Tristram Shandy was, in his day, one of the most popular and successful characters in fiction. Publishing thousands of copies, the adventures of the errant man of the world are as funny now as they were when first written 200 years ago. Aside from one half-hearted adaptation by Michael Winterbottom, starring Steve Coogan and entitled A Cock and Bull Story, Tristram Shandy is otherwise one of Britain’s overlooked classics. Because of its length (nine volumes in total) and absurdity, Shandy has been relegated to an ignoble place in the literary canon. However, this is not how it should be and any person who is interested in the strange world of Shandy should visit the home of its author – the Reverend Laurence Sterne- Shandy Hall in Coxwold, North Yorkshire.
Laurence Sterne, though born in Ireland, was a Yorkshireman through and through. His great grandfather, Richard Sterne had been Archbishop of York and his family had a long association with the institutions that represented middle class Britain; the army and the church. His father, a soldier in the British Army, moved the family back to Yorkshire when he was six months old. Sterne travelled around with his father in the army for several years before going to Cambridge, gaining a degree and becoming a rector in the Church of England.
Sterne was first encouraged into his writing by his uncle, Dr Joshua Sterne, a fierce political radical and writer. It was while struggling with tuberculosis and ensconced in his home, not too far from his church, that Sterne began to write his most famous work.
Shandy Hall is today managed by the Laurence Sterne Trust and is one of the hidden gems of North Yorkshire. Only accessible to small groups at a time and with a convivial and fascinating atmosphere, the tour begins in small room by a fire near the entrance to the main house. Presided over by experts in the field of Sterne, you are lead through the elegantly small and homely abode through to Sterne’s personal and delightful study to be shown first editions of The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s study is magnificent in its bookish closeness and is the epitome of what a writer’s room should look like.
Following this, you are taken through to Sterne’s dining room – stylish in its Georgian splendour it is unlike any other period room you can see because the evidence of Sterne’s work is stamped on it so much. Spacious and decorated in the style of the times, it includes Hogarth’s illustrations from Sterne’s great work depicting humorous and vivid scenes from the novels. It is a bright and spacious room which invites one to ponder whether Sterne conceived most of his outlandish ideas while dining with assembled guests.
Outside is the small and well-maintained garden which is a triumph of Georgian power and prestige over nature. Sterne’s love of nature is evident from the garden and its place in close proximity to the house. The outer sections of Shandy Hall are a short walk away from the main house and include a delightful book shop where you can buy all manner of interesting and illuminating works on both Shandy and other writers.
Slightly further on from this is another building housing work inspired by Shandy as well as work from his books; a variety of exhibitions are held in the building and it is wonderful to see how Sterne can still inspire after two centuries.
A short and inviting stroll across the road will take you to Sterne’s church, St Michael's, where the author’s body was reinterred in the 1960s after his grave had to be moved due to redevelopment in his original burial place in London. Sterne preached there and a magnificent epitaph to him signals his impact on the area. Inside can be seen magnificent monuments to other local individuals – the church should be visited not simply for its connection to the great author but for the sheer architectural beauty of it.
Visiting Shandy Hall is a must for any great fan of English Literature; it allows you to experience an intimate and unique insight into one of Britain’s greatest lost writers and to take you back to a time when the novel was still being formed. Shandy Hall is a magnificent example of a truly unique experience – a gateway into the past that is charming no matter how often you visit it.
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