The name suggests some kind of grandiose country seat – a sprawling Neoclassical pile out of PG Wodehouse, all sandstone columns and sweeping gravel drive; or a smaller, but nevertheless imposing manor house looming over its feudal vassals. But this is Shandy Hall – it bears the same relation to such residences as shandy does to the more potent strains of ale. It is restrained, humbler, diluted, less inclined to excess. In fact, it is little more than a trim brick parsonage in an archetypally sleepy Yorkshire village. Here, in the 1760s, jocund cleric Laurence Sterne wrote two books that people still read (or, at least, attempt to) to this day – A Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy. Filled with exactly the sort of Rabelaisian references to hot chestnuts disappearing into open flies that one would expect of an 18th-century man of the cloth, the latter book made Sterne’s name – and provided that of his house.

The core of Shandy Hall is a 15th-century priest’s house: behind a folding panel in the parlour is a section of wattle-and-daub wall still bearing the Christ-abbreviation “IHS”, indicating that this room was originally a chapel where the priest – more conventionally pious than Sterne – would have performed his private devotions. Over the years this timber frame accrued various brick extensions, architectural digressions which accorded the building the sort of modest, slightly illogical sprawl that would have appealed to Sterne. His own contribution was a gentle brick façade to the west which still bears the peeling traces of Victorian yellow-wash. An arched alcove – presumably intended for a mock-aggrandising bust of Sterne – stands empty save for a pot plant. Set improbably low in the wall are a pair of sash windows – of the very type, no doubt, that fell upon and permanently damaged the five-year-old Tristram Shandy’s membrum virile when, in the absence of a chamber pot, he contrived “to **** *** ** *** *******” (piss out of the window), as Sterne put it with characteristic 18th-century faux-coyness.

That Sterne’s “Shandy castle” is still standing is almost entirely due to the efforts of Julia Monkman and her late husband, Kenneth. When the couple first came across the house in 1963, it was – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – a virtual wreck. Centuries of neglect and indifference had done their worst. Dry rot, wet rot, retinues of deathwatch beetle patrolling the Medieval beams; the floors were without boards and there were gaping holes in the walls. The occupants, a farmer and his wife, were so ashamed of the poverty in which they lived that at first they would not allow the Monkmans in. “She later told me that she had once been pinned to the bed by falling plaster, and had to wait for her husband to come back from milking to set her free,” confides Julia.

Faced with this decrepit relic at the conclusion of their Shandean pilgrimage, the couple bid farewell to their former lives at the BBC, and set up the Laurence Sterne Trust with a number of fellow devotees and a view to saving the day. Following various fund-raising endeavours, including the sale of a sculpture donated by Henry Moore (satirists would probably suggest that this rose about three shillings), the Trust was able to acquire the freehold in 1968. The Monkmans moved in as honorary curators, living in one end of the house even as major conservation work was going on in other rooms. By 1972, restoration was complete. The decaying 17th-century panelling was renewed, the walls had been painted in shades of salmon and green, and period furniture clustered around the rustic fireplaces. Shandy Hall once again looked much as it had in Sterne’s day.

Tristram Shandy’s father was immensely proud of his vast library, stuffed with such rare (and completely fictitious) works as the Slawkenbergius Treatise on Noses and the mammoth Trista-paedia – a guidebook detailing how to raise Tristram, which took longer to write than the boy did to grow up and was thus utterly useless. The library at Shandy Hall today is no less extensive (although by comparison somewhat restricted in scope); it is a collection of Sterneana assembled by Kenneth Monkman, without parallel anywhere in the world. Wall after wall is shielded with the leather spines of books from the 18th century on down – Shakespeare, Locke, Cervantes, the King James Bible, and several hundred copies of Tristram Shandy. The editions published in Sterne’s lifetime alone run to 250 volumes; there are versions in French, German, Greek, Russian, Japanese, and a US Armed Services Edition, floppy and landscape in format, “condensed for wartime reading”. It is hard to picture a GI setting his Thompson gun to one side, or removing his hand from a pliant nyloned thigh, in order to lose himself in Sterne’s dense, digressive prose.

If the library is evocative of that in Tristram Shandy, it is perhaps fortunate that the gardens are not. In the book, Uncle Toby obsessively transformed the bowling green into a crazy-golf-style model of the Siege of Namur. The gardens at Shandy Hall, equipped with campion and poppies rather than cannons and petards, have been cultivated by Julia for the last 30 years. The cottage-garden style, free from incongruous modern breeds, attracts many visitors to the house who have little interest in its famous literary resident.

When Sterne died, in 1768, his body was stolen by graverobbers and taken to Cambridge for an anatomy lecture; it was only because someone recognised his face that the corpse was returned to its London burial ground. In 1969, the Laurence Sterne Trust exhumed his remains and reburied them in the local parish church. A fitting metaphor, then, for the manner in which the Trust also restored dignity to the abused Shandy Hall.


First published in World of Interiors issue 228. Reproduced with permission.

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