Broadcaster: BBC One
Reviewer: Katie Bridger
Britain’s Lost Routes with Griff Rhys Jones is a four-part series which attempts to retrace the hidden paths taken through history, coined as “the forgotten routes that made this country great” (00:01:18-00:01:33). It aims to discover these lost paths and to understand the people who took them, following a royal Elizabethan progress, a Thames sailing barge, Highland cattle drovers and pilgrim worshippers. The history of travel routes in Britain is possibly a topic less likely to quicken the pulse of the masses. It is the series’ context, however, such as the Elizabethan court, which improves its public appeal. The first episode in the series attempts to trace the route taken by Elizabeth’s royal progress through the west of England in 1574 from Windsor to Bristol, apparently recreating the “fun she had and havoc she wreaked as she went on her way…” (0:02:06-0:02:10). Rhys Jones sets the tone for the programme – light-hearted, yet informative – by drawing a debatable comparison between Elizabeth I and the Rolling Stones:
Yet another documentary on yet another Tudor monarch is a tedious prospect. But here there is an attempt to place it alongside travel and landscape history in a combination that generally works, but occasionally loses its footing. It presents another aspect of Tudor England; one that touched the normal, everyday lives of its inhabitants at all levels of the social scale, with rarely an unfortunate wife or tragic statesman in sight. The programme incorporates a wealth of evidence, including correspondence, court calendars, maps and architecture.
Rhys Jones guides his audience with his usual combination of humour and intellect. As the 2012 equivalent of the progress begins its journey, Rhys Jones is cast as the monarch. His carriage is an interesting choice, a 1964 Rolls Royce Phantom V, which acts as the flashy catalyst for the remainder of the programme. The viewer is reminded that the prospect of turning heads appealed to Elizabeth, reflected in the public’s reaction to Rhys Jones shining, leathery royal carriage. A runway is the backdrop for the baggage train, which is itself composed of members of the public with various court roles. The roles are designated by rather fetching coloured baseball caps, much to amusement of the ‘courtiers’. The gentlemen of the privy chamber and privy councillors, for example, are given black and dark blue baseball caps to wear. Roles assigned, the viewer is treated to quite the spectacle. This segment encapsulates the appeal of the programme; visuals such as this permit the audience to conjure their own impression of the ripples cast by such a display, notwithstanding the problems created by the physical logistics alone:
A number of experts are employed along the route, maintaining the core theme of the programme. A conversation with historical geographer Mark Brasher, for example, points to an innovative method for the reconstruction of the routes taken through the landscape. The problem created by the absence of marked roads in the series of county maps by the Yorkshire surveyor, Christopher Saxton (c.1540-c.1610), is arguably solved by the presence of bridges. The bridges are thus used to map a plausible route taken by the progress, used in conjunction with contemporary court calendars.
The programme sways between the route taken and the places visited by this Elizabethan progress, with a particular emphasis on the latter. The search for lodgings by the courtiers is replicated by Rhys Jones’ own search – in his Rolls Royce, of course – through a market town, looking for vacancies in a number of pubs, to no avail. A trip to a local coaching inn serves to explain the hospitable role of these establishments, discussed over a pint of replicated Elizabethan ale. Alternative forms of transport are considered, too, including horses, which for Rhys Jones are a “challenge with four legs” (00:18:41-00:18:43), and a litter. The sight of Rhys Jones being carried through a farmyard and down the Burford high street in a litter is memorable, to say the least. The implications of a changing landscape are considered, yet regrettably not fully explored, in an interview with landscape historian Dr. Amanda Richardson:
Britain’s Lost Routes is a series with a commendable intention, which goes some way to achieving its goal. This particular episode is peppered with titbits – dramatic rolling landscapes, overgrown paths, interviews with experts – designed to appease its intended reconstruction of one element of the historical landscape. There is a tendency to focus on the physical features built into the landscape, such as Blenheim Palace, Sudeley Castle, and the architecture of medieval Gloucester. Whilst locations such as these lend a sense of place, it is a shame that the programme lacks confidence in casting the possible routes themselves in a leading role. Lessons in Tudor table manners, hawking and dancing practice seem only to serve the purpose of filling a few minutes, or perhaps to demonstrate Rhys Jones’ lack of skill in falconry. It has already been said that the programme is light-hearted in its approach; it does not pretend to be otherwise. It is fine as charming, comfortable evening viewing, but slightly more focus on its acclaimed hidden routes and slightly less input from tourist information would have been welcome.
Katie Bridger is a PhD student in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. Her thesis is entitled ‘Expression and the landscape: the Leicestershire gentry, c.1460-c.1540’. It considers the implications of economic, political and religious change on the relationship between the gentry and their shire landscape as a reflection of their contemporary identity.