When Jonathan, from indie film company Rubicon, contacted me about Sideworld, I was expecting more run-of-the-mill paranormal programmes. Whilst these shows are certainly entertaining, the majority are struggling to stand out from each other for me these days.
And then, along comes Rubicon with a unique take on this genre. What the Sideworld series of films offer is something a bit different. They are not the same as the other paranormal ghost shows out there, not that Sideworld ever claims to be anything of the same ilk in the first place. This is storytelling, and it’s right up my street! Three folklore documentaries, with beautiful cinematography and wonderful narration, tell stories of some of our most haunted forests and villages, as well as discussing some of the mysteries of the sea.
Director and writer George Popov is the voice of Sideworld, and so it was with George I found myself having a chat last week. Originally from Bulgaria, George came to England to study film, which is where he met Jonathan. After university, and following some time in the US, they set up Rubicon Films to write and produce folk horror films.
George and I discussed his love of history, fairy tales (which we all know can be very dark at times!), knights, swords and fantasy from childhood. I think we can all relate to these themes if, as adults, we find ourselves with a love of folklore and the unexplained. Not wanting to create arthouse films or the cynical, dollar-chasing churn Hollywood throws out means Rubicon is making films that keep that independent indie style. Luckily for all of us viewers!
By picking local folk stories in specific locations and bringing together the history and experiences, the Sideworld series has universal appeal. This is something that George informs me is tricky for cinematographers to achieve, but hats off, Rubicon have managed just this.
So, onto the films! I spent a happy few hours out in my shed (the new Weird Wiltshire HQ) watching Sideworld. The aim of this article is really to discuss Damnation Village, the most recent production. But I feel you might want to hear a little about the other two, as they are just as good.
The Haunted Forests of England
The Haunted Forests of England is the first of the series, all of which have been made in quick succession. It takes us from the wild Druid-planted ancient woodlands of Wistman’s Woods on Dartmoor through to the dark depths of Epping Forest in search of the suicide pond.
Wistman’s Woods is of special interest to me as I do feel a pull to Dartmoor. Believe it or not, I have been trying to get down there to do some exploring for the last couple of years and despite it being just a couple of hours away, I have yet to succeed. Wistman’s Woods is a Natural Nature Reserve due to the fragile ecosystem with rare mosses and lichens. It is a precious and vulnerable place, ethereal and magical.
Wistman’s is not just a nature reserve but also a place of legends. Black dogs, elemental energies, strange apparitions. This place has it all. The narration of The Haunted Forests of England tells you some of the legends of the woods and with such beautiful filming, you can feel much like you are there.
I asked George if he felt anything unusual while filming, and he said, ‘It has such an otherworldly atmosphere.’ He described the trees as being lonely of colour. What a lovely way to describe this wonderful place. Their time in the woods was one of the coldest and wettest days of filming George had experienced in his life. So befitting of Dartmoor! What struck me most when discussing the woods with George is how he mentioned they both thanked the woodland when they left. For allowing them to come in and film. This is exactly how I feel about these ethereal locations, much disturbed by living beings. Go and visit but be respectful. Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints! And, as George and I do, always thank nature, the spirits and energies for allowing you time there.
I could drone on about the other locations in this film, in particular the dark and sinister Epping Forest, but I have promised myself today’s article is not going to be the length of a book. So, onto Terrors of the Sea.
Terrors of the Sea
The sea can so easily take a human life within minutes. Is it any wonder that stories and superstitions surrounding ships and sailing are so great in number? Terrors of the sea is a big enough subject for a series of films in itself, so George tells us the stories of some otherworldly creatures who are said to sometimes assist in a ship’s demise, be it a giant squid, sea serpent or mermaid. There may be monsters down there, but bad weather and unwise navigation are all that is needed to send a whole ship and its sailors down to Davy Jones Locker.
Sealore is one of my favourite folklore topics. The stories, the superstitions, the ghosts, and even the amount of sea-related idioms we use in our everyday language. Think ‘money for old rope’, ‘in the doldrums’ and ‘a square meal.’ All sailing related.
And so, by far, my favourite part of this film was the discussion of ghost ships. Just imagine that. Being out in the middle of the ocean and through the swirling fog drifts a ghostly apparition of a ship. George tells us about The Flying Dutchman, the most famous and possibly most terrifying of all ghost ships. But what I found most interesting was the section on Goodwin Sands. I shall not say much more as you must watch this film. I will say that section of the Kentish coastline must have so many buried treasures and bones. If ever a ghost ship is to be experienced, it would certainly be somewhere like that. Surely!
Onto the final film in the series and the most recent, Damnation Village. It takes us on a tour of three of England’s most haunted villages. Starting in Kent, it is no surprise that Pluckley is the destination.
With a long-held reputation as the most haunted village in the UK, Pluckley certainly has its fair share of ghoulish stories and sightings. The narration in this film is superb and really tells you the stories of the place, with atmospheric music and the photos and videos that George and Jonathan create so well.
Long has the village been swarmed with ‘ghost enthusiasts’ who haven’t always acted in a responsible manner. It’s inevitable that the residents may be somewhat suspicious of a couple of strangers wandering around filming.
‘How did you find Pluckley?’ I asked George.
George said they didn’t feel massively welcomed by the current residents of the place. He told me when they got the chance to explain they were there as storytellers, looking into the history and folklore of the place, rather than lurking around for nefarious reasons, the locals were a bit more accommodating. But still, said George, ‘the vibe was off.’ I wonder, given its sinister reputation, was this the living creating this feeling or, in fact, the dead?
Despite feeling the place was a little off, George said he still loved Pluckley and enjoyed documenting its many sinister goings-on. I will return to some of these stories in the future with a blog about Pluckley as I feel another little trip out may be in order. I can’t not visit the most haunted village in England and have a wander around sometime!
The next damnation village covered Prestbury in Gloucestershire. I’m not going to talk much about the destination as I encourage you to watch the film. But again, another fantastic place to cover!
It was Eyam in Derbyshire that I was keen to talk to George about. I recall reading about it, but I don’t know much about the place. This film tells the story of another haunted village with a most terrible real-life story as part of its history.
Eyam was a village that, when faced with the Black Death (1665-66), took brave and evasive action to help protect other people in the area.
The plague was bought to the destination on some flea-covered wool. On realising the plague had seized its first victims, they quarantined the village and prevented anyone from visiting or leaving. They effectively cut themselves off from the outside world. Their neighbours would leave them food parcels at a spot far from the village so it could be picked up without fear of being near to each other. Families were kept separated from each other, as much as can be managed, but the plague was virulent. Back then, little was known about how it spread. These villagers, who made this incredibly brave decision, had done so with none of our present knowledge of disease and infection.
What they did was certainly ‘not of their time.’ For me, what they sacrificed was something we can all learn from in our modern times.
A third of the villagers still succumbed to this terrible end. What struck George about the place is how the current residents embrace their history and make much of remembering the people’s spirits and their heroism. He found them so welcoming and keen to help. Of course, there is a pervading sadness there. And with suffering comes lingering spirits in one form or another.
I am so pleased Sideworld visited Eyam. Besides the stories of ghosts, it is this particular event in history that needs to be told and kept alive.
Occasionally, I finish a series of films or programmes and feel somewhat disappointed. After watching Sideworld, I felt that way with a sense of wanting to watch more.
I asked George what was coming next, and I am pleased to say more Sideworld projects are in the pipeline. I am really hoping they will come to Wiltshire one day. And I’m also hoping they might just head over to Bulgaria too. I’ll bet my bottom dollar there are some great ghostlore stories out there.
If you want to watch any of the Sideworld films, you can watch them here.
Sideworld’s artwork is fantastic. I’m pleased to say, they have designed and developed three collections of striking clothing and home accessories. The Dark Archives, The Fun House and the Basement. Do head on over there and have a browse. I intend to buy the Terrors of the Sea navy hoody very soon!
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