Roxy Bourdillon heads up north on a Gentleman Jack mini-break


Hold onto your top hat, because I am on the lesbian pilgrimage. A part of me still can’t quite believe there even is a lesbian pilgrimage, and yet there must be because here I am on it, exploring the dykey delights of not-so-shabby little Shibden. Anne Lister, also known as “the first modern lesbian”, lived here from 1815 to 1840 and on this late summer’s day in 2019, it’s practically overflowing with Gentleman Jack groupies. And I very much include myself in that category. We have all voyaged from far and wide, drawn by the lure of the mothership. We hope to become more intimately acquainted with our beloved queero by visiting her magnificent home and, fingers crossed, soaking up some of her renowned sapphic superpowers. I’m sure Anne would have relished the thought of all these wide-eyed lady-loving ladies treading her floorboards and getting giddy over her bedroom.

Shibden Hall

I’m here as part of a Gentleman Jack themed mini-break. Naturally, when I heard about this opportunity, I grabbed my cane, greatcoat and girlfriend, and hopped aboard the nearest train to Halifax. My taller half and I both adore Sally Wainright’s brilliant BBC period drama, in which Suranne Jones gives a career-best performance as the diarist, landowner and notorious top. Watching the show is a captivating, comforting, validating experience. This is our programme, and it makes me feel proud to be a Yorkshire lezza. So yes, like the rest of queer womankind, I am obsessed with all things Anne Lister. You know, if Anne and I had ever met in real life, I really do think we’d have hit it off. The only note of sadness on this whole splendid trip is that I’ve arrived 179 years too late to try it on with her.

For the duration of our stay, we call the resplendent Holdsworth House home. This luxurious Jacobean-manor-turned-four-star-hotel appears in another Sally Wainwright drama, Last Tango In Halifax, and past guests include Jayne Mansfield, Jamie Oliver and The Beatles. It’s a blissful haven, the perfect blend of sumptuous and cosy, with large stone fireplaces, peaceful gardens and a resident moggie (it’s like they knew the lesbians were coming). Upon arrival, we’re treated to an indulgent afternoon tea and we gladly relax in the dark wood panelled dining room, stuffing ourselves silly with sarnies and scones.

Holdsworth House restaurant

But let’s get back to Shibden. What a spectacular setting, with over 90 acres of parkland, a boating lake and a miniature railway. It’s still morning when we reach the hall, but it’s already bustling. I blame the Gentleman Jack effect – since the series aired, opening hours have been extended and visitors have trebled.

The stately home itself is full of character, right down to the uneven floorboards and portraits of Anne decorating the walls. The hall still contains much of the original furniture, so you’re given a real insight into her daily life. There’s a fascinating museum, numerous rooms to discover, and the chance to pose in a top hat in Anne’s very own boudoir. Lots of the series was filmed here and it’s thrilling to see such familiar, dare I say legendary, surroundings in real life. I half expect to catch Suranne Jones striding purposefully across the courtyard. No such luck, so we do our own Anne Lister-inspired brisk marches instead. We also check out the folk museum next door, which boasts a saddlery, an apothecary and a barn housing a collection of historic carriages. The staff are all super knowledgeable and friendly, and at only £8 entry, Shibden Hall is marvellous value for money. The verdict? If you love the show, you should most certainly go. Anne would want you to.

As I wander around the building, I reflect on how steeped in history this place is. It’s crazy to think she penned her diaries in this very house. She wrote words like, “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs”. (Same here, Anne.) She even hid her journals in these walls, where they were found by family member, John Lister, in the mid-1890s. She truly was a prolific scribe, producing 26 volumes and over five million words. Many of those words detailed her romantic liaisons with women with entire sections in code, because they were so darn saucy.

Satisfied we’ve enjoyed all the house has to offer and learned a great deal about the woman herself, my girlfriend and I snuggle up on a wooden bench overlooking Shibden Park. Now this is what I call a view: Anne’s house in the foreground surrounded by colourful flowerbeds, sprawling fields, and the majestic, endless sky up above. We eat a picnic lunch. It starts to rain. We don’t budge. We just stay there together, two Northern 21st century lesbians bundled up under one brolly, secretly pleased the other Lister Sisters have scurried inside for shelter. We savour this moment. We hold hands, munch our sandwiches, and gaze out at the exact same vista “the first modern lesbian” looked out on 179 years ago.

This article originally featured in the November 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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