampton in Oxfordshire. The Yorkshire towns of Ripley and Thirsk - which stood in for the fictional Darrowby in All Creatures Great and Small - are often mentioned in the series. Downton is supposedly between the two. Heading east from that point, within less than an hour you'll find yourself at Castle Howard, the "Brideshead" of Brideshead Revisited. It's actually not really a castle but a very large country residence, most of which was built in the early 1700s.
A more recent telly show also filmed in Yorkshire was the detective series A Touch of Frost, which is meant to take place not too far from London, but is actually filmed in and around Wakefield and other Yorkshire cities. I love a good detective. That being said I headed for Northumberland. The mother lode.
Inspector Gently and Vera, two of my favorite series, are both set in Northumberland. Even better, they are actually filmed there. It has more castles than any other county. So many, in fact, that staying in one for the night while travelling is like stopping off at a Holiday Inn. Well, maybe not quite.
View from Durham Castle
top floor dorm room.
Durham Castle is primarily used as accommodation for students at Durham University, but they make a few bob on the side by renting out a limited number of dorm rooms to the general public. How could I resist? After all, it was just one night and surprisingly enough the cost was about the same as you'd pay for an overnight stay in any major US City. The room, which was on the top floor and yet whose windows somehow opened up onto a grassy bank, was clean and functional. It was also located up several flights of concrete stairs. Note to self: next time I stay in a Castle, remember to pack light. Two weeks' worth of clothing packed into one suitcase along with assorted hand luggage items does not transport very easily up a narrow staircase of 100 steps.
Breakfast in the Great Hall,
Breakfast was in the "Great Hall" - any minute I expected to see Maggie Smith enter the room as Professor Mcgonagall to "sort" me into my team. And talking of Harry Potter...opposite the Castle is Durham Cathedral, which was used in the making of the first two films. The Coronation scene in the film Elizabeth was also filmed there and so too was a pivotal scene in Inspector Gently, which films in and around the City of Durham.
View of the quad at Durham Cathedral
used in the making of Harry Potter.
Durham Cathedral was also the venue for former Prime Minister Tony Blair's first public appearance - as a choirboy. He attended the Durham Chorister School from 1964-66. Comedian Rowan Atkinson also boarded there from age 9-11 then went to the day school until he was 13. Atkinson's comedy series Blackadder was filmed not in Durham Castle, but about 50 miles north at Alnwick Castle, the outside of which is recognizable the world over as Hogwarts.
Between Durham and Alnwick on the east coast is Whitely Bay, one of the many coastal locations used in Vera. The 100 miles of Northumberland coastline is spectacular. Its clean, sandy beaches, rugged cliffs, ancient castles and islands (some of which, such as Lindesfarne, you can reach on foot when the tide is out) made me wonder why Northumberland is the most sparsely populated county in northern England? It has only 62 people per square kilometer. It's a wonder there's still people left to bump off if the number of murders in Gently and Vera are anything to go by.
A cottage in Oxfordshire - the
fictional murder capital of England.
No area though can have had as many murders over the years as Oxfordshire. The body count in Midsomer Murders, Morse and Inspector Lewis is staggering. So is the scenery. Rich meadows, wooded valleys, pasture-covered hillsides and a network of brooks, streams and rivers, in the midst of which lay picturesque villages with their quaint thatched cottages and medieval taverns.
Allowing my favorite telly shows to guide me throughout England resulted in one of my best ever holidays. A highly recommended way to plan a trip. I saw a lot of places I'd never been to before, and yet they all felt comfortingly familiar. So, if you too intend to pop over the Pond and aren't sure where to go, don't fret. Just sit back, relax, enjoy the shows and start planning.