Mardale.... and Withnail
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
In 2008, travel writer Tom Chesshyre and some mates drove a Red Mark II Jag to the Bampton Valley in the Lake District to pay homage to their favourite film, ‘Withnail & I’ - in pursuit of 'the finest wines available to humanity'. Originally published in the Mail on Sunday as ‘Withnail…..and Us’, Tom has kindly permitted us to reprint this article.
It’s noon on a Friday afternoon in August. Light is filtering through the windows of an old boozer on a corner near a flyover and a council estate in West London. Voodoo Chile is playing on the stereo. I'm sitting at the bar with my friends Paul and Chris, who have just placed their order: 'Two large gins, two pints of cider - ice in the cider.' They have just drunk the same round at a pub nearby and they are in an 'animated' state. 'It's a beauty!' says Paul, after saying 'chin chin', sipping his cider and staring out of the pub door towards our car for the weekend - a bright red 1961 Jaguar Mark II. 'A real beauty.' Chris is of the same opinion but then he says: 'We'd better make some time.' He downs his gin - and we pile into the Jag.
We're on our way to Cumbria, where we're to spend a 'delightful weekend in the country', re-enacting the film ‘Withnail And I’ as closely as possible by visiting as many of the locations from the cult 1987 comedy as we can.
The pub we've just left is the Tavistock, on the edge of Notting Hill. It was here that, in the movie, out-of-work actors Withnail and Marwood plotted their trip to the Lake District.
In the film, the Tavistock is described as being in Camden but website www.movie-locations.com told us otherwise, which is how we found the exact spot where the pair - played by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann - are chased out of the bar by a large local who takes a dislike to them.
In real life we are not threatened with physical abuse and nor do we have to plead heart conditions - 'If you hit me, it's murder.' Instead, we head north 'making time', just as they do in the film, slightly worrying whether the Jag, the same model they drive but in a much better condition, will make it all the way up the M6.
We aim to follow the plot of the film the best we can - finding the old farmhouse that is the pair's destination (now privately owned), visiting the Penrith tea room where Withnail demands 'the finest wines available to humanity', locating the phone box where Withnail talks to his agent and turns down the chance to understudy the part of Constantine in The Seagull, and seeking out the place on a hillside overlooking a lake where Withnail screams hopelessly to the heavens: 'I'm gonna be a star!' The Jag makes it, with the passengers having sobered up after their ciders and gins (the exact order from the film, of course).
We spend an evening drinking the finest wines available to man in Bampton Grange, a few miles from Sleddale Hall, the farmhouse from the film - making friends with the locals after toasting a 'delightful weekend in the country', just as they do in the film. Alcohol - you may have noticed - is an important part of ‘Withnail And I’. Wendy, the landlady, tells us, 'No one's ever done this before,' referring to our escapade.
Locals are very proud of the film. A retired farmer called Ronald, 72, tells me that the scene where Withnail leaps over a fence to leave Marwood clutching a bag of shopping and facing a 'randy' bull was shot on his old farm.
After a late evening, we're up early and driving to Sleddale Hall, which is next to a reservoir. We stop to ask a farmer for directions. Paul enquires 'Are you the farmer?' - which he clearly is, but that's a line used in the film.
Then Paul says 'We're not from London, you know,' another line, to which the farmer replies: 'So where are you from?' Paul ignores this and, sticking with dialogue from the movie, declares: 'We've gone on holiday by mistake.' The farmer just looks at us in our shiny red Jag - we're clearly 'Lunnon types' and he's a bit sceptical about us.
Further on, after parking and walking down an isolated lane, we reach the farmhouse. It's dilapidated - a grey-stone building on a slope with several outhouses surrounded by weeds. Windows are boarded up and there is graffiti from other Withnail fans over the door. It says 'Don't threaten me with a dead fish!' (a line delivered when Withnail gets into an argument with a poacher in a pub), 'We've come here by mistake,' and 'Chin chin!' - among much else.
Inside - there's an entrance at the back - we find a couple of fold-down picnic chairs in the kitchen, where the characters cook a chicken in the film. There are a few empty bottles of Becks beer, a can of Carling and a box of teabags. A bikini top is hanging from a clothes-drying wire, as though an overenthusiastic female fan has left it. And there's a visitors' book - an old Tesco Value notebook - inscribed on the first page: 'Please feel free to use the facilities provided but please tidy up and remove litter when finished’. Thanks, Monty.
Monty, the raving homosexual uncle of Withnail, is memorably played by Richard Griffiths, whose character is given to grandiloquent soliloquies and who drives a huge Rolls-Royce through the tiny Cumbria lanes. Apparently - according to one local we met in the pub that night - Liam and Noel Gallagher are big fans of the film and occasionally come here with friends to have a late-night drink.
Chris, who is perhaps the biggest fan of the film out of the three of us, is moved to be in its most famous location. 'It's like going to Mecca,' he says, as we make our way back to the Jag. Being a 'film tourist' turns out to be a good way to see this area of the Lakes.
We find the place, Mardale Banks overlooking Haweswater, where Withnail raises his arms and proclaims, 'I'm gonna be a star!'. It's a beautiful spot.
Then we go back to Bampton, where we track down the old red phone box from where Withnail calls his agent.
This is close to the Mardale Inn, and Bampton Village Store, B&B and Tea Room, where we ask for the 'finest wine available to humanity' and it turns out that the tea room does, in fact, sell wine but only in bottles from the store, not in glasses at tables.
It is not the location of the tea room in the film - www.movie-locations.com says that is near Milton Keynes - but it will do for us. John, the owner, tells us the film brings him 'quite a lot of business - as many as 15 people a day come by, and lots of them want to know where the phone box is'.
He adds: 'It's a landmark round here now. If BT changed it, there would be a local revolt.' We go for a night out in Penrith and then head back down the M6 in the Jag, not getting pulled over by the police (Withnail is arrested for drink driving) and playing Voodoo Chile again on a portable stereo - part of Withnail And I's soundtrack.
All that's left is to recite Hamlet in Regent's Park - as Withnail does at the end of the film. 'What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason.' And then we go home. We've been on holiday by mistake - and we've completely enjoyed it. Chin chin!
Thanks to writer Tom Chesshyre - https://www.tomchesshyre.co.uk/biography/
Thanks also to photographer Murray Close for Withnail over Haweswater image - https://withnailphotos.com/