In search of the Withnail & I locations 30 years on

Three decades after the release of the cult British comedy, we go on holiday by mistake…

Adam Scovell
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Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987)

Hitting the ripe old age of 30 this year, Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987) is one of the defining British films of the 1980s. Celebrated for its endlessly quoted screenplay and gleeful evocation of the debauchery of two down-on-their-luck actors (Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann) in the late 1960s, it’s also a key film about the clash between city and country. The urban is represented by the crumbling north London in which we are first introduced to the pair, but the scene later moves to the vast, unnerving landscapes of the Lake District, where they take an impromptu holiday to escape “the fear”.

Bruce Robinson on location for Withnail & I (1987)

Bruce Robinson on location for Withnail & I (1987)

Three decades after Robinson and his crew filmed this landmark comedy, I set out in search of the film’s key locations, in the process discovering that one of them was not situated where the film makes it seem. Retracing the steps of Withnail and ‘I’ (unnamed in the film but called Marwood in the published screenplay) requires taking a trip to London, Cumbria and – unexpectedly – the Buckinghamshire town of Stony Stratford.

Right, we’re going to have work quickly: a pair of quadruple whiskies and a pair of pints please…

London

Appropriately for a film that is haunted by the demolition of an older London, many of Withnail & I’s sites and locations have changed dramatically, almost always for the worse. Though some of the more obvious heritage and typical London locations have remained intact, the more grimy, down-and-out locations have mostly had their character removed.

I began my venture with a trip to Latimer Road to see where Withnail and Marwood first begin their adventure out of London, driving their old jag through town. Their car is seen parked in what is now the car park of a self-defence centre (in front of the tower blocks seen from their flat window), before the camera pans right onto Freston Road, showing Latimer Bridge. The brutalist block behind the bridge is now slightly obscured by a new-build, but it’s still standing.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Moving further along the Circle line, I hopped off at Westbourne Park in search of The Mother Black Cap pub, famous for a multitude of quotable lines when the pair are threatened by a large Irishman: “I have a heart condition… If you hit me, it’s murder.”

Turning into Tavistock Crescent, I was depressed to see that the pub has been demolished, replaced by a strangely exotic-looking block of flats. That such a decision was approved is shocking, not only because of its use in the film but also because of the clear age and beauty of the original pub’s architecture.

The view behind of the Westway and Ernö Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower – a noted marker in such films as Horace Ové’s Pressure (1976) and Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion (1981) – was still clear, proving the only real evidence that it was the same place.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Depressed, I ventured onto the Bakerloo line to Warwick Avenue and walked down the road back to the Westway. At the very end of the road is where the pair are arrested after Withnail’s attempt at “making time”. The road hasn’t changed, and I was reminded of Withnail slurring to the officer, “I’ve only had a few ales” – aptly, as it turned out, because a Carlsberg lorry was stuck on the road above. The road runs like a rich vein throughout the film, a beautifully brutalist structure whose hum followed much of my journey around this part of London.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

I wanted to continue following Withnail and Marwood’s car journey out of London so continued on the Bakerloo line to Kilburn Park. First, I wanted to find the “accident black spot” that the pair see. “Jump into the road darling, you haven’t got a chance!” – a beautiful dig at Thatcher if ever there was one. The location is Carlton Vale, and, funnily enough, there is now a sign declaring a “new road layout ahead”. The council have clearly done something about the accident black spot finally.

Further around the corner, on Kilburn Park Road, is the particular estate bridge where Withnail shouts “Scrubbers!” to the passing school girls. Considering the graffiti on the building’s many concrete walls, I’d hoped someone would have sprayed “Up yours granddad!” somewhere, but I was sadly disappointed.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

To finish off the London locations, I travelled to Regent’s Park station, wandering into the luscious green pathways that sit around London Zoo. This location bookends the film, featuring early on when the pair decide to go on holiday and at the end of the film when the pair part company. I found the benches where they sit and Withnail moans: “I’m in a park and I’m practically dead.”

The fountain can clearly be seen in the background of this scene and still stands, though finding the particular fences is more difficult as a border has been installed in between. Eventually, behind London Zoo and its array of screeching animals, I found the path that Withnail finally walks down alone at the film’s conclusion. I wonder if he ever got to “play the Dane”.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Stony Stratford

While researching these locations, it was a surprise to find that the film’s Penrith tearooms were, in fact, not in Penrith at all. In fact they sit just outside Milton Keynes in the coaching town of Stony Stratford.

Taking a delayed train and an endlessly slow bus 20 minutes outside of Milton Keynes, I eventually arrived in the town for a whistlestop tour of its handful of locations for the film. Luckily all of them reside in one handy area, Market Square, which is now more of a car park surrounded by some incredibly old buildings than an actual market. The first of the locations that came into view when entering the space was The Crown pub, seen in the film as The King Henry, where the pair spend Monty’s Wellington boots money on getting tanked up.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

To the north of the square is where the initial shots of the scene open with Monty driving his car into the village. The effect of the village square seen in the film has been all but obliterated by the augmentation needed for the car park spaces, though the houses are the same. Lastly, on my fleeting visit, I walked to the other side of the square where the Cox & Robinson chemist sits. This incredibly old building is in fact the tearoom, the one in dire need of a jukebox and very much devoid of the finest wines known to humanity. Venturing in, I snapped a covert photo, as many people were queuing up for prescriptions. You can see exactly how Robinson framed the shot, though the ageing clientele clearly hadn’t changed much since its heady days of cake and fine wine.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Cumbria

The day was suitably wet when I finally got the chance to follow in Withnail and Marwood’s footsteps in the beautiful and dramatic landscapes of Cumbria. Donning a variety of waterproofs, and prepared to face off poachers housing eels in their trousers, I set off for the area of Shap, north of Kendal up the M6.

The first destination had two pivotal locations and, in spite of being a good few miles walking in the pouring rain, it was to be worth it. We arrived at the appropriately named Wet Sleddale and ventured down the paths past its reservoir and the many dead moles hanging rotten and sodden in lines upon the barbed wire. The wind was strong and the whole of the minimal pathway was flooded by runoff trickling from Poorhag Grill over the land into the River Lowther.

Eventually, after a few soaked miles, the first location came into view: the bridge over the Lowther. This is where Withnail attempts to get the pair some food, fishing with a shotgun. At the time of filming, the river was clearly lower and less torrential; Withnail would have been swept away if attempting to shoot fish on the day of my visit.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

The rain began to ease off, and the sun shone down, rendering the stony ground a glistening white as I made my way over the bridge and up the hill towards the second location. Sleddale Hall (Crow Crag in the film) is one of the most famous and visited of British film locations, being both little changed since Robinson filmed here and open to wander around.

The hall came into view on the steep embankment, sitting rather ominously as a rainbow was cast over the valley. Some restoration has taken place in recent years, with the owner clearly in the middle of turning the hall into a holiday cottage: “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.” But, alongside the gas canisters and restored windows, there’s a wonderful wealth of Withnail-themed graffiti, my favourite being the entirety of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy that Withnail performs in the film’s final scenes.

The view out over the reservoir is stunning, but it too is one of Robinson’s cunning ploys, as discovered later in the visit.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

As I walked miles back with wet boots the next location felt incredibly far away, in the town of Bampton. Driving into Bampton Grange, relief took over, as what was initially conceived as a private pathway into Scarside Farm was in fact a public bridleway. Trudging up the muddy path eventually led to the gate and walls where Marwood faces off against the randy bull, with little help from Withnail of course: “He wants to get down there and have sex with those cows.” 

The path was absent of distressed farmers, though a friendly dog did provide company part of the way. Further into Bampton village is another pivotal location, the phone box where Withnail’s woes with his agent continue. It sits on Wideworth Farm Road and again hasn’t changed. “Where’s my cigar commercial?! What happened to my agent?! Bastard must have died!”

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

The final stop of the trip was effectively to reconnect back with Crow Crag in terms of the film, but several miles away in reality. In the film, Haweswater Reservoir, a beautiful man-made waterway that actually housed England’s last golden eagle until recently, is conjoined with Sleddale Reservoir through a clever bit of editing. The island jutting out is where Withnail pronounces with tragic irony: “I’m gonna be a star!” 

Wandering off the road and down onto more flooded hillside, I tried to estimate roughly where Richard E. Grant would have stood, though the exact position was difficult to recreate properly and – in hindsight – is probably higher up the hill. Checking nobody was about, I stood on the edge and screamed the quote at the top of my lungs, the line between the fiction of the film and the reality of my journey all in tatters. The film may present a real fear and loathing in and of the countryside, but Withnail and Marwood could not have chosen a more pleasant surrounding in which to feel the dread.

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

Withnail & I (1987)

Withnail & I (1987) location shot

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