As the latest series of cult TV show Doctor Who draws to a close, fans needn’t despair. There is somewhere where they can indulge their passion to its fullest. Picking up his sonic screwdriver, Jonny Payne travels to Cardiff (without the use of a time machine) to indulge a weekend of immersion in all things Whovian.
It’s early in the morning and we have already had a close encounter. A cyberman looks down at us with a cold and calculating expression. We’re in St John the Baptist Church in the centre of Cardiff, the setting for one of Doctor Who’s most popular episodes, The Runaway Bride – where Catherine Tate makes her debut as Donna and swiftly disintegrates after being led down the aisle.
I’m with a group of Doctor Who enthusiasts, a mix of excited youngsters and even more eager adults, on the British Movie Tours Unofficial Doctor Who Tour, led by David, our guide. He is dressed in trousers, a shirt and a jacket, with a slightly skewed bow tie and feathered hat – and certainly looks the part of the Doctor.
David has actually met the Doctor, appearing on Doctor Who Confidential while guiding Matt Smith (the current and eleventh doctor) and Karen Gillan (who plays the current, able assistant Amy Pond) on a ghost tour around Caerphilly Castle.
Having left the church, we’re led down St Mary’s Street, where part of the first episode of Series One, Rose, was filmed. The entry to Queens Arcade had been made to look like London during filming, with an underground sign. Suffice to say it has now been removed.
Since the production of the programme moved to Cardiff in 2004, 77 episodes of the drama have been filmed in and around the Welsh capital; from the concourses of the Millennium Stadium to the pretty village of Llandaff. But the city’s history stretches back further, as the man who wrote the first episode with the Daleks, Terry Nation, lived in the South Wales city. So Cardiff really is immersed in the Dr Who world, and there is plenty of sites for fans to spot.
Along the street, Howells department store can instantly be recognised as Hendrick’s, the shopping emporium where Rose worked. This street was chosen as it resembles London’s Oxford Street. Again, black cabs and red buses were added to enhance the scene further during filming.
But some locations are less obvious. A cash machine near the Story Museum on Wharton Street, where the sonic screwdriver was used to withdraw cash, for example, could indeed be anywhere. But you wouldn’t expect the graffiti from Bad Wolf to be in a quiet estate near Cardiff Bay.
The film locations are spread around the city, as writer Russell T. Davis and his production team make use of the Welsh capital’s historic features and both natural and man-made sights.
The picture-postcard village of Llandaff, Amy Pond’s home village of Leadworth in the series, has a charming cathedral and expansive village green, where we re-enact part of the Eleventh Hour episode. Sadly the duck pond and red telephone boxes were removed after filming, but a white picket fence remains around one of the houses, whose owners liked the addition so much they decided to keep it.
The National Museum of Wales, where Lady Christina abseiled athletically to steal the gold chalice in Planet of the Dead and its art gallery (featured in Vincent and the Doctor), as well as St Fagans: National History Museum, are other notable locations.
St Fagans is well worth a visit, whether a Doctor Who fan or not. While the Gwalia Stores and Farringham Village Hall from Human Nature can be seen here, there is plenty to keep all parties entertained, with rebuilt houses and buildings documenting life from the late 18th to late 20th century.
After a wonderful raspberry ripple ice cream from the local shop (there was no sign of the eleventh Doctor’s favourite fish fingers and custard) and the purchase of some Welsh cakes, we head off towards the suburb of Penarth, where Sarah Jane’s stately suburban house can be seen, again made to resemble a wealthy London suburb. Indeed, the spin off series Sarah Jane Adventures was also largely filmed in the city.
But the highlight of the tour is undoubtedly Cardiff Bay. This area has been redeveloped extensively in recent years and shows a modern and creative side to Cardiff, with its Millennium Centre (used in the Sound of Drums and New, New Earth episodes), Senedd National Assembly building (used for The Lazarus Experiment), vibrant restaurants and small marina. But the standout feature for Doctor Who fans and aficionados of Torchwood (the spin-off series starring John Barrowman), is the shimmering Torchwood Tower, today covered in strawberry stickers for the annual strawberry festival. The invisible lift to ‘The Hub’ (the monitoring station of the Torchwood Institute) below and ‘The Rift’ (the wormhole entry point for alien creatures and technology) can also be found here in Roald Dahl Plass.
The most surprising element, however, is the shrine to Torchwood’s Ianto Jones, who died saving the children of the world. A dedicated wall is plastered with paraphernalia, flowers and ribbons remembering his life. A few tourists look slightly bemused by the memorial to a fictional character, but some on the tour are positively overcome.
The four-hour tour, which is crammed full of fascinating information and sights, may become an official BBC tour in the future as much of the drama production will soon move to a new BBC building in the bay.
Cardiff is a perfect location for Doctor Who fans from around the United Kingdom or indeed the whole world. It’s not overly ‘geeky’ by any means and also provides those who haven’t seen the sights of Cardiff a chance to get a feel for the Welsh capital in half a day.
Tour costs: Adults £22, children £18.
Getting there: First Great Western trains provide direct services. (Tel: 08457 000 125)