FINDING UNCLE MONTY’S COTTAGE
A Production Designer’s Account on the 30th Anniversary of ‘Withnail & I’
by Michael Pickwoad
I met Bruce Robinson through Terry Marcel, who had directed ‘Hawk the Slayer’, the first feature film I designed. There was some early money available and Bruce was keen to see what sort of locations might be found, especially the Cottage, which has since become a character in its own right. This of course was a place that Bruce had actually stayed in and apart from the iconic stove its other requirement was inaccessibility, as he said it was in the middle of a field with no road going to it. This explains why the Jag becomes stuck and needs pulling out by the farmer, who in the script is called Parkin. It was during that first year’s search that I actually found the cottage he had stayed in. Driving along the southern side of Ullswater I was bemused to find the name Ravens Crag denoting a hill and indeed a Farm, being uncannily similar to theCrow Crag of the script. I asked the farmer whether he knew of any remote cottages and was told that he had one in the middle of a field, but you couldn’t drive to it as there was no road. He directed me to it, and when he said his name was Parkin it was hard not to say anything, as he and his mother are somewhat lampooned in the film. I still wonder if he has seen the film. The cottage in reality was disappointing, a square, probably 1920’s, utilitarian construction with a neat pyramidal roof and central stack, set in the middle of a large flat muddy grass field, though for all that, a rare prosaic landscape in an area of otherwise mountainous glory. Filmically however, it would not do,unbelievably dull (compared to my expectations) and certainly not quite up to the aesthetics of Uncle Monty. The field was extremely soft to walk over, and peering through the dirty windows, there was the stove. Bruce had yet to confirm it, but for me, the film now began to take on a life of its own.
Determination to find the ideal can lead you up impassible tracks in pursuit of a building marked on the map. That warning sign of ‘Unsuitable for Motors’ being more of a challenge than deterrent. On the first of the two occasions when I found myself in an awkward position, the stones on the track seemed to increase in size until I was obliged to get out of the car to find each wheel perched on a large boulder and no way of turning around. Light was failing and this was before the era of mobile phones. On a distant hillside was a cottage with lights gently glowing in the windows. The map suggested it was about half a mile away and as I walked, or rather trekked towards it, one partof me thought that this could be it. From that point of view it was a disappointment, being rather smaller than desirable and as might be understood,somewhat inaccessible. However, for my more immediate needs, it was Nirvana, as help could be at hand. The door was opened by a blond Adonis with the looks of swarthy Peter O’Toole. It was somehow so improbable, as though I had stumbled back into a scene from a Thomas Hardy novel, as his loose-fitting shirt had the air of a smock. For a worrying moment I thought I had stumbled across a young Uncle Monty, and feared being marooned for the night. Although he was thankfully very willing to help, I felt I had somehow spoilt his T. E. Lawrence isolation. What added to this was his conversational reticence, seeming education and apparent lack of any company, male or female. Luckily he had a tractor and with careful manoeuvring the car was turned around and with many thanks I was on my way. Sadly I never ascertained how and why he was living where he did.
It was in the second week, possibly the same day that I was pulled out of the mud in a very un-metaled lane, by a farmer of more usual countenance,who was fortunately passing in his truck. I then found myself sheltering from the rain at lunchtime in a pub in the village of Askham. Not yet having found a really good location for the Cottage, I needed to study the map (which I still have in my keeping) and mark any hopeful sites with a pencil ring. Time was running out and I knew that I hadn’t cracked it. You always know you have found the right place when you can honestly tell yourself there is no need to look further. I spotted a small lake called Wet Sleddale reservoir that had a dam across one end, and above it on the map was marked Sleddale Hall and Sleddale Grange. These were immediately ringed, as how could you not visit two such isolated buildings so precisely named, even with no mention in Pevsner’s ‘Cumberland and Westmorland’.
The name ‘Wet Sleddale’ was not inapposite in the fine but solid drizzle as I took the road to Green Farm where the tarmac stopped and there was a gateacross the road. The farmhouse was a charming rough stone 17th c building with an inscribed doorcase lintel, but as a location it was rather conveniently placed close to a bend on the track and without much of a view. As no-one was at home, no doubt half way up a mountain on a tractor, I opened the gate and proceeded up the lane that was showing signs of deterioration, and came to another gate. Unfortunately I parked too close to the gate as it opened towards the car, so I had to get back in the car, reverse and get back out into the now heavier rain, open gate and then drive through. There were a number of these gates and I felt obliged to close them so as not to upset the farmer or allow a bull to escape. The condition of the track was worsening exponentially and discretion obliged me to leave the car at a pile of rubble that the map suggested had been Wet Sleddale Grange, and walked on through the thickening ‘oomska’.
At the last gate I found myself at the foot of a steep hill over which the top half of a long building protruded, with chimneys silhouetted against the bruising clouds. There was Sleddale Hall, just what you would imagine the setting of Wuthering Heights should be and more than promising enough to persuade me up the steep wet grass slope, even though it was now getting late.
There was a gap between two small barns where a gate had once been, that allowed me into what was in effect a long open-ended courtyard with a barn across the end. There it was, or what was going to be, Crow Crag Cottage. It looked as though it was once an 18th c longhouse, but was sadly covered in amost unattractive stucco, with an attached stone byre on the left and a smoother but roughly rendered kitchen extension on the right with a stone lean-to shed beyond. The overall aesthetic was disappointing, as although it did not need to be a perfect period building, it did need to have appeal, which was not helped by the dull 19th c replacement sash windows, and the more easily removed, discarded pram, pile of old slates and redundant farm equipment. The doors were wide open and the whole place was deserted. With no-one to disrupt, and if the interior was viable we might be in with a chance. Peering into the kitchen and adjusting my eyes to a dark interior, dimly lit by the filthy window, I could make out distressed walls with areas of plaster missing, and at the far end there was an old and rusty iron stove in the chimney breast with clinker and ash piled up around its base. This was almost too much to take in, it had to be it, and it was not going to take too much to put back a bit of chic into the shabby and make it suitable for Uncle Monty. It is always more satisfactory to improve a ruined building as there is generally no need to undo the work afterwards.
The next small room was a perfect scullery for a sink in which to ‘make a chicken more bald’, and then there was the hall with the front door and staircase, beyond which was an excellent parlour, easily decorated in distressed pink and gilded off white woodwork. Upstairs had two very good rooms, which although eventually dressed, had to be reproduced along with the staircase, at Stockers Farm, near Rickmansworth, through lack of time at the cottage.
I walked up the fell above and on looking back, its possibilities were more than apparent. There was glory and isolation and the possibility of aesthetics and intellectual shabbiness. It was way up behind the cottage that the script suggested Parkin’s tractor should be working when Withnail explains they have come on holiday by mistake. This would have afforded a superb shot of the cottage in its sublime setting, but film crews do not always move fast, and sadly, come the day and with the tractor in place, there was a reluctance to move all the equipment up the fell, and a neat but less majestic scene was shot on the track behind the cottage.
On leaving, I found the farmer at home, and he was more than happy for us film at Sleddale Hall as he only used it for sleeping over during the lambing season and as it was technically owned by the Manchester Metropolitan Water Board, who had no apparent interest in its’ wellbeing, he wasn’t concerned by our intended improvements, including plastering the facade, changing the windows and adding plaster architraves, coins and a doorcase, inscribed BSR in homage to the writer and his wife, Sophie. The doorcase was in fact copied from one that I found in the village of Mungrisdale, to the north of Ullswater, the date on it being 1722, which I used for ours.
When Bruce, Paul Heller and David Wimbury came up at the end of the week, there was never any doubt that this was to be the cottage and most of the time was spent acting out the script in appropriate places. I had a VHS camera, which was less useful than I would have imagined and I often forgot to turn it off, which on this occasion was fortuitous as it captured Bruce’s thoughts on shooting the cottage. Sadly the images are only of people’s knees as I was carrying it by its handle, unaware of its recording.
Bruce asked if there was a river nearby, and I said that there was one below the house, with a bridge, that I hadn’t yet managed to get to. In fact it was so misty on my first visit, that I couldn’t see it. As we walked down the hill, I wondered if the bridge was going to be very utilitarian and spoil the scene. However, as serendipity can sometimes have it, we found a tumbling river and stone arched bridge that would be hard to have bettered and a perfect setting for shooting fish.
It should be mentioned that Marwood’s bleary eyed view on their first morning was not from the cottage. Not that the view in actuality was bad, far from it, but the view of Haweswater was positively stupendous, and summed up the Lake District in all its glory. It was on the hills around there that Withnail stands with arms outstretched, and Uncle Monty eulogises about butter in a punt with Norman, words culled from a privately published book of poems entitled ‘Love in Short Trousers’, that Bruce had found in a second hand bookshop.
After cleaning up the interiors, the only painting in the kitchen was matching in the new plaster to the distressed finish of the walls. It is satisfyingly rewarding to find that the new owner, Tim Ellis, a restoration architect from Kent, has reproduced the doorcase and architraves in stone and copied our windows. To apply several loads of hardcore to the track was a smallprice to pay to enable the generator to drive right up to the cottage on the first morning of the shoot. The driver’s reaction on stepping from the cab, was typical of film technicians who don’t like going off the beaten track:”What f****r found this location”. On looking around him he changed his tune, “Ooh, its rather good, isn’t it?”