On the weekend of the 21 and 22 of April, I hosted a trip to Suffolk in East Anglia for two days of exploring the original film locations used in the 1968 British cinema classic Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price as the eponymous Matthew Hopkins.
Blessed with the best weather of the year, our 15-seater van which we dubbed the Mystery Machine ambled through Lavenham, Kersey, Bury St Edmunds, Thetford, Orford, Dunwich and Manningtree, with a few other people joining us on their own steam over two days.
My heartfelt thanks goes out to Selene for taking the reigns of the Mystery Machine and to Graham Humphreys for the fantastic poster that he produced, and got signed by the film’s second big star, Ian Ogilvy, which attendees received on Sunday afternoon over some well-earned pints in Manningtree, at the very location where the real Matthew Hopkins conducted some of his evil deeds.
Here’s a snapshot of the film locations that we covered.
This quaint little village was the setting for the film’s opening sequence in which a woman is led through a side street to a field where she is lynched, while Vincent’s Matthew Hopkins looks on from a distance.
Over the years, trees have grown to obscure St Mary’s church which appears the opening title credits. The pathway where the villages drag the woman lies next to the former home of thriller writer Hammond Innes.
The former Rushford College and St John’s Church in this quiet backwater proved the ideal location to double as John Lowes’ Brandeston church.
The scenes shot at the College (now a private residence… which we inadvertently trespassed) included Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) setting Lowes to running and pricking, and Sara (Hilary Dwyer) trying to secure her uncle’s freedom by giving herself to Hopkins; while the church was used for a scene in which Richard (Ogilvy) swears his oath of revenge over Sara’s rape at the hands of Stearne.
The 15th-century Kentwell Hall doubled as the magistrate’s house where John Lowes’ trial by water and hanging took place. Visiting the stately manor also gave us an opportunity to recreate recreate the infamous publicity shot of Vincent and director Michael Reeves, in which their difficult relations during the shoot is quite visible in their body language.
While many of the riding sequences were filmed on military ground which has restricted access today, one scene involved Richard and his platoon meeting with Oliver Cromwell (Patrick Wymark). This took place at Ixworth Mill, which today is a self-catering B&B. It is also situated not to far from Great Livermere, the childhood home of the ghost writer MR James.
The medieval town was used for a number of key sequences in the film, including when Hopkins oversees the burning of Elizabeth (Maggie Kimberly) in the town square where Sara lodges, and where Hopkins resides in a local pub. Another key scene takes place in a nearby Water Street, where Stearne informs Hopkins of Richard’s desire for revenge.
Guildhall, Market Place, Lavenham
Little Hall, Lavenham
This building doubled as the rooming houses for both Sara and Hopkins. We were very excited to find that little has changed in the room used for Hopkins’ bedroom, but we also discovered that while the outside of the building was used for Sara looking out a window, the interior was not. This was, in fact, a set constructed in an aircraft hangar in Thetford.
Water Street, Lavenham
This street, around the corner from the Guildhall, is where Stearne runs to warn Hopkins and where Hopkins spies Sara across the road.
The cellar of this 11th-century keep was used for the bloody climax in which Hopkins is shot by Nicky Henson’s Trooper and then hacked to death by a vengeful Richard. English Heritage are proud of its film legacy and even include it on their audio tour, with some Kensington gore thrown in for good measure.
It was quite a trek (over an hour) to drive to the coast where the scenes of Richard and his platoon meeting a fisherman where shot. But on our arrival, we discovered we were in the wrong place. One of our group has now found the correct location, the Seven Sisters cliffs on the Sussex coast. So another outing is in the offing.
BURY ST EDMUNDS
The Angel hotel in Bury St Edmunds is where the cast and crew stayed while filming. Vincent stayed in room 215, the Charles Dickens suite, which still contains the bed that the writer slept in. The bar is where he got drunk with Nicky Henson and the rest of the cast, and the kitchen is where he rustled up pasta for the crew.
The real Matthew Hopkins operated many of his dark deeds in Manningtree. So, on our return to London, we stopped off at The Red Lion, where, in 1644, eight local women were suspected of witchcraft and into the prison, which used to sit on the land to the right of the pub.
For more pictures about the Witchfinder Weekender, check out the dedicated Facebook Group page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/112107102984052/