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Saturday April 13th 2024

Gone To Earth | 1950

Gone To Earth filming location: Longner Hall, Shrewsbury, Shropshire
Gone To Earth filming location: the home of the lustful Squire Reddin: Longner Hall, Shrewsbury, Shropshire | Photograph: wikimedia / Graham Burnett

Notoriously interfering producer David O Selznick (and husband of the star Jennifer Jones) disastrously re-edited the film (adding a narration by Joseph Cotten and even having whole scenes re-shot) for its US release, under the title The Wild Heart. Fortunately the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger original is now available.

Toward the end of the 19th century in rural England, country lass Hazel Woodus (Jones), happy to dote on her adopted fox cub and anxious to leave her father’s modest cottage, rashly promises to marry the first man to come along. This turns out to be mild-mannered and earnest local parson Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), but this doesn’t prevent libidinous – and enthusiastically foxhunting – Squire Jack Reddin (David Farrar) from pursuing her.

Shropshire writer Mary Webb set her story against real villages and landmarks in her native county, and directors Powell and Pressburger film on the actual locations, around Shrewsbury, near the Welsh border. You can reach Shrewsbury by rail in under three hours from London Euston.

This is no genteel version of pastoral England, with Powell’s ravishing visual style turning the countryside into a strange realm of twisted branches and glowering sunsets, still in thrall to old superstitions. “Gone to earth”, the haunting cry which opens and closes the film, is the signal to call off the hunt after a fox has managed to reach the safety of its den.

Gone To Earth filming location: Much Wenlock, Shropshire
Gone To Earth filming location: the home of Hazel gets a new dress in town: Much Wenlock, Shropshire | Photograph: wikimedia / Row17

The busy market town, in which Hazel makes an impression in her new green dress, is Much Wenlock. Largely unchanged, it retains all you’d expect from a Medieval town – holy wells, shuts (cobbled short cuts), whipping post and stocks. The half-timbered Guildhall, seen in the film, is open to the public during summer.

The town, on the A458, about 12 miles southeast of Shrewsbury, was the birthplace of Dr William Penny Brookes, the inspiration for the modern Olympic Movement. In fact, one of the mascots of the 2012 London Olympic Games was named Wenlock, after the town.

Closer to Shrewsbury itself, ‘Undern’, the home of Squire Reddin, is Longner Hall, Uffington, to the east of the town.

The Tudor Gothic-style house, designed by John Nash 1803 and, if you want to admire its fan vaulting and stained glass, it’s open for tours on Tuesdays and Bank Holiday Mondays between April and September (best to check ahead for the latest details).

The race meeting is the point-to-point course at Eyton-On-Severn, between Much Wenlock and Shrewsbury. Point-to-point (steeplechase) is a form of horseracing over fences for hunting horses and amateur riders, and Eyton Races continue to this day. Don’t be fooled by the view of Ludlow Castle, which appears to overlook the course. This is a bit of cinematic license. Ludlow is about 20 miles to the south.

Hazel narrowly avoids tumbling into an open mineshaft, a legacy of the area’s industrial past.  Since Roman times, lead has been mined here. Surface buildings, chimneys and a Cornish-style engine house can still be seen at Snailbeach, a village built for mineworkers a few miles southwest of Shrewsbury, and the location of ‘God's Little Mountain’ and Reverend Marston’s chapel.

Gone To Earth filming location: Stiperstones, Shrewsbury, Shropshire
Gone To Earth filming location: Hazel looks for guidance to the supernatural: Stiperstones, Shrewsbury, Shropshire | Photograph: wikimedia / Derek Harper

Attracted to – but wary of – the squire, Hazel turns to her mother’s book of spells for help and sneaks off in the night to a mysterious rock formation to ask for guidance. The ominously named Devil’s Chair is real, a feature of Stiperstones, a distinctive quartzite ridge overlooking the countryside a couple of miles south of Snailbeach.

The mass of scree (boulders and rubble) left after rocks were shattered by repeated freezing and thawing during the ice age, held an obvious appeal for writers. It was also used by DH Lawrence as a setting for his 1925 novel, St Mawr.

When Hazel’s question is seemingly answered by the ‘fairy music’, she sets in motion a tragic chain of events by deserting her husband to meet up with Reddin at Pontesford Hill, overlooking Pontesbury, between Snailbeach and Shrewsbury.

To explore in more detail the setting of the book, and others by the same author, you can follow several Mary Webb Trails featured on the Shropshire Tourism website.

Much Wenlock was featured again on screen in the far jollier 1980 comedy Clockwise, with John Cleese.