“When filming a story set somewhere between the eighth century and 11th century, you have to find somewhere that doesn’t have the intervening 1200 years of civilisation making its mark on the landscape,” explains series producer Stephen Smallwood.
“That’s very, very difficult to find in Britain so you have to go to a very remote place. You have to go a long way to get away from towns, cities, villages, hedges, walls, farms, sheep and cows.”
Cows and sheep weren’t the only obstacles. Our current appetite for Dark Ages drama meant there were also Vikings and Saxons in the way.
“We considered Ireland but Vikings is shooting in all the locations we would have used,” says Smallwood. “We didn’t go to Northern Ireland because Game of Thrones is there. We considered Hungary where The Last Kingdom is shot and Romania…
“But in the end we came back to the place where the original poem was written down by what is conceived to have been probably a monk in the North East of England. Although it’s supposed to be Denmark, he described what he knew so it felt like the North.”
Below, Smallwood tells us where you can find those moorlands, valleys and rugged beaches…
Heorot is located up on the moors in Upper Weardale in the Pennines “in a very exposed, uncomfortable and draughty spot,” says Smallwood. “We built a big mead hall where the rich people live, and a smelting area where the poor people smelt iron.”
Filming began last March and lasted eight months. “An incredibly hardy band of construction workers worked all through the winter, through rain and snow. We were shooting in very harsh conditions, which the actors in particular found very tricky.”
The extras – who were all locals – didn’t seem to mind the inclement weather. “I asked a lady of a certain age whether she was enjoying it and she said it was great being there 12 hours a day in the freezing cold!”
“We shot a sequence in which some raiders – effectively Viking raiders – invade England at Seaham beach. Seaham is an old industrial area once famous for its coal mines.
“You can point one way and see a very charismatic and abandoned-looking beach. If you point the other way you’re looking straight at an industrial business park. It was quite odd putting a load of Vikings into an industrial park, but as long as you keep the camera pointing the right way you never know!”
The cast and crew also decamped to the small market town Middleton-in-Teesdale, on the north side of Teesdale, to film on the nearby moorlands, in the forests and by the river.
You won’t glimpse Bamburgh’s handsome Norman castle – “We had to remove it from a couple of shots because it’s much too modern for us” – but its dramatic coastline does have a cameo. Mariners used to dread the treacherous offshore reefs but these days it’s very popular with adventurous surfers.
Bamburgh Castle at sunrise
Druridge Bay is a seven-mile stretch of dune-fringed beach. Its country park boasts meadows, woods, a large lake, birdwatchers aplenty – and recently housed a Dark Ages village in the sand dunes.
Keep an eagle-eye out for this Unesco world heritage site, which was built by the Romans and inspired George RR Martin’s Wall in Game of Thrones. “The keen-eyed would see it but I defy you to notice it on a casual viewing,” says Smallwood.
The Upper Derwent Valley in the Peak District also had a cameo. It’s a picture-perfect combination of moors, woodland and lakes that weren’t around in the Dark Ages. That’s because they’re actually reservoirs, built to supply the cities of Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield and Leicester. When the water level drops, you can still see the remains of Derwent village, which was deliberately “drowned” in the 1940s.
“We built a village next to Derwent Reservoir, which represented an inlet from the sea. We constructed it on the edge of the water but the water kept dropping because it had been quite dry, so it ended up looking like a very low tide.”
Beowulf is on Sundays on ITV at 7pm
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