His Dark Materials

From Gyptian flotillas to a ships’ graveyard: discover the real locations behind the BBC’s brilliant adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy.

Illustration of waterside locations His Dark Materials was filmed at.

Illustration by Jerry Hoare

Words by Duncan Haskell

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There’s something powerfully evocative about our waterways, so it’s little wonder that many of the Canal & River Trust’s characterful locations are in permanent demand by film and television companies.

It’s the role of Cassie Clarke, the Trust’s Filming & Campaigns Executive, to take care of requests – which can number upwards of 20 per month – undertake risk assessments and look after the legal side of things. Recent projects include the filming of Paddington 2 and the James Bond and Mission Impossible franchises, as well as small screen adventures like Killing Eve. Throw in documentaries and fashion shoots, and you can see just how popular our canals and rivers are.

Another large part of Cassie’s role is to help find the precise locations for the shoots, using her knowledge of the network. “People might say, ‘I’m looking for a bridge that’s pre-1970s within the M25,’” says Cassie. “I will then go through our photographs, or onto Street View, and see if I can find the right thing. People go for quite obvious places that are busy, like Camden, and so we can suggest an alternative that would work better for the big film crews – as quite often you’ll have a clash with busy areas on the towpath.”

One recent production that made the most of the Trust’s unique settings was the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The show follows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua in a parallel universe not too dissimilar from our own, albeit one in which humans are always accompanied by their daemons (the physical manifestation of the inner-self in animal form).

Due to her friendship with the river-dwelling Gyptians, Lyra’s journey often takes a watery turn; leading her through canals near Oxford, fenlands, and the seas surrounding the Arctic tundras of Svalbard and Bolvangar. It therefore makes perfect sense that the production company, Bad Wolf, would turn to Cassie to help find the right filming locations, something she was especially happy about.

“I’m a really big fan,” Cassie says. “It’s quite unusual to find a series of books that features canals, especially one set in a different universe.” She was even able to put her own knowledge to good use. “None of the location managers had read the books, so I was giving them my insider info.”

With Bad Wolf based in Cardiff, a nearby location was needed and Cassie had just the place in mind. “Sharpness has a couple of different docks, a marina and the lock. A lot of the people who work in Sharpness live locally, so it’s got a real community vibe about it. It was perfect because they brought big boats from Bristol down the River Severn to Sharpness and were able to moor them there because there’s a lot of space and it’s a wide, deep river.”

The added proximity of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, including Purton Hulks, a ships’ graveyard of scuppered boats beside the River Severn, made it an ideal centre for them. But that’s not to say that you’ll see Sharpness on the screen. The magic of CGI meant that the docks could be made to look like London, or even a wetland environment. “There’s also a bit on a lightship,” Cassie says. “It was pulled out into the middle of the dock and then they used a drone to 3D scan it and then took it into their CGI world and created scenes where that ship was going across the ocean. Really it was just static in the docks, it didn’t even have an engine!”

The effect of combining these modern filming techniques with the already mesmerising landscapes played a large part in making the show such a success, captivating an audience of millions along the way. The good news is that we still have a further two seasons to look forward to, which will hopefully feature even more of our rivers and canals. Not that Cassie is counting her chickens. “Just the fact that I got to work on His Dark Materials is quite a big deal for me,” she says, content to have played her part in putting together such a magical version of Pullman’s stories.

Visit the locations
So you’ve seen the show and know a little more about how it was made, now’s your chance to walk in Lyra’s footsteps…

Sharpness Docks

A central location for the production crew, Sharpness Docks stood in for ‘London Docks’ on the show and can be seen in episode three when Lyra escapes London in a skiff. One of the UK’s most inland ports, Sharpness has a working dock and acts as the gateway to the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal.

Purton, Sharpness & Gloucester Canal

Used as the moorings in Oxford where the Gyptian’s live (episodes one and three), you can see their boats moored along the towpath with grassy verges. On the banks of the River Severn, the village of Purton is an ideal place from which to head out to see the archaeological site known as Purton Hulks.

Purton Hulks Ships’ Graveyard

The site of an argument between Lyra and her Gyptian foster mother Ma Costa in episode three. A visit to Purton Hulks Ships’ Graveyard is a must for anyone visiting the area. Deliberately breached into the banks of the Severn to form a barrier against erosion, these abandoned boat remains cast a striking and spooky image.

Saul Junction and Frampton on Severn

These locations were used for the boat flotilla scenes when the Gyptian barges travel from Oxford to the Fens in episode three. Saul Junction is the meeting point of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal and the Stroudwater Canal. There are many idyllic walks along the waterway here, as well as a marina and a visitor centre nearby.

Posted on 28/02/2020