Monday, 18 February 2013

Holy places now starring in six-part TV series

BBC Four and S4C have teamed up to produce a visually stunning six-part TV series based on Britain's Holiest Places, my book published in 2011. It will show our extraordinary Christian landscape in a completely new light, a surprising heritage of mixed devotional activity handed down over the past 2,000 years. The first episode goes out during the week starting 9 March.

The series includes contributions from some of the country's best-known church figureheads, including Archbishop Vincent Nichols, talking about shrines, and Dean Jeffrey John, introducing the story of Britain's first martyr St Alban. A rather less newsworthy contribution sees me showing the series presenter Ifor ap Glyn round an ancient sacred pool lost in the Northumberland countryside, and discussing the eye-catching Roman-era baptismal ritual that may have been practised there. Ifor and I are pictured above at Whitby Abbey.

I was signed up to work on the whole series, so we have spent the past few months with the team tearing across the country to film 38 of the most intriguing and appealing holy sites. We were blessed by good weather at several of the most dramatic landscape settings, defying some record-breaking downpours and snowstorms along the way. Combined with much aerial footage, the series should give anyone something to marvel at and think over at the same time.

The BBC series will be called Britain's Holiest Places, no less, and all the main sites feature in my book. It has been divided up into six episodes and I will aim to write here about each one as it comes on screen each week. A Welsh-language version produced by S4C was broadcast from mid January onwards, Llefydd Sanctaidd.

The episodes are mostly shaped around the natural world, explaining how devotion was written across the landscape itself, a powerful and thought-provoking fusion of the worldly and the divine. For example we examine how Britain's many holy islands were a convenient place to build a hermitage or a monastery and yet developed deeper into a metaphor for the journey from this world to the next.

In this vein, the six episodes will look in turn at:

• Ruins
• Islands
• Water rituals
• Caves and crypts
• Trees and mountains
• Shrines

As in my book, most of the sites arise from our long and productive Christian past. But a few are based on even older holy places, such as the mysterious ruined church built at the heart of a huge Iron Age henge at Knowlton in Dorset - a site where both pagan and Christian ritual have been and gone, as we discuss with expert author Philip Carr-Gomm. And we even had access to a peaceful Buddhist community living on an island made holy by a 7th century Christian hermit off the coast of Scotland.

We meet nuns, priests, bishops, deans, authors, critics and artists in our journey to unravel the complex emotions that lie sleeping beneath our feet. So many eye-catching locations... it was a huge joy for me to lead the film crew down overgrown paths or up windswept hills and find that at every single site they found as much to marvel at as I did during my solitary wanderings.

My book began as a labour of love, and I was delighted to see the presenter Ifor develop his own thoughtful and sensitive response to the subject as our work progressed, an amiable companion on a journey of endless revelation.