Where’s Steve McQueen? Sproutological Arbology with Peter Whitfield


The location for the photo shoot for the Steve McQueen cover is one of the great lost secrets of Sproutology. It is said that whoever finds the precise spot and turns three times widdershins while reciting “Green Isaac” will be rewarded by a shower of cassettes of lost albums, held underground in the care of a strange, bearded wizard. Or something of the sort.  And your knees will turn grey.

Anyway, on the occasion of the Jimmy Webb Concert in Durham, Peter Whitfield was at a loose end, and went off to have a look. And his story is below. Meanwhile, should anyone else care to join the search party, clicking on the map will reveal the interactive Google street view. The garden centre is behind you, down the road. Why not cruise virtually up and down to see if you can spot the place? If you find anything, link to it in a comment. There are some more clues in the pictures at the bottom of the page, and of course in the inner sleeve of the album itself which shows a distinctive door – No 3? – and some more possibly identifiable features…

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“The only clue I had was that somebody once said the site was near to the old Acorn Nursery. This has been redeveloped since that time and is now the Lanchester Garden Centre. It is situated on the B6301 road between the town of Lanchester and the village of Cornsay.

The B6301 begins in the centre of Lanchester as Ford Road, and continues as such until about 1km outside the town, when it becomes Bargate Bank. At the top of Bargate Bank is Lanchester Garden Centre, situated there, as most out-of-town garden centres are, to avoid frost and heavy mist/fog which are not conducive to the successful growing of plants (something I picked up during my six years of study to become a professional horticulturist). Also, being heavier than air, both weather features tend to roll down hillsides and settle in the valley below.

Looking at the Steve McQueen album cover pic, there appears to be frost and a heavy mist, which leads me to believe that the photograph was taken at a low level. Between Lanchester and the Garden Centre, then on to Cornsay, the B6301 is enclosed by ancient hedgerows (anything up to 300 years old) and traditional dry stone walls (most of which are also of the order of 150/200 years old). At several points along the road there are gaps in the hedgerow/walls filled with rustic wooden posts, chicken wire and barbed wire, much like the image on the album cover.

But there is only one site that features a tree line similar to the one in the photo. This is situated about half a kilometre outside Lanchester, where there is a turn-off to the left, leading by way of a narrow lane to No 33 Ford Road. The lane looks to be fairly recent, and is bordered by tall mature trees on its right side, and a low established hornbeam hedge on its left. The hedge, although established is, in my estimation, no more than 12/15 years old. The line of mature trees consists of three large deciduous specimens interplanted with younger saplings of Scots pine, although at one time the tree line must have been a continuous planting of mature deciduous specimens as the remains of large tree stumps are evident in between the more recent plantings of pine.

Ford Road 1

The album cover shows only a tree line of semi-mature deciduous trees, but in the intervening thirty years some of these would invariably have become too large and overgrown with their neighbouring trees, resulting in die-back. This would have greatly reduced their effectiveness as a field boundary windbreak, and would have needed to be replaced.

Going back to the 1985 photo, there is another anomaly which requires an explanation. The rustic posts and chicken wire are edged by stone blocks, with only a thin strip of grass showing in front of these. The new photo shows quite clearly that the line of the barbed wire, parallel to the road in the original pic, is angled away from the road and now features a triangular patch of grass at the front.1

My feeling is that the narrow lane running from No 33 Ford Road to the main B6301 road has had its entrance altered to allow better visibility for anyone emerging from it in a vehicle. It would have been difficult to see any traffic from both directions on the main road otherwise. But what about those stone block edgings? The photos I took a couple of days ago show the likely remains of stone blocks which once formed a continuous straight line with the ancient hedgerow.2

So, all this is hardly what you might call irrefutable evidence. Most of it is indeed circumstantial with a sprinkling of guesswork and a smidge of deductive reasoning. But as it is impossible to equate any of the surviving large deciduous trees with those on the ’85 album cover, given the thirty years of growth and replacement, it’s all I’ve got. If anyone wants to quiz the owners of the property at the end of the tree line about any of this stuff, then 33 Ford Road is listed as a place of worship and is owned and run by the Stanley Methodist Circuit (Stanley being a town some four miles to the north of Lanchester). I’m pretty sure that whatever they might come up with will at the very least be truthful.”

Peter Whitfield
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3 thoughts

  1. Man Simply Terrific, I would like to immensely that you for coming up with this idea and making it happen by taking the time to trace piece of history that means so much to many Sprout’s fans like me.

    I always stare at the Steve McQueen cover wondering where it was taken, just one questions, How did you find out where this picture was taken ?

  2. i know exactly where the steve mc queen picture was taken, it is the site of my old school at Brooms, near Leadgate north west Durham.

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