Wessex On Screen: May Morning

May Morning, also known as Alba Pagana and Murder At Oxford, is a 1970 Italian giallo film set in Oxford University. Giallo is an Italian genre of crime fiction, often with strong erotic elements, taking its name from the yellow covers of the cheap paperback books where the genre originated.

Italian student Valerio Montelli (Allesio Orano) disrupts the rigid social structures at Oxford, being all foreign and that, especially when he falls for Flora (Jane Birkin), daughter of one of his professors. Things come to a head at the titular May Morning revels, leading to tragic consequences.

May Morning has attracted controversy due to the brutality of its climax, but it provides an interesting outsider's view of decadent Oxford society at the time of the post-Woodstock comedown from the swinging sixties. Despite being filmed entirely on location at Oxford, I can find no evidence that it was ever released in Britain. However, it is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Wessex on Screen: Press for Time

Press For Time is a 1966 comedy film starring Norman Wisdom, in which he plays a newspaper reporter who causes chaos in the Devon town of Teignmouth (lightly fictionalised as Tinmouth), as well as the main character's mother and grandfather. it was Wisdom's last film for the Rank Organisation.

The film was based on Angus McGill's humorous novel Yea Yea Yea, loosely inspired by his time as a reporter on the Shields Gazette. The cast also features Peter Jones, Stanley Unwin, David Lodge, Frances White and, in a small uncredited role, the film debut of Helen Mirren.

Press For Time (102 minutes, certificate U) is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

Wessex Worthies: Saint Boniface

Born near Crediton in Devon and originally named Wynfrith, Saint Boniface (675-754) was the first Archbishop of Mainz, and is known as "the apostle to the Germans". Christopher Dawson, in his 1946 book The Making of Europe, has said that Boniface "had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived". A bold claim, but does it hold up?

The young Wynfrith was noted for his academic prowess. Originally sent as a boy to the monastery at Exeter for his education, he eventually entered the monastery at Nursling in Hampshire, where he became director of the school at an early age, compiling the first known Latin grammar in England. King Ine and his witan (advisors) selected him to become part of a delegation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he honed his skills as a diplomat. This led to him being dispatched as a missionary to the Frisians, where he met with fierce resistance from their pagan king, Radbod. The mission ending in failure, Wynfrith became convinced that he needed a direct commission from the pope, Gregory II. This was granted in 719, along with his new name, Boniface, named in honour of an earlier martyr.

Boniface returned to Frisia following the death of Radbod, and found more success in winning converts to the new faith, assisting the now elderly Saint Willibrord of Utrecht. Willibrord wanted Boniface to take over from him after his retirement, but Boniface chose instead to lead a mission to the still unconverted German lands, under an order of protection from Charles Martel, who saw an opportunity to establish Frankish rule.

It was in Hesse that he performed his most famous deed, cutting down an oak tree that had been struck by lightning, and was thus sacred to Donar (Thunor/Thor). The locals seeing that he was not punished by the gods for this impious deed, converted to Christianity. The story was later embellished to have the oak felled by a divine blast of lightning, and split into four pieces of equal size, arranged in the shape of a cross. A later legend credits this as the origin of the Christmas tree, though in reality, Christmas trees are much too recent in origin for this to be the case.

But Boniface's most enduring legacy was the reform of the German churches, establishing the Rule of St Benedict and leaving behind a system of administration, and an alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the papacy, that was to form the basis of the so-called "Holy Roman Empire". He and his missionaries were active in bringing Roman learning and Roman civilisation to the Germanic world, making the claim made by Dawson in the opening paragraph more than just empty hype.

In 754, at the age of 79, Boniface undertook one last mission to Frisia. At a mass baptism event, he was ambushed by armed robbers. His companions tried to defend themselves, but he urged them to lay down their arms and trust in God. This went exactly as you might expect. His body was initially transferred to Mainz, before being translated to the Benedictine abbey (later cathedral) in the Hessian city of Fulda, where his remains are kept to this day. They are a major pilgrimage site, even attracting a papal visit in 1980. There is also a shrine at the Catholic church in Crediton, Boniface's feast day is observed on June 5th in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Wessex Attractions: Basildon Park

Basildon Park is a Georgian house in Berkshire, built in the Palladian style from Bath stone, and made famous by its use as a filming location for the Netflix series Bridgerton. At the time of writing, it is closed for filming, but is expected to reopen on Friday (20th May 2022).

The estate was purchased in 1771 by Francis Sykes, a merchant of the notorious East India Company (the villains in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, chosen because the filmmakers needed someone who could make pirates look like the good guys in comparison), who required a country house close to London. He had the previous house demolished, and the current house, designed by architect John Carr, built in its place. In 1838, the house was bought by haberdasher James Morrison, whose family owned it for the next 90 years. It became home to Morrison's large art collection, which included works by Constable and Turner.

During both world wars, the house was requisitioned by the armed forces, for use as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during the First World War, and as a prisoner of war camp during the Second. After the wars, it was bought by Lord and Lady Iliff, who restored it before gifting it to the National Trust in 1978.

The house is normally open from 11am to 5pm, and the grounds from 10am. Check the website for opening hours on the date you plan to visit. The postcode is RG8 9NR, and the nearest station is Pangbourne. On Tuesdays only, Going Forward Buses runs a minibus service from Goring to Reading, with buses numbered 142 to 148. This is the only bus service that serves the estate, so if you don't have access to a car, Tuesday is the best day to visit (public holidays excepted).

The Character of Wessex: The Exe Valley and Devon Redlands

The Devon Redlands take their name from the red sandstone that gives the region some dramatic cliffs on the coast and provides it with its distinctive brick-coloured building stone, as at the historic Otterton Mill (illustrated above). Sandwiched in between Exmoor and Dartmoor, the character area centres on the Exe Valley, which separates the southwest peninsula from the rest of Great Britain; and Exeter, once the westernmost limit of Roman Britannia.

Characteristic of the area are linhays, open-fronted livestock shelters built from wood and stone; and whitewashed thatch-and-cob cottages.

The Devon Redlands are largely an area of hamlets and small villages. Larger settlements include Exeter, Exmouth, Tiverton, Torquay and Crediton. The latter was once a diocesan seat in the Anglo-Saxon church, birthplace of St Boniface, but was later supplanted by Exeter.

Species unique to the region include the cirl bunting, southern damselfly, Dartford warbler and warren crocus. Until recently, the latter was thought to be endemic to the area, but a second population has been discovered in Cornwall. Unfortunately for the biodiversity of the area, the heathland at Haldon Ridge has been given over to commercial, single-species conifer plantations. Hopefully it can one day be restored to its natural state.