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Driving the A303: Highway To The Sun

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Tom Fort Tom Fort | 14:16 UK time, Thursday, 19 May 2011

"Why a road?" people asked when I told them I was presenting this documentary, then, "Why the A303?"

Actually it took a while for the questions to occur to me. About 20 years in fact, which is how long I've been driving the road on a regular basis.

Like most others I drove it and didn't think about it. It goes from just west of Basingstoke to just east of Honiton in Devon - 92 miles, give or take a few yards.

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On the way it goes over three of my favourite rivers for fishing - the Test, the Avon, and the Wylye.

From my point of view, that was what the A303 was for - to get me to the riverbank.

Between the Avon and the Wylye it went past Stonehenge. Like everyone else, I wondered about Stonehenge.

Then I started wondering about other aspects of the landscape that flashed past the window.

Like Andover and the big slab of forest before it. Like Amesbury and the weird metal bloke on his knees by the turn-off. Like the burial mounds.

The shape of a story formed. A book, I thought. Then someone came along and said, "What about a film?"

So a film it became first - A303: Highway To The Sun. The book is having to wait.

I spent 20 years with BBC radio news, never having anything to do with TV. I was a words man, didn't understand pictures. Still don't, really.

The experience was gruelling, far more so than I'd expected.

For one thing, filming was in February and it was marrow-freezingly cold. For another, I had to drive a 1968 Morris Traveller.

The Morris is the real star of the show. It took me right back, because it was the first car I ever drove on a regular basis.

Tom Fort standing by the 1968 Morris Traveller on a bridge above the A303.

It's happiest at 50 miles per hour or under, which can be awkward on a dual carriageway, and the wing mirrors are at the far end of the bonnet, which means that the only way you can see anything in them is to stop and get out.

All in all, talking to a camera and driving wasn't the easiest thing.

Rather fun, though. As was singing in a pub with a pair of ram's horns on my head. And talking road-kill with the country's leading expert on the subject (if you ask me nicely I'll give you the recipe for fox casserole).

And I learned a lot, both about the mysterious world of television, and about the road. My road, as I've come to think of it.

Not my film, though. That belongs to John Holdsworth, who directed it. A man of heroic - almost inhuman - patience and dedication. I used to imagine documentary makers as precious, arty types. Not any more.

Tom Fort is the presenter of A303: Highway To The Sun.

A303: Highway To The Sun is on BBC Four at 9pm and BBC HD at 10.30pm on Thursday, 19 May.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    Of course it is difficult driving and talking to the camera. It is also dangerous and stupid -- a really crass feature of so many documentaries.

  • Comment number 2.

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

  • Comment number 3.

    A gem of a film. In the 50s I remember going in the back of Dad's car from NW London past Heathrow, Hook, then down the A303 to the West country for summer holiday. Then the road was slow (mainly single carriageway) but we would see Stonehenge or the barrow at Winterbourne Stoke, and stop to picnic in a field just off the road. Happy days.....

  • Comment number 4.

    The programme was curiously interesting, purely because I have to use the blinking road on an almost daily basis. It used to mean holidays, now it usually means work.

  • Comment number 5.

    David thanks for getting the ball rolling with a comment about our primary concern when planning the filming of A303: Highway to the Sun. When making documentaries we do everything we can to avoid talking and driving shots, but in a film about a road it's hard to avoid completely.
    We followed BBC safety guidelines and ensured that Tom never looked away from the road any more than he would if he were having a conversation with a passenger. And if you managed to catch the programme last night, you'll have seen that many of the driving shots are visuals only. Much of Tom's talking to camera is shot outside the car next to interesting things along the road. Hope you buckled up and enjoyed it!
    Chris Granlund, Executive Producer A303: Highway to the Sun

  • Comment number 6.

    As someone who also travels this road at least 6 times a month, I found the programme fascinating and the anecdotes will make future journeys all the more interesting

  • Comment number 7.

    This A303 film was absolutely FASCINATING - thank you BBC4.

  • Comment number 8.

    Enjoyed it - although it was plodding in places!

    The ending - what? The A30 takes precedence because (presumably) it is the 'senior' route. It is also worthy of a travelogue - some of the towns and scenery it passes through is simply breathtaking.

    Still, better this than wheeling out Mrs. Worsethorne once more...

  • Comment number 9.

    Lovely programme. Have known the A303 for many years. In the 50s the family would leave Surrey at 2.00 a.m., as it was such a long journey to Cornwall for our hols, and the excitement of seeing Stonehenge at dawn!

    However, I need some convincing that the A303/A350 crossroads is the oldest in the country.

  • Comment number 10.

    Agree with first comment: "Of course it is difficult driving and talking to the camera. It is also dangerous and stupid -- a really crass feature of so many documentaries."

    And (Come on!!!) about as interesting as Monty Python's sketch: "Mr. and Mrs. Norris's Ford Popular ... RA ONE! , RA TWO! ... Mr. & Mrs., Norris's Ford Popular ... from Houndslow to Sidcup ...


    JEEEEEEs ... I'm so glad I do not pay good money for a television licence!!

  • Comment number 11.

    I have read the various postings on Tom Fort's fine programme with interest. It seems to me the enjoyment of a programme of this type depends very much on personal interests and lets face it age. In a celebrity driven culture where ratings drive everything I am grateful the BBC are still prepared commision the making of such a programme. Yes the pace was slow and better for it. Tom Fort did not find it necessary to do more than let those with knowledge and enthusiasm point the way. A wonderful programme that reminded me of a kinder simpler time. All involved with its production should be proud. I offer the thanks of at least one viewer who will in future travel the A303 with a different perspective. Keith

  • Comment number 12.

    I like these "slow" programmes, full of social history. Many of us crave for a simpler life, and this programme pointed in that direction. It would be nice to know more about the places on the route.
    I believe that the Harrow Way was used by pilgrims in Medieval times travelling from Winchester to Canterbury.
    Defoe said that Weyhill was a lonely village, but had the largest sheep fair ever held in England. Fairs and markets were a way of life for the country folk, before the advent of local shops. Gilbert White tells us in his diaries that his village of Selbourne would send their hops there every October, some thirty miles. The website Llundainfach gives good background information on Weyhill. Welsh cattle drovers travelled hundreds of miles to attend.
    The picture of the waggoner and his family, with eight percheron horses was a "wow". What date would this have been?
    Thanks to the BBC.

  • Comment number 13.

    I enjoyed the film and hope a book follows.A book appeared a number of years ago based upon the A272 and its route and points of interest and I would like to see something similar for the A303.
    When the segment about Stonehenge appeared and its use by the armed forces for aviation I thought that you were going to mention Airman's Cross which is situated just North of the A303 and was the site of the first military aviation accident in the UK in 1912.Perhaps you did not know it was there.
    My favourite section of the road is the Ilminster to Honiton missing link.I always like to look for the sculptures of the leaping deer concealed in a hedgerow.

  • Comment number 14.

    A good programme that gave an insight into the the history and life alongside a road used by millions each year.

  • Comment number 15.

    I very much enjoyed this programme have driven and been driven (as a child) on the A303 many times since the mid sixties. Each time we drove a new section of dual carriageway was being built. As far as I remember the Andover section was "always" there though. Some of the journeys may well have been in a Morris Traveller (1963 - "C" reg) - this definitely had flashing indicator lights.

  • Comment number 16.

    Thank you, I did enjoy the journey and followed up many of your references.

    Who actually built King Alfred's Tower? The alfredstower website has the following paragraph.

    "In 2002, when the previous paragraph was written, the National Monuments Record listing attributed the construction of this monument to 'Sir Henry Hoare', but I suspected that this was incorrect. Henry Hugh Hoare, the 3rd baronet, died in 1841; his son, the 4th baronet Hugh Richard Hoare retired from the family banking business in 1845 aged 54 to live at Stourhead, and undertook several improvements and construction projects around the estate until his death in 1857. Several buildings from this period bear the initials H.R.H., and this monument is probably one of these. In May 2006 I wrote to English Heritage and pointed out this possible mistake. The letter was acknowledged in July 2006, and on 24th January 2007 I received a letter stating that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport, after consulting with English Heritage, had decided to correct the list entry to show that the monument was erected by Hugh Richard Hoare."

  • Comment number 17.

    Thank you mh48. Glad you enjoyed the journey and that it inspired you to do some research of your own.

    The paragraph you quote from the alfredstower website is referring to another feature on the Hoare's estate - not Alfred's Tower itself. The previous paragraph states:
    "Just over a mile from the tower, at grid reference ST756369, beside the forest track, is a Grade II listed monument erected in 1847 to mark the source of the river Brue... The monument is in some disrepair, but originally was a small grotto with a brick-lined chamber enclosing the spring. There is a rustic stone surround, but several of the stones appear to have fallen into the pool. According to the National Monuments Record listing (IoE number 261476), to the right of the keystone are the incised initials HRH 1847, although I have been unable to find these."

    So that solves that mystery. But it also presents a challenge: Can you find the keystone with the initials HRH 1847?
    Happy hunting.
    Chris Granlund, Executive Producer, A303 Highway to the Sun

  • Comment number 18.

    Really enjoyed the program - perhaps a series on other roads in the offing?? One question - what was the guitar music in the background around 12min30secs and 13min 40secs?

  • Comment number 19.

    Good idea @ProjectC - I suggest the A686

  • Comment number 20.

    Thanks BBC, I loved it. It's so nice to watch a slow paced programme that is not infested with these so-called celebrities who are just full of their own importance. I agree with Project C that a series on other notable roads would be welcomed. Can I put forward the A27 and the A34 for consideration? I'll do the driving!!!

  • Comment number 21.

    Just seen this on iPlayer - nice little programme, about one of my favourite roads; so much history, so many places to stop. Seems to have run out of fuel just before "Camelot". Hope the moggie wasn't hurt in the kerb-climb?

  • Comment number 22.

    Hi ProjectC (#18),

    Thanks for posting your comment - there's now a tracklisting for all the music used in A303: Highway To The Sun on the show's programme page.


    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog


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