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Bourne Wood: The ancient forest near London that film directors love

Martin Chalakoski

In 1999, director Ridley Scott used part of Alice Holt Forest in Hampshire for the opening sequence of his Oscar-winning movie Gladiator, turning the woodland into Germania circa 180 AD.

Here, after a short tranquil dream scene, Maximus (Russell Crowe), leading the Roman forces, engages in a final brutal battle with the barbarian horde of tribesmen on the enemy’s hostile terrain.

From then on, packed with conifers and semi-natural broadleaf trees, this ancient part of the royal forest formerly known as the Clumps and now called Bourne Wood, just south of Farnham, Surrey, has become one of the most popular filming locations in the world.

Bourne Wood is an area of predominantly coniferous woodland in Alice Holt Forest. The picture show the actual place of the opening sequence of the movie “Gladiator” Photo Credit

Bourne Wood is an area of predominantly coniferous woodland in Alice Holt Forest. The picture show the actual place of the opening sequence of the movie “Gladiator” Photo Credit

Previously, from 1974 until 1981, the woodland on the outskirts of Bourne was only used for jungle scenes in the British sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. The theatrical release of Gladiator and its success and awards brought the spotlight to the woods.

Now, part of Bourne Wood is being used as a filming location for numerous movies, commercials, television programs, and music videos.

This area of the forest has been used for many films, including “Gladiator,” “Robin Hood,” “Children of Men,” “Band of Brothers,” “Harry Potter,” and more. Photo Credit

This area of the forest has been used for many films, including “Gladiator,” “Robin Hood,” “Children of Men,” “Band of Brothers,” “Harry Potter,” and more. Photo Credit

This is partly due to the fact that the London film studios are nearby, but it’s mostly because of the feeling of isolation from the 21st century this forest provides, as well as the excellent access to facilities built on the site. The Scots Pines in this part of the forest are spaced in such a way that they provide room for sufficient ambient light to enter when filming daylight scenes on the field. They also allow enough space for grand shots to be filmed in the midst of them, like the battle scenes in “Gladiator” for instance.

Bourne Wood managed to attract the production companies of dozens of films, including the family adventure starring Nicole Kidman, The Golden Compass, Alfonso Cuarón’s critically acclaimed science fiction flick Children of Men, and the sixth installment of the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, directed by David Yates.

The picture shows the castle built in the Bourne Wood for the filming of “Robin Hood” (2010).

The picture shows the castle built in the Bourne Wood for the filming of “Robin Hood” (2010).

Alice Holt was once mainly an ancient oak forest. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the main reserve of timber for the building of ships for the Royal Navy. Since 1924, the woods have been owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by their executive agency, Forest Enterprise. They did some much-needed restructuring of the whole forest, especially the Bourne Wood, which previously was heathland filled only with low-growing woody vegetation.

They’ve planted many conifers since then but also implemented fire breaks in between, organizing the woodland in such a way that allows productions to bring their equipment and build large filming sets on location without destroying the forest. Ridley Scott returned to use this location in 2009, for the newest remake of Robin Hood, where he collaborated with Russell Crowe once again. He even got permission to build a castle in the middle of the woods, which stands in for Château de Châlus-Chabrol in France. Pictured above is the castle at the end of filming.

Burnt-out gate of the mock castle used during the filming of “Robin Hood” (2010).

Burnt-out gate of the mock castle used during the filming of “Robin Hood” (2010).

The Forestry Commission applied for planning permission, wanting to change the land’s use from “Forestry” to “Forestry and Filming,” and it was been approved. In September 2012 they announced extensive plans which will allow filming in the Bourne Wood for up to eight months per year, claiming this part of the woods is a “nationally strategic film industry resource.” However, Waverley Borough Council’s planning committee granted six months at most, or eight months over two years, so the forest can be taken care of without obstruction.

Burnt trees in the Bourne Wood, Surrey at the location of filming for “Snow White and the Huntsman” in August 2011. Photo Credit

Burnt trees in the Bourne Wood, Surrey at the location of filming for “Snow White and the Huntsman” in August 2011. Photo Credit

The committee also limited night filming to no more than seven days annually. If one requires the use of helicopters during their filming, a production would have to apply for additional permission from the council. The temporary structures built on the site may not exceed 25 meters in height.

Stone tower on the set of “Thor: The Dark World” in Bourne Wood,  September 2012. Photo Credit

Stone tower on the set of “Thor: The Dark World” in Bourne Wood,  September 2012. Photo Credit

Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures in 2012 decided to build a whole set in Bourne Wood for Thor: The Dark World, the sequel to the superhero film Thor. Here, from the ground up, they constructed a village of yurts and stone towers for a fictional realm. The location was later used for a battle between the two kingdoms, with Thor saving the day.

Set of “Thor: The Dark World” in Bourne Wood. Photo Credit

Set of “Thor: The Dark World” in Bourne Wood. Photo Credit

Listed in chronological order, these are the movies that included scenes filmed in the Bourne Wood: It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974–1981), Gladiator (2000), The Man Who Cried (2000), Band of Brothers (2001), Children of Men (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), Inkheart (2008), The Descent Part 2 (2009), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Burke & Hare (2010), Robin Hood (2010), The Wolfman (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), War Horse (2011), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Snow White & the Huntsman (2012), Jack the Giant Slayer  (2013), Thor: The Dark World  (2013), Avengers: Age of Ultron  (2015), Transformers: The Last Knight  (2016)

“Dark Shadows” Film Set, 2011 Photo Credit Dark Shadows  (2012)

“Dark Shadows” Film Set, 2011 Photo Credit Dark Shadows  (2012)

Some nearby residents fear disruption, exposed to noise and smoke from explosions during filming. Tony Patterson, a committee member of the Bourne Residents’ Association, explained that although residents were not against filming in the area, they had strong concerns about long-term use.

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It seems the Waverley Borough Council planning committee’s decision was the right one, as it is a compromise between the Forestry Commission’s plans to make the woodland a strategic filming location, and people’s fears for their forest. It will be revised again next year.