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Exploring the history of Mirehouse near Keswick

PUBLISHED: 15:24 17 April 2017 | UPDATED: 18:32 17 April 2017

Mirehouse Keswick

Mirehouse Keswick

Sandy Kitching https://sandyanimalphotographer.smugmug.com/httpssandyanimalphotographer.smugmug.com/

Eight generations of the Spedding family have called Mirehouse home and visitors are now able to share its glories. 
Mike Glover reports

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SANDY KITCHING

James and Janaki Spedding in the garden at MirehouseJames and Janaki Spedding in the garden at Mirehouse

If ever a family lived up to the description ‘to the manor born’ it is the Speddings of Mirehouse. For eight generations they have been caring for the manor house three miles from the centre of Keswick and the 3,000 acres surrounding it on the south east tip of Lake Bassenthwaite.

On April 1 it opens its doors and its grounds to the public after its winter break. But what must it be like to invite paying guests in to your home and garden?

‘Actually, it is really nice,’ says James Spedding, whose great-great-great-great-grandfather John Spedding, a school friend of William Wordsworth, was given it as a family home in 1802.

‘If people are here, it is because they want to be here, are smiling and happy. It makes for a very pleasant atmosphere.’

Heather maze at MirehouseHeather maze at Mirehouse

James is a working barrister with chambers in Manchester to which he commutes. So the onus of looking after the attraction falls to his wife, Janaki.

The couple met when studying to be lawyers in London. Janaki went on to acquire a degree in museum studies. ‘The trick is to find a balance between family life, conservation and looking after the visitors,’ she says.

The couple have two children, Robert, now 17, and Catherine, aged 15. It was when they reached primary school age that the family decided to come home to Mirehouse, run then by James’s parents, John, a retired army officer turned barrister, and Clare.

When the younger generation took over, Clare retrained as a vicar, serving local parishioners. As a bonus, the Crossthwaite parish chapel is in the grounds of Mirehouse, although it is not owned by the family.

It is dedicated to St Bega, an Irish princess who fled in an coracle, landed at St Bees, and was told by the Bishop she could build a house anywhere it snowed in June.

The Speddings family first opened the house to the public in 1981, as they wanted to make use of such a large family home.

The original house was built in 1666 by the Earl of Derby as a hunting lodge, but it was expanded in both the 18th and 19th centuries. James says he has lost count of the number of rooms, although Janaki is sure there are 67 windows. From those on the front there are staggering views of Bassenthwaite Lake and the mountains beyond.

Ten ground floor rooms are accessible to the public three days a week from April to October. They are dedicated to the astonishing literary and artistic heritage of the Spedding family.

The Library at MirehouseThe Library at Mirehouse

Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy was a regular visitor, and John Spedding maintained his acquaintance with the great romantic poet all his life.

John’s son Thomas was a friend of philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his other son James was at university with Alfred Tennyson and a life-long friend.

Before he found fame and became Poet Laureate, Tennyson used to give his poems to James to edit. James’s own literary talents were dedicated to writing the definitive biographies of Francis Bacon, whose portraits are displayed in Mirehouse.

Tennyson even visited Mirehouse on his honeymoon, selling a gold medal he won to pay the rail fare to Keswick in 1835.

Both Robert Southey and his brother-in-law Samuel Taylor Coleridge had connections with the Speddings and Mirehouse.

Drawings, portraits, manuscripts and letters adorn the appropriate period furniture which follows the lives of these literary greats, and others, through the rooms. There is even the chance to listen to Alfred Tennyson read his own poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, originally recorded on a wax cylinder in 1890, two years before his death. Now it is played on CD in the drawing room.

Around 15,000 visitors come through the doors or through the garden gates. Outdoors, which is open all week, there are attractions of a less cerebral nature. The extensive gardens are filled with rhododendrons and azaleas, another good reason to visit Mirehouse in April or May.

There are three separate playgrounds in the woods, each aimed at a different age group. Wobbly bridges, aerial runways for the older ones and swings and roundabouts made of natural woods for the younger ones.

‘They are natural places where children can shriek with joy and get muddy,’ says James, obviously remembering times he did the same.

Now his hobby is more restrained: beekeeping. There are seven hives which he maintains in the bee garden, full of blossoming fruit trees and heathers for the bees to feed from, although they still like to swarm up to the heathers on the hills.

Human visitors may not swarm to Mirehouse, but a steady stream is welcome.

For full details of opening times, prices, accessibility and parking, go to mirehouse.co.uk or call 017687-72287.

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