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.


  1. I have just watched the first two episodes of your TV series on iPlayer download. You are to be hugely congratulated on this marvellous and enthralling piece of work. Many of the sites you visited are unknown to me, and I suspect to most people. They may be out of the way and modest, on occasion, but that does not detract from their deeply spiritual nature and often ancient roots. Ifor does such a splendid and sincere job as the presenter that I presumed he must have written the source book, and I had to do a double take during the credits at the end when one of the "talking heads" was revealed as the true author.

  2. Thanks David, very glad you enjoyed the first two episodes. In fact the remaining four are even more spiritual and unexpected than the first, since we wanted to break the audience in gently to our theme!

    Ifor is a wonderful presenter, he grasped the subject matter intuitively rather than intellectually and so it was quite a revelation for him personally I think. The shrines episode (number four) demonstrates that in a moving way.

    The viewing figures were really excellent, around double the usual BBC Four audiences, so it seems we struck the right note. I hope it shows that religious life can be a bit more colourful and multi-dimensional than the current media debates reveal...

  3. Yes, a wonderful series. Hopefully, it will be repeated. Indeed, it must be. I hope we can be told as soon as possible, to publicize it further - despite my best encouragement, not all my parishioners watched it. Ifor was certainly a fine and empathetic presenter, but it was clear at times that he did not really know as much as he might have. I wonder why Nick didn't do it - I am sure his knowledge would have come across. But that's a quibble, it was brilliant.

  4. I think BBC Four tend to repeat their original commissions quite often - so I'll be sure to publicise when it comes round again. It's been a popular series so who knows what might grow out of this: it's 'religion' but a very different take to the usual portrayal in the media and on TV. Thankfully people are interested!

    The series was a joint commission with S4C, the Welsh-language channel, as it was recorded in two languages for separate broadcasts. So Ifor was very much the bi-lingual expert and I have to say he was wonderfully receptive and intuitive in getting to grips with holy places in an authentic rather than a merely academic way. A second series would reveal much more, so here's hoping...