The Bard goes north

August 8, 1997

HOGHTON Tower is an impressive Elizabethan country house in the wetlands to the east of Preston , Lancashire, where it now seems likely that William Shakespeare, under the alias Shakeshafte, spent some of his so-called "lost years".

The link is, so far, unexploited. Enter Richard Wilson, director of Lancaster University's Shakespeare programme, an expert on Shakespeare's lost years and the prime mover behind a bold new venture which could, quite literally, relocate Shakespeare in the North.

Negotiations are underway to develop a country house theatre and arts centre at Hoghton Tower, rivalling Stratford but with a stronger intellectual agenda.

With private backing and some big theatrical names becoming linked to the project, as well as the enthusiastic support of the de Hoghton family who still live in the house, the university's English department is on tenter hooks.

For some time the department has been repositioning itself as a literary centre whose expertise is firmly located in its surroundings.

The region's association with 19th-century writers such as Wordsworth and Ruskin, and with the Bront s, is well known and the university is capitalising on these links. Now Shakespeare is about to join the distinguished company.

"People here have been living with the mind-set that gives Shakespeare a metropolitan presence, but in fact a major segment of his cultural development took place here, on our doorstep," Professor Wilson says.

Hoghton family papers refer to a William Shakeshafte , the same age as Shakespeare, living at the house between October 1580 and July 1581 as a tutor and "player".

Documents of the time also show this young man joined the same theatre company as the playwright.

Why a Midlander should have spent time in the backwaters of west Lancashire, in the Catholic household of the de Hoghtonfamily, when every other talented dramatist gravitated towardsLondon, is a question academics have long sought to answer.

But Professor Wilson believes he has found a link in the actor Edmund Campion and the Jesuit network which took him from Italy, through Stratford to Hoghton tower. "This is the academic equivalent of striking oil," he says.

Keith Hanley, head of English, explains that his regionalist ambitions were conceived long before Sir Ron Dearing had any notions of encouraging universities to extend their local ties.

The secret to a successful regionalist policy is, he says, to avoid limiting notions of provincialism.

"We are talking about the exploitation of regional resources which have an international profile," he said. "This is not a sop to popular culture."

The university's developing Ruskin programme, and the Wordsworth Centre established eight years ago, are both examples of the university's commitment to its region.

This summer the valuable Ruskin collection of books, manuscripts and drawings is to be moved from Bembridge School on the Isle of Wight to the new Ruskin Library at Lancaster, erected with Pounds 2.3 million of National Lottery cash.

There it will be close to Brantwood, Ruskin's house on theConiston Water.

Michael Wheeler, director of the Ruskin centre, said local people valued their cultural heritage and is no longer surprised by their enthusiasm.

"Their cultural hunger is related to place," he says. "It is a way of asking where I am and where have I come from."

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