California screaming: 'The Birds', 50 years on

The rampaging ravens are only an echo in peaceful Bodega Bay

Alfred Hitchcock leant towards mystery, towards the deliciousness of darkness. It seems paradoxical, then, to be driving into Hitchcock terrain just north of San Francisco beneath blue skies, along a coast road famed for its beauty, with the window rolled down to savour the tumble-dry slipstream, the high noon heat.

"The strangest thing," says my wife, "is the emptiness. No animals in the fields. And nothing flying." She's looking up as we round a headland, and there it is: Bodega Bay.

It was here in 1962 that Hitchcock arrived to film The Birds, "perhaps the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made", as he later said. The bay, and the tiny secluded village of Bodega, five miles inland, became the heart of the horror-struck world he was soon to create.

I park the car at Bodega Bay's waterfront, near Tides Wharf, the original of which appeared in the movie. Things have changed. On the southern headland, above a rack of dunes, sits a string of million-dollar homes beside a new golf course. To the north – and rather more, I fancy, to Hitchcock's taste – is Ocean View, a slice of real estate littered with caravans.

Between the headlands, behind the harbour with its fishing boats and pleasure craft and yachts, sits a straggle of mostly clapboard buildings, portrayed in the movie engulfed in a fireball during a histrionic bird attack. Today, a handful of gulls perch near a fishmonger's shop looking bored, already fed.

The film was released in the US 50 years ago, on 28 March 1963. Hitchcock unleashed his invasion of seagulls, crows and ravens – most were wild, others trained – to attack the psyches of the movie-going public as it watched Bodega Bay's children forced to flee, and actress Tippi Hedren buckle under a scissor attack of crows' beaks. She wasn't acting.

There, in a knick-knack shop on the jetty my wife is browsing, picking out postcard scenes from the movie. "Go to Bodega," says the check-out guy. "The school is there, where the teacher dies. And the church."

The road burrows inland, leaving behind Pacific Coast Highway's open skies. Eucalyptus trees crowd the verges, the sunlit backdrop creating a strobe. "No birds," says my wife as we round the last bend and the gum trees divide to reveal Bodega's gothic presence.

I see at once why Hitchcock fell for it: the silhouettes of the brooding doom-laden school and the chill, white perfection of the chapel of St Theresa of Avila, with its spire to impale fallen angels. Tourists stare up, faces puckered, as if remembering, taking pictures.

Later, one of them, Marty from Canada, calls the church and school "a shiver on the landscape". We're eating burgers in the café, fake plastic crows perch on the clock. Suddenly, light floods in, and standing in the doorway looms a deputy from the highway patrol, like a dude from a different movie. "Hi Deputy Friendly," says the owner. "Fancy a beer?"

"Dr Peppers," growls Deputy Friendly, giving the bar stool reasons to wince. "Where you from?" he asks, and tells us how the roads are a regular traffic jam come summer.

Visitors queue outside the school which, saved from dilapidation, has been converted to a museum, displaying its "movie look": old wall maps, a blackboard and desks with, in the entrance foyer, a shop selling souvenirs of The Birds. "If it weren't for the movie, the place would be rotting," says the woman behind the counter. "Maybe that's true of the whole of Bodega."

The whole of Bodega amounts to a straggle of hillside homes served by a bijou general store. A platoon of geese patrols the lane between a gallery of art and Seagull Antiques. Passing tourists are taking pictures. "First birds I seen," says one. Rick, the owner of Seagull Antiques, tells us the geese protect the properties. What about seagulls? I ask. "Don't much see 'em," he says. "Except there." He jerks his thumb at an old TV, the screen of which is showing images from the movie. "I run it daily. Customers love it," he says, and asks if we've been to Lorenzo's.

Lorenzo's gallery is a shrine. "A true emporium of The Birds," he says. For Hitchcock devotees, an array of shopping pleasures lies in wait. If the great director exploited Bodega's gothic credentials, Lorenzo's – along with the school and café – proves that exploitation can be reciprocal.

Landscape paintings depicting Bodega's bay locations are augmented by thousands of postcards showing the actors, or "Hitch" directing, or menacing armies of roosting crows on Bodega's roofscapes. Among them are florid cartoons of Hitchcock in portly flight. And best of all – a genuine fake – Lorenzo is holding aloft a crow. "It was in the movie!" he says and flies it above his head. My wife takes his picture, then looks at her watch and resists the urge to say: "We must fly."

But the open skies of Bodega Bay are irresistible. We dine at the Bay View Restaurant on Tides Wharf, watching seagulls scavenge pickings from a fisherman on the jetty. "Some folks hereabouts call 'em sky rats," says the waiter. "You get the picture."

The following morning the picture is shrouded, the coast cloaked in gloomy Hitchcockian sea fog. We drive a mile north to Jim's Roadside Café hungry for breakfast. Jim looks like Methuselah. His beard rolls over the bib of his dungarees. "Here for a caffeine hit?" he smiles. We buy muffins. My wife buys a mug of Jim's "Best English Tetley's Tea".

"Darned exotic," grins Jim as we take our drinks to the car park on the headland to watch the ocean.

Out there a fishing boat like an X-ray of itself moves indeterminately, and above it, faintly, a ticker tape of black specks is tracking its progress. Grabbing binoculars from the rear seat, my wife screws her eyes up, homing in. "Hard to tell," she says at last. "Except they're definitely birds."

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The nearest airport is San Francisco, served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) and United Airlines (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk).

Staying there

Bodega Bay Lodge (001 707 875 3525; bodegabaylodge.com) has double rooms from $219 (£146), excluding breakfast.

Eating there

Bay View Restaurant (innatthetides.com).

 

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