[Location – House]
I have come to Laurence Sterne in reverse. This is probably something he would approve of. Tristram Shandy is a classic, and therefore a book I want to have read more than actually read. A Cock and Bull Story is the only film I’ve enjoyed since deciding to hate film. I had frequently thought how amusing it was to pass Shandy Hall before ever realising it actually was Shandy Hall.
My ancestors lived in Coxwold; I wonder if they knew Lawrence, if they inspired him, or he them. Unlikely but almost certain. The hall is not a hall, perhaps a cottage, non-descript from the road, unremarkable from the yard. Quaint. Quirky. It feels like the sort of place you use a bucket of water to flush the toilet, while containing the most remarkable second-hand bookshop in an outhouse.
It is not a tourist hotspot, but a draw for those of us on the local equivalent of a grand tour. A place of pilgrimage, perhaps. There are not many places left that are the actual spaces occupied by great figures while producing their most exciting work, unchanged to quite this extent, from a pre-Victorian era. Erasmus Darwin in Lichfield, perhaps. Dr Johnson in London, Hershel in Bath. You can name your own, there won’t be many.
It’s not even the most remarkable building in Coxwold, knocked into a cocked hat by the church, perched on the bank opposite with a glorious filigree octagonal tower. A small piece of fantasy for Laurence Sterne to enjoy. My ancestors would have looked on these stones. I wonder if they went into Shandy Hall that is no hall.
You don’t show yourself round Shandy Hall, but the guardian takes you room by room with tales of Stern, of the building, of the books, of the contents. Occasionally he will disappear to deal with some other emergency and return with the story and how it links to the hall, to Stern, to history or culture. In the meantime you will have been prodded into whispers and giggles with the others on the tour who you will never see again and never again see the same way.
The gardens are advertised as a separate attraction and they are both separate and attractive. They bear no relation to Sterne’s residence, but we expect a garden now. There’s a gallery and probably an artist-in-residence somewhere, also bamboozingly appropriate. The hall, though. The tiny rooms where you huddle with your fellow guests, terrified of knocking a stuffed bird off the mantelpiece while the curator disappears to find some other object of inspiration and fascination. A quiet, hidden corner of an astonishing tale.