A visitor arriving in the village of Coxwold, in the shadow of the Hambleton Hills on the southern edge of the North York Moors, is instantly charmed by its beauty and homeliness. Impressive rows of cottages, built from honey-coloured stone and with red-pantiled roofs, flank the main street, which sweeps down through the village. One on side is Fauconberg Hospital, built in 1662 and named after the local landowning gentry; on the other is the Fauconberg Arms, a welcoming spot for refreshments at any time of year. The traditional black-and-white-striped bus stop signs add to the timeless atmosphere of the place. The whole village scene is reminiscent of Burford in the Cotswolds, but with about a hundredth of the visitors and tourist hurly-burly. Coxwold is a place to linger and relax.
At the western end of the village is Shandy Hall, which from 1760 to 1768 was the home of the author Laurence Sterne, who was vicar of Coxwold. His book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, with its meandering digressions and non-linear plot, is regarded as the first modern novel. Sterne wrote to a friend about his life at Shandy Hall:
“I am happy as a prince at Coxwold, and I wish you could see in how princely a manner Iive. ‘Tis a land of plenty. I sit down alone to dinner — fish and wildfowl, or a couple of fowls or ducks, with cream and all the simple plenty which a rich valley under the Hambleton Hills can produce …”
Nearby is the Parish Church of St Michael. This was built in the 1420s in the Perpendicular style, replacing an earlier Norman church which in turn replaced an even earlier Saxon one (there is a letter of AD 757 from Pope Paul I ordering King Eadbert of Northumbria to repair the minster church at Coxwold).
Inside, the pews and pulpit were originally installed in the 1760s by Laurence Sterne. On the chancel arch is the royal coat of arms of King George I, flanked by the memorial arms of the earls of Fauconberg, the local landowners. Look carefully at the base of the wooden lectern stand for a carving of a mouse, the trade mark of renowned woodcarver Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson.
In the chancel is a collection of magnificent monuments to the Belasyse family (later viscounts Fauconberg).
On the north wall is the memorial tomb of Sir William and Margaret Bellasyse, dating from 1603. Their recumbent effigies lie in prayer, with effigies of their four sons and one daughter around them, and surmounted by a plethora of carved columns, pinnacles and armorial shields, rising almost to the chancel roof. The tomb, carved by Yorkshire sculptor Thomas Browne in magnesian limestone from Tadcaster, still retains much of its original black, red and gold colouring. It must have been a striking if not gaudy sight when new.