A few years ago, I decided to spend a delightful weekend in the country. A friend and I would repair to Cumbria, where many of the iconic scenes from Withnail & I were filmed, to take in those locations. We would drive there from London, playing the film soundtrack over and over again on the car stereo until we arrived, or until that bastard calliope gave us the fear.
When you have seen the film well over 60 times between you, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
The lead characters, thespians Withnail (mendacious alcoholic, played by Richard E Grant) and Marwood (Withnail’s only friend, played by Paul McGann), do the journey in a fucked Jag. We tried to blag such a motor, enhance the realism, but failed once the Jaguar press office learnt of our intentions. We resorted to using my D-reg Peugeot 205 with the go-faster lion, which was at least as fucked as the Jag. (When I test-drove it, the seller advised me not to reverse-park; “There are better spaces up ahead,” he says. Only later did I discover the reverse gear did not work. To this day I wish I had shat through his letterbox.)
Cumbria seemed very rural, very wet and devoid of people, a shock to the system when one is accustomed to the city, like toppling into a ditch and remaining there. Foolish souls holiday in the region to become one with nature. Many hike, truth be told. We wanted to find a gate, a phone box, a farmhouse, a rock, a stream and Sleddale Hall, a ruin on a hill. What it was doing up there, fuck knows. But it was up there.
We chanced upon the phone box too easily, pootling lost through Bampton. It’s the one Withnail calls his agent from, while Marwood stamps his feet. Our visit was perhaps half a dozen years ago, before mobile phones killed off call-boxes, though I’d wager Bampton’s remains, it being little more than an outpost, unsullied by technology. The phone box looked exactly as it had in the film – red, solid, beside a bus stop – and we stood inside it pretending to phone our own agents, though we neither warranted nor possessed one, while the other snapped shots. Withnail becomes impatient and tries to break the receiver, but we did not go that far, there being no place in society for vandalism.
"We'd drive there from London, playing the film soundtrack over and over again. When you have seen the film well over 60 times between you, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do."
Afterwards, following repeated wrong-turns, we tramped up a hill to discover the gate through which the bull appears, which was just a gate, and later the farmhouse occupied by Ma Parkin (‘Oi don’t care where ’e’s from!’). The latter turned out to be among farm buildings at the dead-end of a lengthy road through fields and between beasts, yet the farmer on a quad-bike we passed heading the other way batted not an eyelid that we were complete strangers making for his property. Such, we imagined, was the Withnail-pilgrimage traffic he had endured.
Though my friend and I had talked boyishly of knocking on the farmhouse door and annoying the occupants – just as Marwood had done – we ended up parking some distance away, took furtive photographs from the safety of our vehicle and scarpered before anyone could challenge us. We were indeed from London.
That night, staying in a soulless hotel somewhere around Shap, with chrome bar trimmings and all the life of a chap with emphysema, we made a snap decision. We had planned to track down the rock Withnail stands atop, to declare ‘I’m gonna be a star!’ following a session at the Crow & Cunt, the next morning. We changed our minds, and though I was over the limit myself, determined to climb into the car and find it that instant.
It was very dark out there, and very quiet. The rain had ceased and the atmosphere inside the car was cut with anticipation. I recall driving up a steepish road. To our right was a vast body of water, way down below us, a sprawling, eerie pool, the like of which ancient monsters might inhabit.
Finding the very spot on which E Grant had stood would prove problematic, one rock looking much like another, and I drove until the road unexpectedly ceased at a gate, at the apex of the slope. A car was parked there, somewhere around midnight, in the middle of fucking nowhere, with no sign of its occupant(s). All around was woodland. The Peugeot’s headlights cast ghostly beams, its engine thrummed, and we became convinced a madman was on the prowl.
Retreating hastily back down the road we espied a likely spot and parked the car, keeping its lights on, and clambered over some nature. Even in the gloom, the view was stunning. That reservoir, hundreds of feet below us, lurking between hillsides. If this were not the exact spot from the film, it would certainly do.
“I’M GONNA BE A STAR!” we hollered in turns.
Our cries hovered briefly then were swallowed up by the enormity of the scenery.
The next day was the big one: iconic Crow Crag, played in the film by Sleddale Hall. Uncle Monty’s farmhouse, at which the boys stayed for their own ‘delightful weekend in the country’. A cold, damp isolated stone shack with spuds and oil lamps, peril in the bedrooms, garlic, rosemary and salt.
There was a makeshift car park at the bottom of a grassy hill. Always a hill. The ground was sodden and puddles the size of tennis courts occupied anything non-porous. In keeping with the film, we had failed to bring wellington boots.
We were aware that the old stone bridge and tumbling river from the ‘shooting fish’ scene were nearby, and stumbled upon them almost immediately. My friend clambered onto a natural, slightly inclined slab beside the running water, for me to take a photograph, slid by increments down the wet surface and fell into the river. Our laughter might have been heard in… which county borders Cumbria?
"Previous visitors had scrawled graffiti all over the chipboard on the front door. Lines from the film. ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’ – that sort of thing."
On the plus side, his imminent exertion would warm him up, and the persistent bloody wind would dry him off. Though we could not see Crow Crag, given the incline, we knew it was up there. We began to climb.
When that abandoned farmhouse came into view, I will not lie to you: I was pathetically excited. Withnail & I commands a devotion it fully deserves. It is the funniest and the greatest film ever made (IMHO), and Bruce Robinson’s love of the language seeps from the pages of his script, like butter drips off crumpets. I would not have travelled all that way to find, say, a stupid front door from Notting Hill, or a swimming hat Kevin Costner may have won in Waterworld. But I will go to my grave quoting Withnail.
Crow Crag’s windows and doors were boarded up, as we had expected – rumour had it that some Water Board owned and abandoned the place – and previous visitors had scrawled graffiti all over the chipboard on the front door. Lines from the film. ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’ – that sort of thing.
We found a way in, I don’t recall how. Suffice to say that it did not involve damage to property, no matter that the property was already damaged. Inside was almost pitch black, given the blocked windows, however I had a lighter and we explored the living area as Withnail and Marwood had done all those years ago: by naked flame.
The interior was beyond dilapidated, left to decay despite the heritage. The eating area, where Withnail, Marwood and Monty dined and played cards, was bare, with a chilly fireplace taking up most of the far wall. There were crushed cans and empty bottles around, signs that fans had partied there before. The old porcelain sink, the other side of the front door, was still in situ, though sitting at a funny angle. Water dripped from its tap, though no one had occupied the place for decades, lending credence to the Water Board angle. Marwood/Paul McGann washed his hands in that sink; Monty/Richard Griffiths tried to seduce him over it. Now we were there.
Opposite the sink were the stairs. Daylight lingered at the top, the upstairs windows having not been boarded over. We made our way up, the wood complaining. I’d imagined the bedrooms would look, in principle at least, as they had in the film. They did not, and I later discovered that those upstairs scenes were filmed elsewhere.
It was just bare floorboards and buggered walls up there, but we laid out a rug and spread across it the cheese and meats my friend had packed for the express purpose of picnicking inside Crow Crag. While we did so, another group of devotees appeared, though the place exists in defiant isolation.
My friend had also brought along a quite expensive bottle of vintage Chateau Margeux – the specific wine from the film – for us to share, and made a toast as he eased out the cork. “I could not have wished for a finer friend with whom to share this experience,” he said (or less poncey words to that effect). Sadly, we have since fallen out – something to do with JK Rowling – and I wonder now whether he wishes he had kept his booze.
All these locations – and more – can be found here: