Sunday 28 June 2020

Shandy Hall

Wading through 'my papers', I am reminded of how many of England's literary shrines I visited in the course of my hack work – so many that at one time I envisaged making a book of them. Just now I came across a piece I wrote (I think with that book in mind) about one of the least known of those literary shrines: Shandy Hall, in the delightful stone-built village of Coxwold, near Thirsk, in North Yorkshire. The name is doubly apt: in Yorkshire dialect 'shandy' means 'slightly crazy, eccentric, off-kilter' – a fair description of the house itself, which proceeds erratically from a huge ancient stone chimney at one end to a correct Georgian façade at the other – and Shandy Hall was the home, from 1760 to 1768, of Laurence Sterne, the vicar of Coxwold, who wrote his comic masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, within its shandy walls.
  The house, which is not large, was rescued from a state of dereliction bordering on collapse by the late Kenneth Monkman, a Sterne enthusiast and scholar, and his wife Julia. Monkman founded a trust, launched an appeal, set about restoring the house, and, in 1973, finally opened it to the public. Nothing that was in the house when Sterne lived there had survived, but a few items came back, and the house's prize exhibit, the great Nollekens bust of Sterne (the twin of the bust in the National Portrait Gallery), was, by a fine stroke of luck, picked up in an antique shop. Sterne's own books were virtually impossible to trace, as – unusually for his time – he never put his name in them. However, Monkman assembled a splendid collection of early editions of Sterne's works and titles known to have been in his library, and now they line the walls of Sterne's 'philosophical hut', the little study by the front door where he wrote Tristram Shandy.
  It's more than thirty years since I visited Shandy Hall, but I remember it as one of my more enjoyable literary pilgrimages, not least because I was shown round by Kenneth Monkman himself. Since then the library has grown into the world's largest collection of editions of Sterne's works, and the gardens of Shandy Hall, restored and developed by Julia Monkman, have become a major attraction in themselves. Most visitors to this corner of Yorkshire are attracted not by the name of Laurence Sterne but by that of 'James Herriot', the pen name of Jim Wight, the Thirsk vet who wrote All Creatures Great and Small and sold many millions of books. This is 'Herriot Country' and will never be 'Sterne Country' – but if you ever find yourself in the vicinity, do visit Coxwold and its quirky literary shrine. And, while you're there, drop in on the parish church, where Sterne preached (until his health broke), and where his remains are buried – well, they are very probably his remains: I've told that story before.

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