By Gavriel Hollander
As an inveterate Londoner, the idea of the country weekend has always held a mixture of fascination and trepidation. The great outdoors is not my habitat. Wellies are what you wear at festivals, walking is a means of transport rather than an activity, and give me the cool ambivalence of an urban cat over the dumb servitude of a rural working dog any day of the week.
And yet the past 12 months has brought about in me a new and unfamiliar urge. Perhaps it is the early stages of middle age taking hold or the novelty of first-time fatherhood — more likely it is the effect of being trapped day and night in my small slice of overpriced concrete breezeblock — but the great British countryside is calling to me like never before.
I imagine that Richard E Grant’s eponymous anti-hero in Withnail & I felt this same yearning for something cleaner than London air when he and fellow unemployed thespian, played by Paul McGann, set out for the Lake District and Uncle Monty’s Westmorland cottage, Crow Crag, back in the paranoia-soaked fag end of the 1960s. Sure, Withnail’s desire to escape may have had more to do with narcotic-induced hysteria than a global pandemic, but the need feels just as great.
I crave Withnail’s “holiday by mistake”; I crave the impossible-to-find cottage with no mod cons, surrounded by miles of gorse and mud; I crave the country pub with the sozzled landlord where the passing of time — both in terms of hours and decades — is only a loosely understood concept.
I will go for long, dawn strolls in the wind and rain, inappropriately dressed to an extent that borders on the wilful. I will dry out by the fire under wooden beams, pretending to work on my screenplay or nodding off with a book.
For company on my escape, I need more than McGann’s put-upon companion and Richard Griffiths’ pompous, predatory Uncle Monty. My friends and I can play board games (strictly nothing digital allowed) and drink luxuriously deep red wine while we wait for our chicken or, perhaps even more appropriately, hare to slow cook in the Aga.
The real Crow Crag, a farmhouse called Sleddale Hall near the Cumbria village of Shap, was for many years the property of United Utilities, an owner of such modernity and prosaicness that it would no doubt have made Monty weep. It has since been bought by an architect who, in deference to the house’s history, has staged Withnail & I viewing parties over long, presumably wine-drenched, weekends. Once lockdown is over, I would like nothing more than to visit on a wet and wild Westmorland night.
In the meantime, where might I find a property in which to stage my Withnail fantasy? This refurbished five-bedroom farmhouse in the Peak District, on the market for offers in excess of £1m, bestows the same kind of solitude as Crow Crag, albeit with a more modernised and neater looking interior. That is alright though — it is nothing that some imported clutter and a raucous weekend dinner party or two will not fix quickly enough.
Alternatively, this four-bedroom, 14th-century cottage in Little Wenlock, Shropshire, with a guide price of £495,000, ticks most of my Withnail boxes: the exposed beams, the wood-burner, the expansive kitchen with the ubiquitous Aga.
And Uncle Monty’s “sensational cellar”? I guess that is something I will have to supply myself.
Photographs: Alamy; Murray Close/Getty Images; Fine & Country; Strutt & Parker