…or The adventures of two men and a camper van.

By Rupert Soskin

It was back in 1999 that I first approached Michael Bott with the idea of making a documentary series on little-known aspects of one of my other passions: Natural History. I was already familiar with Michael’s work. He had made a couple of films with my father, Henry Lincoln, and his impressive talent made the normally painstaking decision of who to approach, a complete no-brainer. Michael loved the idea but he very sensibly suggested that, as this was such a massive project, it would be more sensible to kick off with something else. Something we were both familiar with and could do more easily, to see how well we worked together. Little did we suspect, how an intended ‘interim’ project would become such a life-changing experience.

Michael has been enthralled by ancient sites since childhood, and for a number of years I had been leading trips and walks to ancient sites in Britain and abroad, so the decision was easy.

“Why don’t we make a pilot for a documentary about standing stones?” said Mike.
“Great idea.” I replied.
“Excellent” he said, “You write it then.”

And so a monster was spawned. As things progressed, Mike decided early on that we should aim the film towards short ten-minute programmes and if all went well, we could make an indefinite amount of these short films, working our way across the whole of the British Isles. I have walked over Dartmoor’s hills and vales more than any other part of Britain so rather than make life difficult, I stuck with what I knew best. I spent six months choosing locations, researching and writing until, in 2001, after Mike had turned my pages of writing into a format we could film, we were ready to hit the road.

That short film (which is included in the extras on the Standing with Stones DVD) once I had overcome the extraordinary sense of feeling a complete berk in front of the camera, was a joy to make, and thankfully, was very well received. However, what became increasingly obvious to us was that in taking it to broadcast companies like the BBC, with all the logistics of film crews traveling across Britain and ultimately losing control of schedules and the final edit, we risked ending up with a very different film from the one we wanted to make.

We took a break.

For the next couple of years it all sat on a back burner until, with a healthy mix of bravery and madness we made the insane decision to go it alone and produce a single film which covered as many sites as was feasible for a dvd. After another few months we had decided which sites we would include and I had researched and written chunks of script. We acquired a camper van to act as mobile office, hotel and high vantage-point, stocked up on film, batteries and food and set off.

I had already decided that I would try to produce a book to accompany the film, so each trip involved carrying Mike’s film gear which included cameras, sound equipment, lights (just in case) and walkie talkies so we could communicate between vehicles and across hillsides. Then there was all my own camera gear for shooting the pictures for the book.

Taking Britain and Ireland in chunks, we worked in bursts of roughly a month at a time and, weather permitting, managed to sustain a high pressure approach to make the most of every minute. Up before sunrise most days in case the light was perfect for a dawn shoot, driving, walking or filming all day and researching and writing script in the evenings.

Most of the time our mass of equipment was fairly manageable. The only time it became a challenge was when we were filming the axe factory on Pike O’Stickle in the Lake District. The weather had been appalling for days so we waited… and we waited. We were traveling at such a ludicrous pace that we had no choice but to shoot in whatever conditions presented themselves at the time, especially as the filming had to take priority over the stills due to the complexities involved. Frustratingly, we arrived in the lakes at the time in 2007 when most of Britain was under water. Places that could have been stunningly beautiful were flat, grey and soaking wet. The Lake District could have been remapped to show new lakes which I am quite sure were fields when I last visited.

However, we did have some time in hand so the lashing rain on day-one didn’t worry us unduly. We stayed in the bus, researching and writing. Day-two offered slightly less rain but heavier fog so, carrying all the gear and a stack of emergency stuff in case we were stuck up there overnight, we started the climb. Two hours later we were back in the bus: what had once been a gentle stream burbling its way down the mountainside had become a boiling white torrent of water. The risk to the equipment was too great, so day-two was abandoned.

Day-three was no better than day one but day-four we had to be somewhere else entirely. So whilst our original thoughts were to take a gorgeous colour-rich footage from high in the mountains, we had no options here, it had to be done in high winds, lashing rain and mists. Not even a dramatic sky to rescue the inevitable poor light. In the event however, it turned out to be one of the highlights for us. The swirling mists and buffeting winds did make filming a serious challenge, but so much more memorable than another sunny day in the hills.

It took two years to complete the film and left Mike and me with so many memories, (a number of them at my expense, which Mike delighted in putting in the out-takes). One occasion which stretched my outdoor skills to breaking point was the Barclodiad y Gawres stew-cooking scene. Me, in the dark, in a forest, stirring a brew over a camp fire. It was actually the last scene of the whole film to be shot, not least of all because Britain couldn’t have been wetter if the entire Atlantic ocean had been emptied over it! We had spent a weekend in Devon recording the last pieces of voice-over and grabbed our chance when, miraculously the rain stopped and the sun attempted a feeble push through the blankets of grey.

Arriving at our chosen location I set about collecting firewood for our eerie night-time session. Everything was sopping wet, not a dry twig to be found amongst the puddles and sodden leaves.
“Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure Mike, “Ash, Pine and holly, that’ll do the job. Ash will burn come-what-may, resin in the pine will catch and holly leaves will always give a bright but brief flame.”

Well, there was holly, but no pine, nor any ash, so I collected the best of a soggy lot… where was Ray Mears when I needed him?! In the end I used my emergency stash of charcoal and fire tablets, but in sprinkling the last powdered crumbs of tablet onto the paltry fire, much to Mike’s amusement I nearly sent myself up in flames. Fortunately the holly did its job, as did Mike, and the final footage kept its secret… alas not so the out-takes.
Thanks Mike!

Filming over, Mike had nine months of editing ahead and it took another year before the book was complete. I could not have been happier that Thames & Hudson wanted to produce the book, and the icing on the cake was when Professor Tim Darvill agreed to check my text and write my foreword. The entire making of Standing with Stones, even though it was at times difficult and hand-to-mouth, turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime. Almost every day, even in the harshest conditions, Mike and I would look at each other, grin like Cheshire cats and shout at each other, “We’re working!”

The book: ‘Standing with Stones’

by Rupert Soskin and Timothy Darvill

(Thames & Hudson) £19.95

The film: ‘Standing with Stones’

by Michael Bott and Rupert Soskin

£15.99 at www.standingwithstones.com