It's part of the long-established lore of Withnail and I that the writer/director Bruce Robinson took inspiration from the time he actually did go 'on holiday by mistake' to the Lake District with a friend. It was in the winter of 1970 that Bruce and fellow struggling actor Michael Feast headed north in a 'fucked old Jaguar', and found themselves staying in a farm cottage far up a stony track, a mile from the road. Remembering the trip in the book-length interview Smoking in Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson, he didn't mince his words:
'The cottage depicted in the film was positively luxurious compared with what Mickey and I actually found when we arrived. It really was bucket by the bed with rain coming in and so cold you could hardly see.'
Burning furniture to keep warm, and killing a chicken to eat: both actually happened, according to Bruce. As did running outside with plastic bags on their feet to try to remedy the fuel and wood situation. Though he could remember the name of the (are you the?) farmer who owned the place — 'Parkin, which is where I got the name' — Bruce couldn't then recall the name of 'wherever it was — it wasn't called Crow Crag.'
In the film, Crow Crag was memorably played by Sleddale Hall in Wet Sleddale, near Shap. Much has been written about this wonderful place, and thousands upon thousands of photos have probably been taken of it by now, by the many Withnailers who have made the pilgrimage, not least those who attend the sold-out Picnic Cinema screenings of the film in the yard at the house every summer. (Though pilgrims should note that it is a private property, and not open to the public or available to rent... as yet.)
But where did Bruce actually stay on that fateful trip in 1970? Which house originally inspired Crow Crag?
Well, thanks to a detail tucked away in the marvellous new book Withnail and I: From Cult to Classic, we can now reveal exactly where it was that Bruce and Michael Feast ended up, and yes, it's still a holiday let (though presumably now with better plumbing).
In the book — alongside interviews and memories from the cast, crew, and famous fans — there is all sorts of wonderful ephemera from Bruce's personal archive, including the first page of a letter he wrote to his then-girlfriend, the actress Lesley-Anne Down, about the 'holiday' he'd just had. He begins by describing the local area: 'In Pooley-Bridge, the nights are nightier — black is blacker, and cold is colder (I forgot — wet is wetter).' He goes on to describe getting to their accommodation, and there, in the letter, is this:
'Auterstone cottage sticks out like a boil on a troubled brow.'
A quick google reveals that Auterstone Cottage is part of Swarthbeck Farm, near Howtown. It overlooks Ullswater, and according to its website is, yes, up 'a long track which can be difficult in snow and ice.' But, it has 'wonderful views over the whole lake from the front.' Sounds lovely. To be fair, even Bruce conceded in his 1970 letter that 'the living room is a picture from a noddy book about cottages.' It appears that no one online, and certainly not the people who own the place (still the Parkins?) has ever made the Withnail connection...
If you'd like to stay there yourself, you can find the details here.
Why Bruce didn't suggest filming Withnail at the place that inspired it is an interesting question, which I'm not sure he's ever been asked. It's not as if Sleddale Hall is any easier to get to for a film crew, if anything, it's even further from a main road! Having said that, Sleddale Hall (which was found by Unit Production Manager Matthew Binns) was perfect for the film, and it's now hard to imagine Uncle Monty's being anywhere else. But! A film has been made at Auterstone, and a somewhat Withnailian one at that...
Paul is Dead is a short film about the Beatles, and rather than trying to sum it up, it's quicker if you just go and watch it. It's superb on every level, and I'm not just saying that because it was co-written and produced, not to mention production designed, by a friend of mine, Stuart Armstrong.
Here's the trailer:
... and you can watch the whole short here. It's now in development as a feature-length version at Polyrock Films.
The spooky thing is, Stu felt that the spirit of Withnail was with them from the start...
'As self-confessed Withnail and I superfans, Paul Is Dead writer/director George and I immediately drew inspiration from the film as soon as our co-writer Ben lit the flame of a comedy short based around the infamous Beatles conspiracy theory. It seemed like a perfect fit; not, that is, because George Harrison himself financed Withnail, but rather where else would one stage the death of Paul McCartney than on a 'musical retreat' in a remote cottage clung to the side of a Cumbrian fell. There was just something about our aim to create fictional versions of the well-loved Beatles through a flawed, ironic and pathetic lens which felt inherently Withnailian. Naturally, we arranged to recce the real life Crow Crag ASAP, and were soon shown around by the welcoming current owner Tim Ellis. However, we found the logistics of getting a film crew up to Sleddale Hall were just too inviable — and this was in 2018, so Christ knows how they managed it in the 1980s! It was at this point we naturally began discussing the making of Withnail, and found ourselves wondering where exactly Robinson took his fated, inspirational holiday — and I'm sure a passing 'wouldn’t it be cool if we ended up filming there' was thrown around. Next on our location scout list was Auterstone Cottage, on the other side of the far eastern Lakeland fells, owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Parkin. Parkin? Like the farmer from Withnail? I recognised it as a local name, but a bell did ring instantly; and George and I immediately shared a knowing glance. A lonely cottage about as remote as you can get, a ripened old farmer who probably looked about the same age in 1969, and who when informed about the subject of our film replied — verbatim — 'The Beatles. Ah yes. Everything was fine until they came along.' We were sure this was the place.'
Director George Moore adds, 'It immediately felt uncannily like we were living the full Withnail and I experience. The muddy trek up the mountainside was strikingly similar to the film’s impromptu bullring. A step out the door and you’re confronted with the huge, widescreen vista of the lake and fells below, just as Marwood is in the film.'
Stu continues, 'We ended up shooting Paul at and around Auterstone, but not without running into a few issues, not least of which was a three-day snow-in thanks to the 'Beast from the East', during which we had to march our cast and crew on a six-mile round trip to Pooley Bridge to buy the last remaining potato, black pudding and fine wine on offer in the local post office (and at once pick up the Parkins’ waylaid Daily Mail). But we survived and made it, fittingly, back to London. The film then went on to enjoy great success on the festival circuit and, humbly, something of a cult status online — a privilege which can of course be attributed to the incumbent cultural real estate of the four lads from Liverpool, but one we’re glad to think is also a testament to the continued ability of Bruce Robinson’s masterpiece to inspire filmmakers such as ourselves. And how marvellous that we now have physical proof of the Withnailian heritage we had always hoped to imbue into Paul Is Dead.’
Yes Stu, it is marvellous!
Auterstone Cottage: you now have your place assured in Withnail history... nay, British film history... nay British history.
There should be a plaque, at the very least.