Firstly, I must congratulate the villagers it is a beautiful place (largely built around crossroads which lead to York, Thirsk, Malton and the North York Moors) – probably made more so in recent days as I understand that they were going to have a garden competition. I didn’t see many people in the village but those I did were very friendly (even the very soggy doggy I saw whilst waiting for the bus back to York!)
I should, perhaps, declare a slight family connection to the village as I am directly descended from the 11th century de Fauconbergs. Whether they are the same branch of the family or not I don’t know but there is Fauconberg house (Newburgh Priory) within half a mile of the village and in the village itself a pub named for the family and almhouses established by the family in the 17th century.
When I arrived at Laurence Sterne’s house it was just after a tour had started (it is a small house so you can’t wander round on your own) but they accommodated my needs as I had to be back in time to meet the next bus to York (the service only runs a few times a day). The enthusiasm and knowledge of the curator, Patrick Wildgust was outstanding and the way the house has been ‘decorated’ quite perfect.
There were two rooms in particular that I felt at home in. The first is the dining room which is laid out for a meeting of the Good Humour Club (a York-based eighteenth century men-only club which “celebrated the twin virtues of companionship and conviviality”) with debris of a meal on the pewter plates, playing cards scattered around and evidence of smoking and drinking. To learn more about the club you can’t go far wrong than to listen to the play written by Michael Eaton which is set the day after the publication of Tristram Shandy (http://goodhumour.laurencesternetrust.org.uk/drama/) – this is a wonderful, evocative play and if you listen to it on YouTube you will also be able to listen to a rather bawdy song called Tristram Shandy performed by Wesley Stace.
The second room is the book-room which is filled with different copies of Sterne’s works. This is the place where, if it is possible to feel a presence from the past, you are most likely to sense Sterne as here he sat down to write. Taking photos is not allowed (understandably) but I found the following image of Stephen Fry in this very room when they filmed A Cock and Bull Story.
Hidden behind panelling in the drawing room and in one of the upstairs rooms are original wall paintings from medieval times (for the house long pre-dates Sterne’s residency).
The drawing room is panelled in long ago recycled materials which gives it a quirkiness that is quite appealing. Patrick remarked that as the room was extended in the 17th century and runs below ground level (you can see part of the garden at a height from the window) it is a cold room in winter. An alcove near the door was installed in Sterne’s time.
The tour didn’t go above stairs but in a way this didn’t matter as there is sufficient of interest on the ground floor including the original painting by Charles Robert Leslie showing Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman from Tristram Shandy.
The Laurence Sterne Trust website points out that to “round a corner at Shandy Hall and come upon Joseph Nollekens’ bust of Laurence Sterne ranks high among the pleasures of a visit to the house. The bust was modelled from the life in 1766 in Rome. ‘With this performance Nollekens continued to be pleased even to his second childhood,’ writes his biographer. In his portrait painted by John Francis Rigaud in 1772, Nollekens can be seen leaning upon his bust of Sterne.” (http://www.laurencesternetrust.org.uk/the-laurence-sterne-trust.php).
Apparently the bust is so accurate that it was used to correctly identify Sterne’s remains when it became necessary to remove them from the graveyard at St George’s, Hanover Square in London in the late 1960s. He is now interred in Coxwold.
As I was in the village I tried to visit the church but, unfortunately, it was closed. I understand, however, that it too is well worth a visit as the interior dates from the 1700s.
I have to hold my hands up and say I am uncertain as to whether I like Sterne’s works. I cannot decide whether he was very clever and original or whether he was too clever by half! I feel the same way about the 2005 film which was an ambitious film about filming the un-filmable (which if the residents of Stony Stratford – another beautiful Georgian village now part of the general Milton Keynes area and which I used to live near – will have us believe is named after the tale-telling competitions held between the coaching inns ‘The Cock’ and ‘The Bull’). However, no matter what my personal feelings are about Sterne this is a wonderful place to visit and I will go back.