Surrey's film sets: War Horse, Snow White & more

With the release of Steven Spielberg's War Horse, our county is once again hitting the big screen. Shot largely at Wisley, it's been just one of a number of films to delight Surrey's dog walkers, ramblers and residents in recent years

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2012 Compiled by Matthew Williams



Set to be one of the big blockbuster movies of the year, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is firmly rooted to our county. Regular Surrey Life contributor Tracy Cook, who lives in Weybridge, visited the set at Wisley Airfield


When movie guru Steven Spielberg decided to film the battle scenes for his upcoming War Horse epic at the abandoned Wisley Airfield, I was just as curious as many other Surrey residents. Luckily for me, my best friend forever and ever (obviously), Imogen, lives next door.

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“The house was being rocked by explosions all day,” she told me. “Even the windows and doors were rattling! And the children could see everything from their bedroom windows.”

Of course, I had to go and have a cup of coffee, so in the autumn of 2010 we strolled onto the airfield for a closer look. In front of us were mud ridges and trenches, stretching to the horizon. Stumps of charred, burned trees were silhouetted eerily. I could see the blown-up remains of a bridge, while to the left was the burned out silhouette of a barn: shattered stone walls, the roof blown away and open to the sky.

And the props! Near our feet were stacks of wooden ammunition crates stamped in French and heaped next to coil after coil of barbed wire. Next to them were piles of wooden crosses and aged gravestones, beside a weathered stone tomb. And in rows, like sentinels, were a church-full of wooden pews, looking strangely abandoned outside in the weak September sun.

At the far end of the field, a film-hand pumped water from a hose. Behind him, a white film truck drove by. Suddenly, we were no longer in the heart of the French battlefields but back in Surrey.

It was when they were lifting the dead bodies of horses out of the trucks that  things got really interesting. Chestnut, dark brown, grey-coated horses, all with frothing manes and stilled dark hooves, their thick tails no longer swishing. These models were stuck three to a wooden pole for easier manoeuvrability, but boy, did they look real.

I have seen a lot of filming in my time working at the BBC, although nothing on the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster (Auntie’s budgets, sadly, not quite stretching that far), but I felt the old familiar frisson of excitement as we walked round the edge of the set. I reached out to touch the barbed wire and was astonished to find it was made from rubber.

My friend Imogen was later able to take my son with her children for a private close-up, by personal invitation of the location manager. As dusk settled, the set was illuminated by powerful banks of bright white beams. They watched as 200 extras, dressed as British Tommy soldiers, charged repeatedly across the field, while stuntmen bounced off trampolines and the film crew set fire to trees to simulate shell fire and blew clouds of smoke across the trenches.

And, who was that figure in the black tent just over that ridge? Lucy, 12, was convinced it was Spielberg: “I saw him, I saw him!” she told me afterwards.



At Frensham Little Pond this autumn, dog walkers were lucky enough to get a sneak peek of Snow White and the Huntsman (pictured), starring Twilight’s Kristen Stewart. Farnham-based photographer Matthew Burch was there


Setting aside the controversy surrounding the filming of Snow White and the Huntsman, which saw several sections of Farnham Little Pond closed off in the autumn, there can be no denying the spectacle on offer to anyone wanting a close-up view of movie making.

Although filming in the area has become commonplace, with Bourne Wood just down the road also regularly hosting major blockbusters, TV shows and commercials, the set for Snow White and the Huntsman was very visible to walkers at Frensham Little Pond.

This version of Snow White has been reported as a twisted version, but in truth it is simply closer to the origins of the fairytale most people associate with Disney. No doubt artistic licence has been taken, but this will certainly be darker and more sinister.

In the film, the village on the shores of Frensham Little Pond is home to young women imprisoned for the benefit of the Evil Queen, played by Charlize Theron, and it is said that the queen orders the destruction of the village, which the photo above depicts. 

Several days before the fire scene, a group of armoured horsemen, led by Kristen Stewart’s Snow White stunt double astride a white horse (the Twilight star was also spotted on set during the shooting), were filmed from a low flying helicopter whilst charging up and down King’s Ridge – the recent heath fire offering a landscape ideal for the storyline as these scenes take place after the burning of the village.

All this action was done in public view, so while some regular users of the ponds hold grievances for the disturbance, the reward is frankly the fun of the viewing opportunities.

With 2010’s heath fire still fresh in memories, the fire brigade must have been on tenterhooks when the village went up in flames. Shooting at night added to the drama and from the opposite shore the huge flames, the screams, running villagers and horses created a unique scene by the pond.

The set was rigged with myriad gas pipes winding their way into the houses. The clue to when the action would take place was when the ‘Bunsen burners’ were turned on giving out controlled jets of flame. Then, as a prelude for the call to ‘Action!’, the gas was really turned up and the fire raged. To spectators across the pond, it looked real and felt decidedly warm.

A few days after the fire scenes, it was discovered that the production could not break camp as a shot of a burning house was supposed to have been in the bag before the village was torched. Having been forgotten, parts of the set had to be rebuilt; not too much of a problem as most of the village was fire retardant! The film is expected out this summer.



As film liaison officer at the Forestry Commission, Pam Eastwood oversees what is our county’s (if not the country’s) most popular out-of-studio film location, Bourne Wood near Farnham. Here, she tells us more...


Historically home to blockbusters including Gladiator, Robin Hood, Harry Potter and, more recently, War Horse, the last year has continued to bring the very biggest movies to us here at Bourne Wood with the likes of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp walking the sandy soils near Farnham. 

A unique and beautiful location, the attraction for international film-makers is the large open hillside, which is surrounded by pine trees. From the centre of the wood, there are no views of modern civilisation and it has a timeless quality that means it can be used as a backdrop for any period in history.

Bourne Wood also works well for very large-scale shoots with a cast and behind-the-scenes crew of thousands, which is a real selling point for big films.

In the last year, we have had several major movies visit Bourne Wood.

First up, Jack the Giant Killer, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Nicholas Hoult and Ewan McGregor, saw an enormous giant’s head built onto the side of the hill, with a stream flowing from its mouth. The film is expected in cinemas this summer.

Then, there was more interest than usual when word spread about the visit from Johnny Depp for Dark Shadows, which is out in May. Reported sightings of the star in Farnham spread the word like wild fire and so security was very tight. During the making of the Tim Burton directed movie, filming mostly took place during the night and didn’t happen until well after the witching hour, which meant that any chance of spotting Depp was slim.

To limit the risk of anyone likely to be hanging around the forest at night, there was also an army of security guards with muzzled guard dogs patrolling the woods ready to flush out anyone hiding in the bracken!

The most recent film to visit Bourne Wood was Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.  

Action-packed, Bourne Wood became the location for a battle scene with 120 galloping horses. Black artificial snow was used to make everything in the wood look burnt and, in a scene during an ambush, a stuntman was ‘shot by an arrow’ and fell from the top of a tree!

On a serious note, locations like Bourne Wood are vital to the UK film industry, as it helps keep filming in the UK, providing hundreds of jobs and millions for our economy.

The Forestry Commission also ensures it manages Bourne Wood to the same FSC standard as all of its forests, providing sustainable timber, conserving plants and wildlife, and maintaining access for local people when the film trucks have moved out and peace and tranquillity return.


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READ ON A history of Surrey Film Locations

Robin Hood filming in Farnham

'Overseas' film locations in Surrey