To escape the pandemic, I spent most of summer 2020 amongst the forests of Herefordshire, England, where ancient gnarly trees shoot into the sky and craggy rocks border the winding Wye river as it snakes its way through the lush green countryside to the Severn Estuary. A romantic description you might think, but its a true one.
The area’s beauty, especially when contrasted with the cityscape is breathtaking – as I write that I definitely feel like it must be a sign of getting older when you start seeing so much beauty in your home country. That’s not that I seek foreign travel any less. Damn, right now I am constantly dreaming of the crisp blue skies of the northeastern Chinese winter and a backstreet Sichuan restaurant, or steamy tropical islands of southern Thailand. Words aren’t enough to show how much I miss the vibrancy of Asia.
But, on a summer’s day in Herefordshire when the temperature tops 30c, I’m perched in the vivid green forest surrounded by tall trees and ferns that look like miniature palms, I could be in Southeast Asia. The birds are talking as loudly as they’d be in say, the jungles of Malaysia, and the river water temperature being much warmer than the northern European seas, means that swimming here in the summer is very, very easy. Eager fish in the Wye even remove dead skin from your feet – you’d pay a couple of hundred baht for that in Bangkok. What the River Wye does need though is Vang Vieng style tubing. Rickety make-shift bars at the river-side hauling tubers in for beers and cheap cigarettes as they float down river on tractor-tyre inner tubes, but I am pretty certain all the red tape in the UK though would not allow this.
I have been visiting close family in the area for years and until now had not appreciated the amount of films that are shot here, that Kylo Ren and Harry Potter are some of the many characters that have spent time in the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean, thanks to the popularity of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Forest of Dean for filming locations. One of those places, the ancient woodland Puzzlewood is rammed with tourists throughout the summer, partly due the exposure it has had on screen. It’s got to the point over the summer where I’d watch something on Netflix and recognise scenery, or I would be driving along and see something I’ve definitely seen on film.
When you take a look around, it’s not hard to see why so many location scouts are drawn to the area, and for local government to issue filming permits, they must be considering the economic benefits. I remember my first trip to New York City in 2001, learning that NYPD has its own police department solely for taking care of film shoots. This fascinated me.
Sex Education has most recently placed the area into the spotlight, using a dramatically positioned house overlooking Symonds Yat as the home of one of the main characters, played by Gillian Anderson. Produced for Netflix, the comedy/drama series has a huge audience, giving the area plenty of exposure, and possibly driving tourist numbers up to an area already increasingly popular. Although less-noticeable, equally popular The End of the F***ing World, used parts of the Forest of Dean for some of its episodes. But since this doesn’t make a regular appearance, it would unlikely have people suddenly flocking to the Forest. By contrast, in Sex Education, the home of Gillian Anderson’s character, Dr Milburn, and also the main character Otis (Dr Milburn’s son), of course makes a regular appearance, and the views from the house do totally show off how beautiful Symonds Yat is.
Yes, we didn’t see hoards of obviously Sex Education fans flocking, and I am not even sure what they would typically look like anyway. But, even if someone isn’t such a keen viewer that they would travel a couple of hours to see the bridge that Otis and Eric cross on there way to school, the scenery that the series shows, might just be enough to persuade visitor to visit the area.
This summer the pandemic has meant than many more Brits are holidaying domestically, so it is not clear how much of an impact on tourist numbers Sex Education has had, but the Symonds Yat area at the peak of the season was totally, and I mean totally jammed full of people. The road running to Symonds Yat East is a single track and as there is little traffic control, it was chaos down there, with cars unable to get past each other and long queues of traffic in either direction. I made the mistake of trying to drive down there, but then more sensibly returned on my trusty old bicycle.
Economically, locations that become popular through Film and TV benefit hugely, but often at cost, as over-tourism brings its own issues.
On a much different scale, I have seen this over the years with places such as Phi Phi Ley, Thailand. This once pristine island was the filming location for The Beach. Released in 2000, the Danny Boyle directed hit turbocharged the popularity of the Phi Phi islands. It didn’t start tourism there, the islands were already getting popular, but it put them out under a spotlight with a much larger audience. This has brought on massive environmental issues on Phi Phi Ley, to the extent that the usually slow to act authorities have now shut the national park off to tourists for a couple of years, to help the reefs rejuvenate. As it happens, the huge reduction in tourism due to the pandemic has meant that many similar areas will have time to rejuvenate without the usual hoards of visitors. There are so many examples of overtourism of popular film locations – Koh Khao Phing Kan, often now known as James Bond Island, which was Scaramanga’s hideout in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) is another Thai island that has arguably been ruined through overtourism. However, there are many examples of locations that have appeared in popular film or TV series, that benefit hugely from the associated tourism.
Arguably, the success of the Harry Potter films has brought more inbound tourism to the UK, especially to London and Oxford, but cities are much better at coping with large numbers of tourists than riverside hamlets, or tiny tropical islands with fragile ecosystems. The people that work in tourism in and around the Phi Phi islands have benefited from the success of The Beach, but there’s a strong argument to say that the tourism to these islands should have been regulated years ago to avoid the level of overtourism we were seeing pre-pandemic.
So is it down to location scouts to consider the impacts filming there might have in the long term? We know that films generate tourism, and tourism can have both negative and positive effects. Since production teams are rarely tourism experts, I would say it would be unfair to put that kind of pressure on location scouts, but rather it should be down to local government to take future tourism impacts into account when deciding whether or not to grant a filming permit, and then have a plan of action on how to effectively manage tourism so it doesn’t go beyond levels that are sustainable, such as we see on the Phi Phi Islands. Films can generate tourism, and if, but only if the tourism is sustainable, then ultimately that’s a good thing.
So, as I sat next to the flowing Wye at the end of summer 2020, preparing to jump in and cool off, thinking about how lucky I was to be there, pondering why I hadn’t set up a make-shift Vang Vieng riverside bar, I also considered how awesome it is that so many great movies and series have been filmed here, whilst hoping that I wouldn’t have to share the space with thousands of Sex Education fans.