Movie tour of Britain
Visiting the real life locations where many films were made
Published: Aug 08, 2014 05:03 AM Updated: Aug 09, 2014 09:04 AM

Outside view of Alnwick Castle Photo: CFP

Outside of Highclere Castle Photo: CFP

Interrior of Roslin Chapel Photo: CFP

Tourism has played a more important role in many countries that hope to attract visitors to help promote local economies. Nowadays, besides traditional scenic spots like museums, prestigious universities and celebrity residences, venues that were used as locations in hot movies and TV series have also become a selling point.

During a recent trip to Britain my friends and I decided to join a tour that would take us around some of these famous sites from film and TV.

Our tour started in Edinburgh, Scotland, a city where many classic movies have been shot over the years. In the Leith area, part of the movies Trainspotting and Sunshine on Leith were produced here. On Candlemaker Row, we found a Greyfriars Bobby-themed restaurant near the graveyard where the famous loyal dog Bobby and its owner were buried. Another street, the landmark Royal Mile, is not only famous for churches and stores selling Scottish Whisky and cashmere or woolen products, its streetscapes can be found in films such as One Day and Cloud Atlas. Beneath the Royal Mile, a place called Mary King Close. A supposedly haunted area, this underground alleyway has been featured in numerous British TV shows over the years.

The places tale is a sad one, dating back to the winter of 1644 when the plague spread throughout the close and neighboring communities and about 600 residents infected with the "black death" were trapped by the authorities and left to die. Walking through the area it wasn't hard to imagine the miserable scene that must have occurred as people died from the sickness, and the creepy atmosphere made it very easy to believe that their spirits may still be lingering there to this day. 

The lack of light, smells and setting, together with the explanations by professional guides make the tour a brave person's game.

Edinburgh's Rosslyn Chapel has more right than anyplace else to claim how a book or movie can change things. Before Dan Brown's novel The Da Vince Code was published in 2003, it wouldn't have been wrong to say that the little known chapel had a difficult time finding the money to repair and renovate the venue. But thanks to Brown's bestselling book and the following film, Rosslyn Chapel became well-known worldwide. Nicknamed as the "Code Church," visitors have flooded in, and now the church is a major scenic spot.

After two days in Edinburgh, we went to England.

Alnwick Castle was the first stop on our England journey. As the residency of Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, the castle was the venue for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies. It's not surprising to see young tour group members dressed in magician's robes at the entrance of the castle. There are free daily activities such as broomstick training, battleaxe to broomstick tours and historical grounds tours that introduce the over 900-year history of the castle. Free tours also include cosplay, swordplay, crafts and games, as well as tours of the state rooms and the lost cellars. My friends and I decided to take a class in broomstick riding and we had to admit that it was really hard for a group of 10 people to pose for a photo while pretending to be magicians flying on a broom. Our laughter filled every corner of the training square.

Leaving Scotland also meant a farewell to good weather. We left Alnwick for York City on a rainy evening.

Even in York, Harry Potter still plays an important role. Besides the Shambles area included in the walking tour of the downtown city, another feature in the area is North Yorkshire Moors Railway's Goathland Station. The station was once turned into "Hogsmeade," the little village near Hogwarts, for Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone. My friends and I got on the steam train at the Pickering station with the plan that we would get off at Goathland. Minutes before arriving at the Goathland station, we and dozens of other passengers left our seats and waited at the door to get off. But when the train stopped at the station, no railway staff came to open the door. We tried opening it ourselves but failed. Then, the train took off again!

Later we learned that the door was latched from the outside, and to open it a passenger first needs to open the window on the door and stretch their hand out to unlock it from outside.

Arriving at the next station, Grosmont, we called our driver and had him take us to Goathland, which, luckily enough, was not too far away.

We were well compensated for our misfortune by the fish and chip lunch we ate at the famous Magpie Café in Whitby,  hometown of famed explorer Captain James Cook. The town is also connected to another famous figure: Dracula. Inspired by the Whitby Abbey, Irish writer Bram Stoker incorporated parts of this town when he wrote his famous book in 1897. While in the town, vampire fans can book a one-hour Dracula walking tour to experience the spine-chilling thrill.

 After leaving York, we headed for the Peak district.

Here, the two places that impressed us the most was Chatworth House and Haddon Hall.

Chatsworth is the classical home of the Dukes of Deveonshire and the place where the 2005 film and the 1995 BBC TV series Pride and Prejudice were shot. Careful visitors can find the actual statues that once appeared on screen. All in all, it's a place of bright light and modern art pieces.

Located in the same district, Haddon Hall presented a totally different feeling. As the venue for several film and TV versions of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth, Pride and Prejudice and The Other Boleyn Girl, a strong medieval atmosphere envelopes the area.

The climax of our journey arrived when we paid a visit to Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is shot. As we drove nearer, long queues of vehicles and visitors came into sight even though we were far away from the castle entrance.

Thanks to the arrangement of Visit Britain, we had a chance to meet with the Lady Carnarvon, who manages the affairs at Highclere Castle.

We were told to dress formally for the meeting to show our respect, so my friends and I were quite surprised to see the lady show up in a rosy sweater and white jeans and sandals.

Lady Carnarvon told us that before the debut of Downton Abbey, the staff at the castle used to be able to enjoy some quiet days, but that since 2010, so many visitors from around the world have come all the way to see the "abbey" for themselves, that a half-year reservation in advance has become a must. Lady Carnarvon also explained how reality at the castle differs from the TV show, and that she was thinking of writing a book about the castle's real kitchen culture.

Bampton Town has also become popular due to Downton Abbey. About a 45-minute ride from Highclere Castle, we were shown the church, streets, houses and many others real life locations that appear in the TV series. Locals told us that their lives hadn't be impacted all that much because the production crew only needs to film an outside view of the town, or a street or house and most work is actually done in a studio. For instance, while on the TV show you may see a man open a door to one of these local buildings and walk into a room, but in fact the room he enters may be thousands of miles away.

One other thing worth mentioning during our Downton Abbey-themed visit is the Three Ways House Hotel, where the pudding club at the hotel had all of us Chinese tourists sit down to experience the different types of local food. It's a place I recommend trying if you are travelling on a business trip nearby.

The Cotswolds area is a utopia-like world filled with pastoral scenes. Here we visited Snowshill, Stow-on-the-wold, Bibury and Berkeley Castle. Films Star Dust, Bridget Jones's Diary and Tess of the D'Urbervilles were all shot here. 

When we finally reached London we stayed for two nights. While there we found it pretty difficult to find the bookshop that appeared in Notting Hill because the area was so full of stalls and souvenir shops. On the contrary, it was rather easy for us to spot Baker Street and North Gower Street, both of which appear in Sherlock.

Our journey finally complete we all agreed that a TV and film-themed journey was the perfect way to travel and view the numerous beautiful places that Britain has been waiting for visitors.

Rules of thumb

Getting there
: Virgin Atlantic Airways Flight VS 251 and VS 250

Where to stay: Malmaison Edinburgh, 1 Tower Place, Edinburgh, EH6, 7BZ

Three Ways House Hotel/Pudding Club Mickleton, Chipping Campden Glos, GL55 6SB

Cheval Three Quays, 40 lower Thames St London EC3 6AG