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Dan Snow's Norman Walks: In search of hidden history

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Owen Rodd Owen Rodd | 15:23 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010

I guess I should consider myself very lucky. I get paid to do what most folk have to do as a hobby. But after six series of walks with Julia Bradbury, Dan Snow's Norman Walks has thrown up a fresh new set of challenges - and, it has to be said, a whole new level of walking fascination.

Dan Snow stands in front of multicoloured beach huts on Hastings seafront

Since the age of five when I first visited the Lake District, I've been obsessed by the great outdoors. I wouldn't say I pursued a career in walking shows - that was just a lucky break. But having got here, I have to say, the view is rather good.

I've known Dan for a few years now. We're the same age, come from the same part of the country, played rugby against each other at school (Dan was far too tall even then) and, most weirdly, both had fathers who presented Tomorrow's World.

In between several conversations entitled 'where on earth did our twenties go?' we've discussed the odd programme idea, but little did we think that the niche sport of Norman walking would be the one to take off.

As series producer I got to scour the country, in this case with Alice Robinson, the assistant producer. From the Sussex coast to Pembrokeshire, and from East Anglia to the Scottish borders, we went in search of three great walks that could shed light on what our Norman predecessors were up to 900 odd years ago.

Three historical facts proved incredibly fortuitous:

1 - With the Normans hailing from northern France, they were obliged to invade a coastline. (Always good for walking.)

2 - The Normans built a great many castles in the wildest and most rugged parts of the country. (Ditto.)

3 - The Normans established a great many monasteries in the quietest and most remote parts of the country. (Bingo.)

Dan Snow stands outside Pevensey Castle in Sussex

And so Alice and I were drawn to Hastings, the castles of the Welsh borders and the abbeys of North Yorkshire.

Here we studied Ordnance Survey maps, sprinted along as many footpaths as possible and spoke to as many local experts as we could find. Then, we went away, scratched our heads for a bit, and returned to lead Dan and the film crew through a bespoke 'Norman Walk'.

For once, on these walking shows, the weather was almost always lovely. Paul, the sound recordist was giving praise to the Icelandic volcano for removing the aircraft that normally blight outdoor filming in Britain.

And Dan was fantastic, bringing the vast history knowledge that we all knew about, but also a childlike enthusiasm that grew with every passing motte and bailey. I truly hope some of these qualities come across in the final show.

But they're a frustrating bunch those Normans! Far too often they carelessly left their Abbeys to be dissolved, their battlefields to be built on and their castles to be 'redeveloped' by every passing Plantagenet, Tudor or Roundhead.

Dan Snow outside the ruins of Skenfrith castle in Gwent, Wales

I will long remember the expert (who shall remain nameless) who told Alice that we were "wasting our time. The Normans are archeologically invisible," he concluded.

Well, in places, he had a point. But I believe this merely made the investigative nature of Dan's walks all the more interesting. How much evidence could we find? And how much can we really be certain of?

With the addition of the aerial filming that always forms part of our walking shows, I've come to believe that walking could be an ideal companion to TV history. It will be interesting to see whether the viewers agree.

The show has allowed us to take the Normans, quite literally, at a walking pace, pay some close attention, and see what the landscape can reveal.

The whole Norman walking process was, I have to say, an absolute blast, and I hope the BBC let Dan and I loose on another period of history very soon.

Owen Rodd is series producer of Dan Snow's Norman Walks.

Dan Snow's Norman Walks starts at 10pm on Wednesday, 4 August on BBC Four and is part of the Norman Season.

To find out times of all future episodes please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    British historians are scarily introverted in their analysis of history - primarily their focus on a 'one way street' history; that is, history as it affects the current geographical boundaries of the UK. For example, has anyone thought to do a programme on the influence of Welsh missionaries on the development of Breton culture? No, why? Because in British History everything boils down to battles and Kings. That is why British history is in such a poor state today, nothing is contextualised, and everything is focused through a prism of the modern nation state as if this is the ultimate end game.

  • Comment number 2.

    Dan, as with many before, you badly underplayed the vital role of Pevensey in the King William story. Because he had to cross a very stormy channel with around 800 ships Pevensey was William's only sensible option. In 1066 the haven provided safe anchorage right across what is now Pevensey levels, all the way to the foot of the Weald at Hailsham and Herstmonceux. There was no other big enough safe haven from the Medway to Poole. There was also a highly defendable Roman stone fort, which he and his men stayed in for their first night on English soil after plundering and ravaging Pevensey for fresh supplies. From her his men marched west and then north and east, following the Weald ridge and laying waste and ravaging Hailsham, Hurstmonceux, Ninfield and Catsfield on his way to Senlac. So fond was he of Pevensey that barely six months later he returned to the port with many of his knights and taking King Edgar, Archbishop Stigand and several other hostages to sail home to Normandy on ships with triumphant white sails to celebrate his victory. Without Pevensey there would have been no invasion. Battle would not exist and Hastings would be just another Cinque Port. And William's first castle on this shore was Pevensey keep, not Hastings.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    I remember when I was last in Pevensey...

    Yep, good times.

  • Comment number 5.

    From Prog 2 synopsis:

    '..few areas were as unstable as the Welsh borders. Challenging topography and a multitude of local chieftains made for an uncivilized region..'

    Uncivilised region?

    Lazy interpretation more like..

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm a little surprised that the real "gem" of Norman Architecture - Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire has been seemingly ignored! This building is an absolute joy and demonstrates the masonry skills brought to England by William 1st. It was built on the site of a Roman villa and is well worth a visit. I would also suggest the motte and bailey castle at Laxton nearby is combined with this trip.

    I would also add that having watched last night's episode on the Domesday Book I think that the references to slaves (not peasants) deserved a mention. Both Anglo Saxons and Normans had real slaves. Not everyone in Saxon England was a land owning freeman before William arrived.

  • Comment number 7.

    I was disappointed to hear Dan Snow (Norman Walks 23 Aug) join the professional historians of the last century giving credence to the idea that Ewyas Harold in Herefordshire could have been England's first castle. If he had read my book, England's First Castle, he would have known that this idea originated way back in the nineteenth century, during a spat between a couple of not always reliable historians, and that there is not a scrap of evidence for it - in fact there is clear evidence that Ewyas Harold, though a pre-Conquest castle, could not have been the first castle in England, and there is considerable evidence that that was elsewhere in Herefordshire.
    Come on Dan, don't follow the ill-informed herd - look at the evidence!

  • Comment number 8.

    What happened to Furness Abbey? The recent episode listed abbeys around England showing grand aerial views of each; yet the mention of Furness Abbey was accompanied not by this beautiful ruin but a quick shot of what at first could have been the area. On closer inspection, I am not even sure this was the Furness peninsula! Our lovely landscape is so often overlooked by our stunning neighbour - the Lake District...please don't ignore our Abbey too!

 

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