diamond geezer

 Monday, June 22, 2015

Beyond London (8): Spelthorne (part 2)

Somewhere famous: Shepperton Studios
One of the UK's most famous film studios is in Spelthorne, although not actually in Shepperton, and should probably have been named Littelton Studios instead. Poor Littleton. 100 years ago the village was described as one of the least spoilt in Middlesex ("It is built almost entirely of red brick, and presents a cheerful and peaceful aspect as it clusters about the church"). But then it caught the eye of the newly-formed Metropolitan Water Board who selected the area as their site of their first water storage facility. Construction of the Littleton Reservoir took over ten years, delayed by the discovery of weak sand under the western dam which forced the realignment of the perimeter and the loss of most of the village. St Mary's Church survived, as did the manor house, but the majority of residents had to be rehoused along a New Road to the south. From 1925 until the 1950s it was largest reservoir in the the world, surrounded by an embankment four miles long and 40 feet high, holding up to 30 billion litres siphoned off from the Thames. And on the day of opening the King renamed it the Queen Mary Reservoir, as a further local snub. Poor Littleton.

The manor house and its estate now lay in the shadow of the embankment. In 1931 it was purchased by Scottish businessman Norman Loudon for use by his new film company, Sound Film Producing & Recording Studios. The Second World War disrupted production, the government requisitioning the site to build dummy aircraft, after which Sir Alexander Korda's British Lion Films took over. In 1949 The Third Man was filmed here, while Sixties' Shepperton classics include Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Oliver! Littleton House remained at the centre of the site, and was used for filming of The Omen, while gradually the surrounding parkland was taken over by sheds, workshops and sound stages. Star Wars, Superman and Alien were all Shepperton-based, while other ridiculously successful productions churned out here include Gandhi, Gladiator, Channel 4's The Crystal Maze and (much more recently) Avengers: Age of Ultron. The studios are now part of Pinewood's media empire and house 15 stages of varying enormity, as well as preview theatres and everything the aspiring Hollywood producer requires.

Don't think you're getting inside. A narrow lane to the backlots off Laleham Road is watched over by a small white hut, any chance of viewing filming activity dashed by a run of woodland along the River Ash. Meanwhile the main entrance lies just past the church up the appropriately named Studios Road. Well-watered hanging baskets dangle from the lampposts on the approach, while thick leylandii hedges protect the production area from prying eyes. A fairly steady stream of vehicles use this back road, some continuing to the remote housing estate squeezed in down the far end past Stages S, R and H. Others wait at the gate house to pass security, the long list of regulations posted by the barrier including the banning of all onsite photography on pain of confiscation. The main thoroughfare beyond is David Lean Drive, leading to Peter Sellers Way and Orson Welles Road. And tucked up beside the reservoir is a 16 acre lot on which heaven knows what might be filmed, although I assume they remove the grazing sheep before the cameras roll.
by train: Shepperton

Somewhere pretty: Sunbury Millennium Embroidery
Sunbury is a lovely place. That's Lower Sunbury, to be clear, not the hideous agglomeration of office boxes at the start of the M3 in Sunbury Cross. Instead Sunbury-on-Thames nestles close to the river along part-public part-private frontage, with Thames Street a particularly charming (and narrow) street. Just the kind of community, then, who'd seek to commemorate themselves at the millennium via a highly ambitious project. Five years early a small group of residents made plans for an embroidery to capture 'Sunbury on Thames in the year 2000', the end result to be displayed in St Mary's church. A design was drawn up, and 140 volunteers came forward to sew their appointed section of the whole. The central panel features dozens of the the village's buildings and some of the wildlife to be found by the waterside, while eight adjacent panels depict Sunbury's history, community and long-standing tradition. The completed project was 25 feet long, and even the Queen made a special visit to see it. It was at this point that the organisers realised they had something special and nowhere to put it, so they borrowed a corner of the local park and commissioned a permanent gallery to be built.

The Sunbury Embroidery Gallery opened in The Walled Garden (off Thames Street) in 2006. The timber building's not enormous but it is beautifully formed with elliptical curves, and one long wall along which the whole of the embroidery can be displayed. A guide is available to point out the more interesting features, and smaller temporary smaller exhibitions are hosted in what little space remains. There's a cafe, of course, because the entire gallery project was designed to be sustainable, and I'll vouch for the cup of tea and cake being more than half decent. The outdoor tables have a good view of the Walled Garden, which is also expertly maintained, should you be seeking a particularly genteel afternoon out. The gallery and cafe are fully accessible throughout, and the whole place is totally visitable by Oyster aboard the 216 bus. It's more a ladies' destination than a Father's Day favourite, I'd say, but how excellent that this celebration of community will survive long after its creators have passed on. [4 photos]
by train: Sunbury  by bus: 216, 235

Somewhere weired: Penton Hook Island
Until 200 years ago the River Thames cut an awkward channel between Staines and Chertsey. At Penton Hook it followed a teardrop-shaped loop around a wooded peninsula, forcing a circuitous (and somewhat turbulent) detour almost a mile long. The neck of the peninsula was barely fifty yards across and often flooded, but was only made navigable in 1815 when an artificial channel was cut through and Penton Hook Lock was opened. From one tongue of land three islands have been created, the first for the lock itself where a modern lock-keeper will come and press buttons to power the gates and help your craft pass through. Two further cuts have been made by broad weirs over which the Thames now rushes, each crossed by a narrow footbridge. These lead to the main island, now a nature reserve, one complete circuit of which by footpath takes a good ten minutes. Nobody lives on the island, although on my circumnavigation certain anglers looked like they'd been settled in for some time. Whilst a couple of additional paths cut inland, the strangest sight on the island is a river flowing through the middle, this a relatively recently-added "fish spawning and bypass channel". Overlooked only by the riverside houses of a favoured few, this outpost of Spelthorne is a marvellously remote place, interlinked with neighbouring Runnymede like the lug of a jigsaw piece.

the crash location, beneath the bridge, east of St John's

Somewhere sporting: Kempton Park racecourse
And there's this too, although there is a limit to how much of a Surrey district you can visit in one day when the trains are disrupted, so I gave the racecourse a miss. And anyway it had been hijacked for the day by the Race For Life, a collective jog for charity, which meant the car park was heaving with runners in unpleasantly bright pink. I bet no ladies wear a pink ballerina's tutu to the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, not just for reasons of high fashion but because it'd be flipping cold.
by train: Kempton Park  by bus: 290

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