Withnail And I, revisited
“SCRUBBERS!”Â I yell gleefully – leaning from the passenger seat of our car into the full force of the northern wind. The sound of Jimi Hendrix noodling ”ËAll Along The Watchtower’ consumes every inch of the interior as we bear down the M6 ”â pushing relentlessly onwards to Penrith.
I’ve gone on holiday with my husband Christian ”â and not “by mistake”Â. We’ve planned “a delightful weekend in the country”Â ”â retracing the iconic steps of Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann from the 1986 classic ”ËWithnail and I’. It’s the darkly comic tale of two out-of-work actors who plan to escape their squalid Camden flat by holidaying in Penrith – only to fall prey to Withnail’s predatory homosexual Uncle Monty, a menacing poacher and the merciless Cumbrian climate.
Grossing just ÃÂ£565,112 domestically, the film went on to achieve cult status on VHS and DVD ”â not least because of writer/director Bruce Robinson’s infinitely quotable screenplay. And while I’m not quite brave enough to insult the locals round my way as Withnail does in the film, I have to say it feels wonderfully wicked to startle the passing sheep at least.
A thick band of raincloud suffocates Penrith as we check into Bank House Bed and Breakfast on Graham Street. As we’re unpacking rain begins to lash the windows. Far from feeling disappointed we smile. In the movie Withnail and Marwood arrive in a vicious downpour so we take this as a good omen.
After a Monty-esque feast at the Villa Bianca – the town’s premier Italian restaurant – washed down with the “finest wines available to humanity”Â we head for the Lowther Arms to place a classic Withnailian order at the bar: “Two large gins, two ciders ”â ice in the ciders.”Â
Unsurprisingly when I wake up “I feel like a pig shat in my head”Â and shout: “There must and shall be aspirin!”Â
Thankfully the Bank House fare has rejuvenating qualities ”â mounds of homemade bread; organic oat porridge with maple syrup; the finest locally-sourced condiments and piping hot tea accompanies a class English breakfast cooked to perfection. As we eat Sarah the owner tells us that the townsfolk have recently rescued Lonsdale Cinema ”â the town’s independent cinema – from the clutches of booze-chain giants Wetherspoons. They secured thousands of signatures on a petition ”â the first one from Grant himself – and marched through Penrith dressed as film stars.
“If we had failed, we planned to make ”ËWithnail and I’ the last film that was screened there,”Â says Sarah. Luckily the cinema has temporarily been granted a reprieve. Sarah is eager to help us on our quest and furnishes us with a map ”â circling all our stop-off points in Biro. By 10am we’re already on the road and heading for Shap (junction 39 on the M6). From there it’s just a 10-minute ride out to Wet Sleddale Reservoir and our first stop of the day ”â Sleddale Hall. For us this is the Holy Grail – the smallholding which served as Uncle Monty’s remote hillside holiday home ”ËCrow Crag’ in the movie.
For now it’s a mere pinprick in the distance – a grey dot on the expanse of green hillside overlooking the impossibly blue reservoir.
Deep breath”Â¦ now walk. With the sun beating down on our backs and the air scorching our lungs we press on ”â following the sometimes shingle, sometimes grass, often muddy footpath that snakes along the perimeter of the reservoir. The ground is boggy and uneven – necessitating a slow laborious pace and frequent stops to tentatively sound out the terrain. Soon we come to a wooden footbridge that traverses a creek and then a hop-scotch of stepping stones that test the nerve. Further up the creek in the movie, Grant bounded shoelessly in the water – attempting to blast fish with a shotgun. Smiling at the memory we mentally check it off on our ”Ëto visit’ list.
But the real prize looms up ahead ”â Sleddale Hall is now in tantalising proximity. Our only barrier is a herd of horned sheep with their precious new lambs to guard. They’re not bulls and, unlike Marwood in the movie, we’ve not got priceless supplies in our arms – but we still have to fight the urge to run. Instead we brazen it out – avoiding eye contact with them and puffing and panting our way onwards and upwards.
As we near the hall my heart sinks. There’s a barbed wire fence circling the perimeter and bright blue warning signs: ”ËDanger ”â Keep out. Unsafe buildings. Asbestos present’. After a spot of dithering we decide to climb over the stile anyway. We’ve no intention of going into the buildings themselves and couldn’t if we wanted to. Every single window and doorway is fortified with thick boards and padlocks that glint in the sunlight. The whole smallholding is in a state of chronic disrepair and looks totally uninhabitable. Uncle Monty would be horrified!
Oh but to be here! Stood in the silent suntrap of the courtyard”Â¦ what a treat! The air is so still”Â¦ so quiet and we can’t stop smiling. Every step we sit on, every ledge we gently brush stirs the memory and the soul with it. A plaque has been glued to the main door. “Here hare here”Â¦,”Â Christian says ”â reading it aloud in his best Uncle Monty voice. It’s a lovely touch ”â a nod to the note that Jake the poacher nails to the door in the film. And surrounding it, in handwriting of all shapes and sizes, quotes from the screenplay have been graffitied onto the wood: “As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops”Â¦”Â “I will never play the Dane”Â¦”Â “We’ve come on holiday by mistake”Â¦”Â
I’m drawn to a familiar doorway ”â the one which a bleary-eyed Marwood looks through on the morning after the storm – realising for the first time just how beautiful the Lakeland countryside truly is. In the film the view you see is actually of Haweswater, which is approximately four miles away- proving you never can believe what you see in the movies!
The new owner, Canterbury architect Tim Ellis, has tacked a note dated October 20, 2010 to the door explaining: “The Lake District National Park Authority have issued a Certificate of Lawful Use which means that the house can be restored to residential use. I will shortly be sending a specification of works and drawings to local contractors for tenders and hope that works will commence later this year.”Â
It’s now April 2011 and there’s no sign of any work – hinting at further delays behind the scenes. But public interest is still high. I (stupidly) assumed we would have the whole place to ourselves. In fact within the space of 30 minutes we are joined by two more couples and then by a whole party of ramblers – not too shabby for a film that’s two-and-a-half decades old!
It’s time to move on, so having obliged the other couples by taking their photograph on the steps of the cottage we leave. By the time we get back to the car it’s gone noon and so we head off immediately to Bampton Grange. The hunt is now on for a very specific telephone box – the one Withnail uses to call his agent about a job opportunity back in the capital.
We stop at the Crown and Mitre Inn for directions en-route and again at Bampton Village Store where we talk to owner John Stones, who has structured a whole business empire around said phone box. “We’ve got a B&B which overlooks it if you ever want to stay there,”Â he says. “The actual tearoom from the film is somewhere near London but we do very nicely with our tearoom here.”Â
Having bought a homemade greetings card from John depicting Sleddale Hall, the phone box and the bull’s gate (more of that later) we set off on foot for the two-minute stroll. John warns us that it’s in a state of disrepair ”â something the locals have staunchly complained to BT about. Indeed when we get closer we can see there is a pane of glass missing and signs of wear and tear. Still we are geekishly excited to be here and spend a good 10 minutes pretending to make phone calls and bawling into the receiver. “The bastard wanted me to understudy for Constantine in The Seagull!”Â I shout happily. “Bitch hung up on me!”Â Christian cries out. A cockerel sits watching our antics ”â no doubt used to these odd displays from out-of-town types.
John has let us in on a little secret”Â¦ On the road back towards Shap there is a farm ”â Scarside ”â the scene of Marwood’s infamous confrontation with a randy bull. It’s too much of a temptation not to go so we set off once again ”â this time listening to the soundtrack of incidental music from the movie. We have a false start (one five-bar gate is very much the same as another in all fairness), but on the advice of a slightly bemused but very helpful lady at Scarside we set off up a desolate track which lo-and-behold ends with the very gate from the film.
As we stand and look into the neighbouring field it’s easy to picture fop-haired Marwood in a fit of fury yelling: “A coward you are Withnail”Â¦ An expert on bulls you are not!”Â
By now the sun is burning brighter than ever. We head for Haweswater – passing back through Bampton en-route. It’s the scene for one of the film’s most memorable moments when Withnail throws his arms outwards and cries: “I’m going to be a star!”Â
We’re weary now – irritated by the sun and a particularly animated holidaymaker who talks at a machinegun rate while we try to enjoy a quiet drink at the Haweswater Hotel. “She might have a heart condition,”Â paraphrases Christian. “If you hit her, it’s murder.”Â
Looking at the map it’s evident that Haweswater is huge. Finding the precise spot from the movie feels like an impossibility and we know from having watched a documentary on the DVD extras it involves climbing over a large stone wall.
Suddenly we get a touch of the Withnails – the urge to do nothing more taxing than eat, drink and be merry. As we watch the late afternoon sun transform the water into a glittering sea I suddenly feel thirsty. “I demand to have some booze,”Â I say ”â my favourite line in the film.
“Come on”Â¦ back to Penrith it is then,”Â Christian says. “Chin chin.”Â
Where we stayed: Bank House Bed and Breakfast www.bankhousepenrith.co.uk
Where we visited: Bampton Village Store www.bamptonvillagestore.co.uk
The Crown and Mitre Inn www.crownandmitre.com
”ËCrow Crag’: Sleddale Hall near Shap
Phone box: Bampton, CA10 2RQ
Bull’s gate: Scarside Farm, Bampton