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Thursday February 22nd 2024

The Moonraker | 1958

The Moonraker location: Leeds Castle, Kent
The Moonraker location: The headquarters of Oliver Cromwell: Leeds Castle, Kent

No, not the similarly-titled 1979 Bond movie Moonraker, this is a colourful, swashbuckling English Civil War suspenser.
'Moonraker' was a term applied to residents of the county Wiltshire – supposedly none-too-bright country yokels. The origin is in the legend of local smugglers hiding a barrel of contraband brandy in the local pond. When caught trying to retrieve it at night, they claimed, presumably in their best 'Ooh aar..' accent, that they were trying to rake out a big, round cheese (the reflection of the full moon). The sophisticated excise men left them to it.

The film does begin in Wiltshire, as dashing Cavalier Earl of Dawlish (George Baker) meets his fellow conspirators at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. The world-famous Paleolithic stone circle is near the town of Amesbury, a short bus ride north of Salisbury. You can no longer clamber over the ancient stones (as you once could), but view them from a safe distance at the site, now managed by English Heritage. You can catch a regular tour bus from outside Salisbury railway station, or take a bus to Amesbury and walk to the Visitor Centre.

There is a Bond connection here. George Baker, who appears as heraldry expert Sir Hilary Bray in Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was once in the frame to play 007.

Stonehenge is also briefly seen in the excellent 1950s chiller Night Of The Demon.

The HQ of Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell (John Le Mesurier) is Leeds Castle, east of Maidstone, Kent, most famous on screen as the home of the aristocratic d’Ascoyne family in the Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets.

The Norman castle, in the centre of its own lake, and surrounded by 500 acres of rolling parkland, became a royal residence for Edward I, was home to six queens of England, and was transformed into a grandiose palace by Henry VIII. It’s open to the public daily, except Christmas Day, and it also houses a unique Museum of Dog Collars!

The Moonraker location: Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire
The Moonraker location: The Royalist house: Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

The Royalist house raided by Cromwell’s troops is also more famous from another film. Lacock Abbey, a Gothicised 13th Century abbey three miles south of Chippenham in Wiltshire, supplies several of the classrooms for Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The interiors also became the palace of Katharine of Aragon in 2007 historical drama The Other Boleyn Girl, with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson.

Lacock Abbey was home to the Talbot family, which included the famous pioneer of photography Henry Fox Talbot. In fact, the oldest photographic negative in existence is an 1835 image of a latticed window in the house. You can see the very window if you tour the Abbey, which houses the Fox Talbot Museum, dedicated to the work of the inventor.

The house, and the Medieval cloisters are open daily (except Tuesday) from the beginning of April to the end of October.