Gate opens door to a classic storyteller

IT IS a novel idea that has proved a fitting tribute to an 18th century writer.

Trainee blacksmiths Fred Suffield (left) and Adam Baillie admire their handiwork at Shandy Hall.
Trainee blacksmiths Fred Suffield (left) and Adam Baillie admire their handiwork at Shandy Hall.

For welcoming guests to picture postcard Shandy Hall, the former home of author Laurence Sterne in the North York Moors National Park, is a new gate that certainly tells a story.

Its design is a playful nod to Sterne, the 18th century writer who lived there, and to his masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-68).

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The gate, which blends old and new, includes a reference to one of the lines from Sterne’s famous novel – a graphic depiction of the twists and turns of the novel’s plot with all of its digressions, wrong turns, and false starts that Sterne includes to test whether his reader has been following the story.

Sterne's line which appears on the new gate.

“Fans of Tristram Shandy should be able to spot a novel element in the gate’s design,” said curator Patrick Wildgust.

“It does not just replicate the past, it’s a new piece of work.”

Its design is the creation of Chris Topp, artist blacksmith and architectural metalworker.

Mr Topp, who is based at Tholthorpe, near York, is renowned for his work at buildings including Hampton Court, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.

He designed and manufactured the gate to complement the existing palings and rails whilst creating a new feature which adds another layer of history at the site.

Mr Wildgust gave the design his seal of approval, saying: “I am absolutely delighted with the gate.”

Fifteenth-century Shandy Hall, Sterne’s former home at Coxwold, in North Yorkshire, is one of the first historic sites to greet visitors on their approach to the North York Moors.

Sterne (1713-68) – the great-grandson of Richard Sterne, Archbishop of York – enjoys worldwide fame and his books, including A Sentimental Journey, have never been out of print.

In his day, he became something of a celebrity and even had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The author, who was also vicar of Coxwold, wrote his most famous novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, at Shandy Hall in 1759.

The story inspired the film, A Cock and Bull Story, in 2005 starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and Gillian Anderson which mimicked the book’s strange convoluted plot devices.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of Sterne’s birth, and the new gate not only welcomes visitors but also marks a timely new beginning for the historic hall, replacing a gate removed from the Grade I-listed building in 2000.

The design is a departure from traditional renovation and the arrival of the contemporary artwork is also intended to help demonstrate how modern design and historic architecture can enhance each other.

Shandy Hall is the home of The Laurence Sterne Trust, a registered charity which promotes the writings of Sterne through exhibitions, events and public access to the property and its collection.

The building has become a shrine to fans of literature and welcomes visitor from around the world keen to see the books, paintings, and manuscripts, as well as the various possessions once owned by the writer. It is also used by researchers, scholars, creative artists and writers who are inspired by Sterne’s work.

Mr Wildgust said Sterne’s writing was “extremely modern at the time” and as such has enjoyed a lasting appeal.

The new gate was commissioned following an award from the North York Moors Leader Small Scale Enhancements Scheme, which supports projects that benefit rural communities.

Mr Wildgust hopes people will be inspired to travel to Shandy Hall and see the new gate while paying a visit to the Good Humour Club Exhibition in Shandy Hall Gallery.

The exhibition is inspired by a recent discovery in The Laurence Sterne Trust’s collection – a tiny book of a hitherto unknown society that existed in York in the 18th century.

Its members – tradesmen, clergy and doctors – met to celebrate the virtues of companionship and conviviality while consuming copious amounts of punch at Sunton’s Coffee House, in Coney Street.