SLM Harriet Lawrence weathers the tides where landscape inspires
a story and brings an ancient myth to life…
by Jared Cowan
Photos courtesy of Apple, except as noted
Just before the United Kingdom went into lockdown in early 2020, supervising location manager Harriet Lawrence/LMGI was gifted a book by a friend and fellow location manager who knew that its sweeping theme of science vs. superstition played out against historic and dramatic settings would be of interest to her.
The book was The Essex Serpent, the 2016 gothic romance novel by Sarah Perry. And the gesture proved serendipitous.
“That same afternoon, I had a phone call from See-Saw Films saying they had this job—and it was for The Essex Serpent!” exclaims Lawrence.
She headed to Essex, an historic county of eastern England that extends along the North Sea coastline between the Thames and Stour Estuaries. But after only a few weeks, her scouting was curtailed when the UK government announced its first stay-at-home order because of COVID and the impending pandemic.
In between stints of gardening and baking, Lawrence had the time to delve into the novel. She became consumed with researching the mysterious, edge-of-the-world landscape in which it’s set. Eager and restless, she mentally ticked off where she would look to find the worlds described in the story: Victorian London and a period fishing village perched by the sea.
The Essex Serpent follows the journey of amateur naturalist Cora Seaborne, played with fierce intelligence by Claire Danes. She feels caged in her upper-class London home where she is kept like a prized bird by her much older and abusive husband. When he dies, she is free to follow her passion—and follow up on reported sightings of a “sea dragon” stalking the waters and marshy inlets of Essex.
She ventures northeast to the rustic fishing hamlet of “Aldwinter” with her son and servant/best friend to investigate the existence of an animal that may have escaped evolution and has captured her imagination.
At the same time, a young Aldwinter girl has gone missing in the marshlands. The villagers blame the serpent—but local vicar Will Ransome, played by Tom Hiddleston, rejects its very existence. Stirred into a fanatical fervor, the villagers are quick to find a scapegoat in Cora. Her modern thinking brings her into conflict with both the vicar and the locals whose beliefs are deeply rooted in folklore and superstition.
It was Lawrence’s eye for architecture and visual character that began the journey of casting locations for what would become a six-part miniseries. “Harriet found the rectory where the Ransome family live on that very first trip, and that was exciting because it was what I’d imagined; it was the kind of architecture that I was thinking about that was on the marshland,” says executive producer and director Clio Barnard.
“It was a location I scouted before the first lockdown on my first days scouting in Essex over a year before we shot it,” recalls Lawrence. “It was isolated on the saltmarsh, at the end of a single-track road, on a muddy creek. It was perfect. The owners were so welcoming, and I couldn’t have asked for better location hosts.”
On the Road Again
Lawrence worked with the British Film Commission to help establish the guidelines that would eventually get the UK film and television industry back on its feet. “Early-to-mid June, I was back out on the road and nobody else was around because most people didn’t have a mandate to allow them to work, and our industry had done very well at getting back to work.
“A lot of my scouting at that stage was just landscape, so I didn’t need to see anyone; I didn’t need to interact. I could just follow my nose down to the end of a little track, follow that to a creek and just explore with no one else around. I really cherish those moments,” she says in retrospect.
A lover of all sorts of history, Lawrence has worked on a number of period shows and films, including Suffragette and My Cousin Rachel. On both films, she collaborated with production designer Alice Normington. Lawrence had already been researching locations when Normington was brought on to The Essex Serpent.
“I was thrilled to bits when I heard that Harriet was on the show,” says Normington. “Her knowledge of architecture and history is phenomenal. We can be standing together looking at a building and she will tell me the chimney stack is pre-Georgian. Or we’ll be looking at the windows and she’ll say, ‘Are you sure they’re period, Alice?’ I’ll say, ‘I think they’re okay.’ She’ll say, ‘Oh no, I think you’ll find they’re 50 years out.’”
Lawrence’s historical insight was invaluable, as Barnard had not done a period project before. “She’s an enthusiast … she loved the novel, she loved the scripts and she’s excited, and that’s what’s so lovely about working with her,” Barnard says.
“Everyone who works within locations knows Harriet,” says
co-producer Karl Liegis, who was involved in bringing her on as the supervising location manager. “She’s got good cohorts and contacts within the industry. She’s got good relationships with all the film councils. But especially for this project, she’s got a great depth of knowledge and passion for the history, the authenticity, and the environmental circumstances that this shoot specifically had requirements for in terms of locations.”
Call of the Wild
“Instantly, by where the story was set, there is just a certain look there in Essex—and it’s this incredible backdrop of tidal saltmarsh and estuaries,” says Lawrence. “It’s very flat and very changeable in its look at various states of the tide. There’s almost automatically a look that comes to mind if you’re familiar with the geography and with the architecture of that sort of place. I think Essex has sort of a reputation to most people as being very urban and very built up, but these bits were really wild.”
Lawrence also scouted a county north of Essex because it also had some beautiful estuaries. “I was just drawn back to Essex and those estuaries. They had a different feel about them. They were more rugged. They were more raw,” she says. “There was something that had this elemental sort of pull that is very much a character of the story—the fear, the superstition, the fact that the weather and tide are driving everything. You can imagine how the villagers would have that fear looking out at that sea.”
Essex seemed to call to the filmmakers both instinctually and emotionally. “Essex Blackwater was the heart of our locations and the landscape, seascape and skies really delivered,” says Lawrence.”
While the village of Aldwinter is fictional, the estuary against which it’s set is very real. Maldon sea salt, for which the area is well known, comes from the Blackwater Estuary.
“It links into the main North Sea. It’s a tidal estuary,” explains Russell Dawes, the Senior Specialist for Communications, Marketing and Engagement at Maldon District Council, a small, rural, local authority in Essex. “The Blackwater is predominantly surrounded by marshland, so there are salt flats. It’s a very atmospheric, very spooky, interesting, intriguing part of the country.”
Folklore of a flying serpent, or dragon, stalking an inland Essex village date back to the mid-17th century. “I think the landscape inspired the story, and the myth of the Essex serpent is a real myth,” says Barnard. “And that’s what inspired Sarah Perry to write the novel. That’s why it felt really important that we shoot it in and around the Blackwater Estuary.”
The current state of fear mongering around the world is not lost within the arc of The Essex Serpent. In many ways, it’s comparable to The Crucible and its allegory for McCarthyism. In fact, upon arriving in Essex in episode one, Cora’s friend observes that they have arrived in “witch-burning country.”
Mapping the Village
“We found some amazing black-and-white photos of what Essex villages used to look like, and, sadly, there’s just so little of that left. It was tormenting us slightly to look through all these old photos and just wish that there was a village still like that with these barges that had hay on them, or whatever they were trading in,” says Lawrence. “We picked the best bits and tried to tie them together.”
Normington and her team drew maps of Aldwinter’s imagined geography. “There’s some very clever filming,” Lawrence adds. “There were a lot of conversations about, ‘Well, if Cora’s come from that direction, and she’s supposed to have just come from the church, or she’s come from the harbor, how do we make it all look connected? There were three main hubs off the coast of Essex that we spent big chunks of time at. Then sort of four or five smaller locations that we did for two or three days.”
The town of Maldon was host to a few key locations, including its quayside, where historic Thames sailing barges were moored for a scene at a bustling Essex harbor. One hundred extras, many of them locals, were required. Pubs, bed & breakfasts, and other businesses along the waterfront that were closed due to the pandemic were hired as green rooms and dressing rooms.
“It was a real spirit of pulling together in a time when COVID was so horrendous,” says Dawes.
Not only was Dawes helpful within the town of Maldon, but he also assisted with locations in the wider countryside. “He really did help me so much, sort of introducing me to people,” says Lawrence. “Very much a can-do attitude. He welcomed our filming. He acknowledged what filming does for an area.”
Even with the virus still very much distressing people’s daily lives, Lawrence found most everyone in Essex to be welcoming. She says, “There were one or two people who were very polite and didn’t want filming, but generally almost all of our stuff in Essex was outside. We were on the edge of nature and the edge of the world.”
Maldon’s Blue Boar Hotel, a 14th-century coaching inn, appeared on screen in its actual namesake, as it would have been where, historically, someone of Cora’s social status would have stayed while traveling through Essex.
Lawrence works with a hardy team of seven, and credits her frequent collaborator, LM Philippa Sutcliffe, for persistently tracking down property owners. “She’s my right-hand woman and has been with me on many, many films and TV dramas. … I have total confidence in her ability,” says Lawrence. “I depend hugely on my whole team. The success of shooting in such demanding landscape and in so many other kinds of places depended on them. No challenge was too great!”
Another critical location was North Fambridge on the River Crouch, located to the south of Maldon. While North Fambridge is a busy, modern marina, Harriet and her team were able to find pockets that worked for the late 1800s. It’s here that Cora rents a whitewashed, two-story clapboard cottage next to the home of the missing girl’s grieving family.
The interiors for Cora’s cottage and the Ransome family rectory were built on stage at OMA Film Studios in Enfield, North London, but the exteriors, with houses built right against the Essex sea wall to protect the low-lying country, are authentic and date back to the Victorian era
“At a high spring tide, the water came so close to the gable of those houses,” says Lawrence. “Then, if you get a very, very low spring tide, it was just like miles and miles of saltmarsh as far as you could see.
“The tide dictated everything and the Essex locations we used were often underwater completely at high spring tides. For the first eight weeks in Essex, every day except one, was entirely dependent on the tides. And that one day was only not tide-driven because we had boat work on a reservoir!”
The ebb and flow of the tide was critical to the shoot both visually and logistically. “There were places that I would go that would just be mud creeks, and then I’d go at a different state of the tide, and they would be completely covered by water,” says Lawrence. “I love tide. I grew up sailing. I feel like I have a fairly good understanding of the tides. Empathy is not the right word, but the tide speaks to me, and I love the fact that the tide sort of drives everything there, and that’s very present in the book as well. These people live on the edge of quite a harsh world and the tide drives everything in their lives.”
Mersea Island was used for cliffside beach scenes of Cora digging for fossils. The island can only be accessed by vehicle via a causeway, which is covered in water during high spring tide. The tide was perhaps of most concern at a ramshackle oyster hut that was within distant eyeshot of Cora’s cottage. The location would become known as “Cracknell’s Cottage” on “Cracknell’s Island,” named for its old hermit inhabitant who befriends Cora’s son.
“When I first saw that, it was just like this tiny little hut in the distance and there was nothing but sea in between me and the hut. It never crossed my mind that you could actually get to it except by boat,” says Lawrence. “Then I went back at a different time … and you’ve got the saltmarshes between you and the hut.”
The Queen of Tides
Normington quickly fell in love with the location. “It was so unique,” says Normington.
“It wasn’t so much the house on the island that was my favorite location; it was the whole package… It is this sense of Cracknell living on his own little island surrounded by water; you just really got the sense that this serpent was always around him.”
“Alice, bless her, she said it was her favorite location ever!” says Lawrence. “I knew we had to make it work. The saltmarshes are fairly treacherous. It was logistically exceptionally challenging managing expectations. Cracknell’s Island could only be accessed safely by our amazing Marine department building a pontoon access and running a water taxi service! We took goats and chickens and everything else by boat to this location.
“I slept with the tide tables and knew them off by heart so when departments wanted to recce, I would instantly know if access was even possible—scheduling around the tides, working on protected sites and still managing to give the creative team what they wanted.”
Jonjo Stickland, the founder and director of Marine Department Ltd., acted as marine coordinator on The Essex Serpent. “The potential dangers are serious,” he says. “The combination of fast-moving waters and deep mud is lethal. What can start as funny—such as being stuck in the mud or falling into water—can turn very serious very quickly.”
Stickland and his team installed a 180-foot modular pontoon between a river channel and the location. “It not only had to withstand six knots of tide beam on the flood tide and the app tide, but we also had to be able to remove it quickly for certain camera angles and then reinstall for access and egress,” says Stickland.
Cracknell’s cottage was on a piece of land known as a “site of special scientific interest.” Among other protections, the SSSI designation prohibits developers from building on these properties or from people disturbing or removing the living organisms that call them home.
“If you delve into saltmarshes, you’ll find that they are the lungs at the edge of the sea. They are fantastic at filtering out some of the pollutants and things,” says Lawrence. “I was lucky that our DP David Raedeker was very low key with his lighting. He wasn’t the sort of director of photography who wanted huge lighting rigs or cranes or things like that, which definitely wouldn’t have worked there because this is a very fragile ecosystem. We had an absolute mantra, which was supported from the producers on down, that if you couldn’t carry it, you couldn’t take it on to the saltmarsh.”
Another location that visually expresses the ever-pervading sense of danger for the village of Aldwinter is the area of Tollesbury, just northeast of Maldon, where the River Blackwater feeds into winding inlets of the Blackwater Estuary. Overhead aerial shots of brain-like patterns intermingling through the ancient marshland perfectly exemplify form meeting function.
Could the serpent be slithering its way through these twisting waterways?
“It’s one of those places where you’d see them looking for a lost girl and they’re out under these big, big skies,” says Lawrence. “You really feel that threat and how dangerous the sea and the saltmarsh can be.”
Dramatic skies are a visual motif that run through The Selfish Giant and Dark River, previous films directed by Bernard. In The Essex Serpent, however, the skies are even more impressive. Throughout the Essex set parts of the series, characters walk along the lower third of the frame—almost to the bottom of the composed image—of majestic wide shots as the sky fills the background. The striking use of negative space and the vast expanse of the land in Essex are in stark contrast to the show’s settings in London.
“In London, we didn’t ever really want to see the sky. It was something Clio thought up, and it was brilliant. In London, it was all quite trapped whereas in Essex, it was all about the sky and freedom,” Lawrence says.
“We wanted London to feel as modern as it could be,” adds Normington. “We looked at a lot of graphic shapes and linear lines and prison-like shapes and architecture for London. Harriet and I get quite deep about all that stuff. When we get going, we’re sort of specific and quite conceptual I guess.”
The concept could not be clearer than in the exterior of Cora’s London home. In the first wide establishing shot of the brick mansion, filmed at London’s Inner Temple, the windows feel like those of prison cells as Cora stares longingly out of a second-floor window on a grim, rainy day. The house interior was filmed miles to the north, in Hertfordshire.
Much in the way that other Victorian-set stories like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or The Elephant Man are steeped in the modern medical experimentation of the era, so is The Essex Serpent.
One Whitehall Place, a spectacular Victorian building across the Thames from the London Eye and now a popular wedding spot, served as the venerable venue for an awards banquet for the British Medical Association. Barnard fell in love with photos that Lawrence had taken years prior that showed about 12 chandeliers lowered to the floor for the purpose of cleaning. Barnard thought the orientation was “visually amazing” for a proposal scene between the pioneering surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett, played by Frank Dillane, and Cora.
After the location had been decided upon, the venue discovered that the mechanism to lower the chandeliers had ceased operating. Barnard adapted and filmed the scene on a balcony where the characters are spectacularly featured amongst the lights.
The exterior of the award venue was Somerset House, a large neoclassical palace built in the mid-1500s. “The exterior we used to be able to film quite a lot,” says Lawrence. “But now it’s become a much-loved landmark in Central London with fountains and cafes. It’s wonderfully successful, but it does mean it’s less available for filming.”
“I think there’s lots of period locations still around but finding ones that haven’t been shot by other productions is certainly much more of a challenge,” Liegis says. It’s an uphill battle felt by filmmakers in oft-filmed cities around the world, and competition for London locations seems to be at a high.
“Certainly, for most of 2021, everywhere was booked. There was so much production in Britain that we were tripping over each other,” says Lawrence. Liegis credits Lawrence/LMGI and Normington for finding ways to create new and exciting setups at tried-and-true locations.
Luton Hoo, a stately English country manor, now a luxury hotel and spa, located north of London, was not a location that Normington was excited to return to on The Essex Serpent. She and Lawrence previously shot it on Suffragette, and it has appeared in scores of films and television shows. “The first thing I said to Harriet is, ‘Over my dead body am I going back to Luton Hoo,’ and there I am standing in Luton Hoo because you kind of know that it’s the best there is,” says Normington.
“It’s got a network of Victorian brick buildings and they can become all sorts of things,” says Lawrence. For The Essex Serpent, the art department transformed the stables of Luton Hoo into a London slum. Interiors of the Banks cottage, the Aldwinter schoolhouse and Aldwinter pub were shot there as well.
Apart from Cora’s London house, Normington says that the Aldwinter church on the edge of water was the most difficult location to pin down. “We really wanted to do the church in Essex, but, weirdly, it was really hard to find it there,” she says. Adds Lawrence, “I think we looked at 60 or 70 churches, easily before finding the perfect one.”
St. Mary Magdalene’s, located west of London in Boveney, Buckinghamshire, is remarkably set along the Thames. Made of wood, stone, brick and plaster, the weathered medieval church was founded in the 12th century. No longer an operating parish, it belongs to an organization called Friends of Friendless Churches, an independent, non-denominational charity that, according to its website, rescues and repairs “redundant places of worship in England and Wales.”
The pièce de résistance of the show’s London locations fell into place because of the pandemic.
The scene where several characters cross paths was filmed inside Hintze Hall, the largest gallery at London’s Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881. Featuring an intricately hand-painted vaulted ceiling, relief carvings, a branching grand staircase and stained-glass windows, the Romanesque, cathedral-like hall is a work of art in its own right. Hanging suspended within the room’s celebrated, majestic architectural features is the nearly 83-foot-long skeleton of Hope, a female blue whale who, in 1891, became stranded on a sandbar at the coastal town of Wexford, Ireland, during low tide.
The museum welcomes filming but permits it only at night. This was a daytime scene, however, and the room is afforded a good deal of natural light from a series of elevated windows. With Covid having closed the museum to the public, The Essex Serpent was able to capture the room in a way it has rarely been seen in a feature production. “That was a coup. Harriet really pulled that off, which was amazing,” says Barnard.
“We have this sort of magical moment of going through the doors … and the whale skeleton is above you and it’s this beautiful, beautiful building,” says Lawrence. “There’s a statue of Darwin that sits at the point where the staircase branches up, and if you get the light right as you enter in the morning, Darwin is lit by sunlight, but nothing else.”
Hope was suspended in Hintze Hall in 2017 after spending decades in the museum’s Mammals Gallery. The filmmakers were willing to look past the whale’s celebrity and the fact that, as Normington points out, Hope was not suspended during Victorian times; she was displayed at eye level.
The six-part Apple TV+ miniseries premiered in May of 2022. The immediate economic impact for that exposure is immense for Essex. “The benefit for us to have something like that on the screen is just fantastic,” says Dawes. “Of course, the residents love it, and you get sort of a screen tourism effect where people come back to see where the scenes were filmed.”
“We shot for 20 weeks, plus additional photography for two weeks, in London and Essex during the pandemic,” marvels Lawrence. “As someone said, ‘mud, sweat and tears’ went into this shoot.”
It’s hard not to see Cora’s and Lawrence’s journey through the coastal Essex landscape as one in the same. “Cora does feel the elements, as well and her character is very much driven by that sort of attachment. You can’t help but be inspired by and feel those locations.
“It was worth it all—the epic mysterious muddy creeks and ever-changing saltmarshes, under huge, glorious skies are as essential to story as the main characters are. It was important to Clio, our director, that we really conveyed that feeling of how raw the villagers’ lives were 120 years ago, driven entirely by the tides, the seasons, and their superstition, how the estuary landscape fed their fear. I cannot thank my amazing team enough for how they threw themselves into these challenging locations and how muddy they got—every day!”
The Essex Serpent Location Department:
Assist Unit Manager