The history of the Lake District told through its grand houses

PUBLISHED: 10:20 12 October 2011 | UPDATED: 12:06 28 February 2013

Muncaster Castle has been home to the Pennington family since 1208

Muncaster Castle has been home to the Pennington family since 1208

The history of the Lake District is told through a grand tour of its houses in a beautiful new book by Christopher Holliday Photography by Clive Boursnell

The Lake District is home to some of Britains most spectacular buildings - from those built around 14th century pele towers to houses in which the owners demonstrated their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth I, such as Levens Hall.


This book shows the reader how the 18th century could create a new veneer on an old building, as in Dalemain, and it progresses through to the great days of the Victorians.


The Lake District also has a literary seam running through it. The houses lived in or associated with William Wordsworth, John Ruskin and Beatrix Potter have survived intact. Two of the most famous cottages in the world, Dove and Hill Top, once belonging to Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, can still be seen virtually as their owners left them. Although no longer inhabited, they possess a magnetic pull.

Rather like Venice, this region is an old hand at welcoming visitors. The trickle that started when it was discovered in the late 18th century became a roaring tumult after 1847. Once the railway began to spew steam into Wordsworths beloved Lake District, and the prime land with lake views around Windermere was carved up for grandiose houses, the once peaceful surroundings were altered forever. In addition to the Windermere area being besieged with trippers, something else remarkable happened.

The wealthy new class of merchants began to build some incredible villas around the northern shores of Windermere in prime locations of waterside settings with fine views.

The outward appearance of the square pele tower was still inspiring architects up to the turn of the 20th century when these new houses were being built for Victorian mill-owners and grandees.

Constructed for an age of domestic servants, hardly any have survived as private houses run on spacious Victorian lines, but many of them have been to good use and tapped into the visitor market as hotels. Most are situated near or overlooking the lakes and fells, affording splendid opportunities to enjoy fine views from within. Waterside reflections and borrowed landscape enhance the setting from outside.


Four Elizabethan houses make a group and exhibit the rhythm and repetition of the time. Levens Hall and Sizergh Castle both retain their 14th century pele towers but are predominantly Elizabethan and have been altered little over the centuries. Two fine examples of the domestic Elizabethan house have also survived - Swarthmoor Hall, Ulverston, is the birthplace of the Quaker movement, and Townend at Troutbeck is a white late 16th or early 17th century yeomans farmhouse.


Their lime-washed roughcast walls, steep Westmorland green slate roofs, irregular gables, cylindrical chimneys and mullioned windows set flush within the facades have continued to inspire architects working in the region.

Sizergh Castle has been the seat of the Strickland family since the 13th century. The castle became a National Trust property back in 1950 but the family inhabit areas not open to the public. The pele tower still dominates the faade and much of the house retains its Elizabethan feel. The panelling is often a miracle of geometric shapes and detailed inlaid work.

Mullioned windows display stained glass bearing armorial crests. The Victorians were heavily influenced by this style of ornate plaster and it makes several appearances in their interiors.

After 1580, the pele tower and hall at Levens Hall was converted into a gentlemans residence. These towers gradually became embellished as times grew safer and it has remained almost oblivious of time and fashion and exudes much of the atmosphere of 400 years ago.

Townend looks like an unaltered Lakeland farmhouse with its richly carved dark oak interiors, revealing the taste of the Browne family who had no desire to rebuild, only extend. But in Victorian times the owner, George Browne, not only continued to preserve the house but collected old and made new ornamental woodwork, to create a yeomans domestic interior where the originals and the reproductions are almost impossible to distinguish.


Dalemain, near Ullswater, would still be a pele tower with Elizabethan wings had it not been substantially overlaid with a new Georgian faade in 1744. In the early 18th century the Hasell family created the impressive and austere Georgian front elevation which successfully obliterates the Elizabethan wings. The interiors have hardly been touched. Its most joyful room, known as the Chinese room, has the original mid 18th century chinoiserie wallpaper. Dalemain reigns supreme as the finest example of the age of elegance.

Hutton-in-the-Forest and Muncaster Castle were commissions by the great castle remodeller, Anthony Salvin. Holker Hall, one of several houses once owned by the Dukes of Devonshire, is a sumptuous Victorian rebuild of a wing razed to the ground by fire. This new wing was designed to lavish ducal specifications which visitors see today. Lancaster architects Paley & Austin were commissioned and they presented the 7th Duke with a thrilling Elizabethan revival. This boasts a cupola and a square tower reminiscent of a pele, a double-storey circular bay, sky-stabbing chimneys and a multitude of gables.

The middle of the 19th century heralded a new type of building family. For roughly 50 years, Victorian industrialists built mansions and villas on hand-picked locations around the gentle slopes east of Lake Windermere. One is Blackwell, an Arts & Crafts house built on an elevated site above the lake. Blackwell was left unaltered while playing host as school or offices through much of the 20th century, and the interiors have survived virtually intact.

While other new houses and villas were often a pastiche of the pele tower and the Elizabethan, Blackwell is a contemporary home with its roots firmly in the traditional Lakeland farmhouse.

Home truths

Muncaster Castle contains the Star of Ethiopia presented in 1914 by Emperor Haile Selassie to Sir William Pennington as a boy for demonstrating how a lawn mower worked.


When Thomas De Quincey took over Dove Cottage he annoyed William Wordsworth by hacking his garden back to let in more light, demolishing Wordsworths precious hut.
Beatrix Potter stipulated that the interior of Hill Top should be left intact with precise details of where individual items should stand. Her wishes are largely kept to this day.


Brantwood contains a portrait of John Ruskin when he was just four. Despite his tender years, Ruskin told the artist it must have the boo hills in the background and insisted his pet dog should be in the foreground.


Wordsworths birthplace in Cockermouth nearly met a sorry end in 1937 when Cumberland Motor Services decided to knock it down and build a bus station. Happily, the locals successfully campaigned against the plan.


Author Christopher Holliday lives in Grange-over-Sands. House of the Lakes with photographs by Clive Boursnell is published on October 20 by Frances Lincoln, price 30.



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