The Lake District and Cumbria has a fabulous range of stately homes and historic houses, owned either privately or by the National Trust, English Heritage, or other charitable trusts. Many started out as small castles, with defences against marauding medieval Scots, while others were simply fantastic homes for the lords and ladies of the land.
These historic homes have played host to many famous names in the past including Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson amongst others. The spectacular scenery surrounding them has provided unlimited inspiration over hundreds of years, so it’s no surprise that so many renowned people chose to visit regularly or make the county their home!
It’s not all poetry and art, though. Others have much more menacing or gory histories. Tales of mysterious hauntings, fatal pranks and rebellions abound, and you may feel a chill in the air in some houses, which has nothing to do with the temperature…
Regardless of their history, these stately homes across Cumbria make for a fantastic day out. They have incredibly beautiful gardens, gorgeous furnishings, and fascinating stories to tell. Read on for my guide to historic houses and gardens across Cumbria and the Lake District.
Note: Many of the homes are dog-friendly (often restricted to the gardens), but please check before your visit. You may also want to check opening times, which are usually seasonal.
Muncaster Castle & Gardens, Ravenglass
Muncaster Castle is on an old, old site. The first buildings appeared here in the Roman period, and these foundations underpin a mid 13th century pele tower. Every generation of the Pennington family has added to and improved the property, and it’s now a large and impressive house. Highlights include gold-leafed leather wall coverings, early furniture and a high-ceilinged octagonal library.
The varied gardens are also something quite spectacular. Though gorgeous all year round, they’re perhaps best seen in spring when the famous rhododendrons provide a rainbow painting of colour. There’s also a Hawk & Owl Centre with regular flying displays, daily heron feeding, play areas, and frequent events such as a food festival and the Funcaster Festival.
Muncaster is also said to be one of the most haunted dwellings in the UK, and you can get the fright of your life with a ghost tour or a night in the infamous Tapestry Room!
Levens Hall, Kendal
Levens Hall, near Kendal, is a large house that started as a simple defensive pele tower but was extended into a gentleman’s residence in the 16th century. It retains its grand Elizabethan character, with heavy oak panelling, plasterwork ceilings, carved oak furniture and embossed leather ‘wallpaper’.
The gardens, which were laid out at the end of the 17th century, are Grade I listed and include an orchard, vegetable patches, a fountain and pond, rose gardens and extensive lawns. However, perhaps most exciting is the amazing topiary garden, packed full of geometrically shaped box hedges and yew trees. It’s the oldest topiary in the world!
The Levens Estate stretches beyond the house and gardens too. The deer park is a tranquil spot with marked footpaths that allow you to admire the scenery without disturbing the wildlife.
Sizergh Castle, Kendal
Sizergh Castle is a truly splendid National Trust property. Like so many Cumbrian houses, it started off in the medieval period as a defensive tower. The Strickland family transformed it into a magnificent home in the 16th century, adding more in the Georgian and Victorian periods. There’s a lot to see and remember here: a medieval banqueting hall with ancient, foot-wide timbers, original weaponry, Elizabethan oak panelling, elaborately carved overmantels, exquisite portraits and four-poster beds. The span of history covered makes this a brilliant place to bring children to show them how grand homes have changed over the centuries.
While most homes on our list will have a gift shop, Sizergh is a little more unusual as it has its own second-hand bookshop! You’ll also find lots to do on the extended estate including guided countryside walks and wetlands.
During summer in the garden, you will find borders that are awash with colour and buzzing with bees and butterflies thanks to their focus on gardening for wildlife. You can even take a memento home with you: a garden plant donation stall has a selection of home grown produce for you to pick a sample from!
Find your perfect cottage around Kendal.
Dalemain Mansion & Historic Gardens, Penrith
This famous home of the world’s original marmalade festival, Dalemain is a smaller but nonetheless substantial stately home between Ullswater and Penrith. It’s a surprising place to visit, as the Georgian shell encases a home that is more Elizabethan and medieval on the inside. Some rooms, like the drawing room decorated in Chinese hand-painted paper, are definitely from the later period. However, the oak panelling, fretwork ceilings and newel staircase are typical of the earlier.
The name of the mansion means ‘manor in the valley’ and there has been a building on the site since the Saxons. It has played a role in defending against invading Scots but has been a family home since the 1600s. As well as it’s eclectic mix of time-periods, you can spot all sorts of quirky details throughout: see if you can discover Mrs Mouse’s home, a sleeping giant in the garden, or even the topiary dragon!
Mirehouse & Gardens, Bassenthwaite
Mirehouse, on the edge of Bassenthwaite village, has a strong Lake District character. Overlooked by Skiddaw, with grounds rolling down to Bassenthwaite Lake, it has literary links, wonderful gardens, and access to the tiny, lakeside church of St Bega.
The house itself was founded in the late 17th century and has late 18th and 19th century additions. Its main claim to fame is its extensive collection of the works of writer Francis Bacon and letters from Tennyson, Carlyle, Southey, Wordsworth and Constable. It’s best to go to Mirehouse on a fine day so that you can enjoy the rhododendron walk, playground, woods and the path down to the lake.
Mirehouse is more welcoming than grand, and is perfect for a really relaxing day admiring the lovely rooms. It’s a place you could really see yourself living!
Take a look at our cottages in Bassenthwaite.
Brantwood overlooks Coniston Water and was the home of John Ruskin, the famous polymath, art critic and thinker. It’s not easy to sum up his contribution to Victorian thinking, but it was profound and radical, extending to philosophy, art, philanthropy and social commentary.
The house has a Ruskin video, a number of portraits, Ruskin’s drawings, copies of the Turner paintings he loved, examples of Ruskin lace and pottery, and some furnishings. The site has wonderful lake views, best appreciated on the terrace café.
Eight varied gardens are individually themed and give you plenty to wander around during your visit. Each has been carefully designed for its historic value and interest. The Fern Garden has over 250 types of British natives, while the Moorland Garden is a place for reflection and thought.
You can experience even more throughout the year, with a number of art exhibitions, theatrical events, and unique workshops.
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Hutton-in-the-Forest, north of Penrith, is not as well known as it should be. Built in the ancient Royal Forest of Inglewood – and indeed, the resident is still Lord Inglewood – Hutton-in-the-Forest is linked enigmatically to the story of Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s even said that a knight of the round table may have lived near here!
Hutton started as a defensive pele tower with additions from many following periods. The original tower is possibly the most memorable part of Hutton, with its impossibly thick walls and display of weaponry. There’s also a wonderful Elizabethan long gallery and a drawing room designed by Anthony Salvin in the later 19th century.
Outside you’ll find 17th century gardens with formal lawns, colourful terraces and a woodland walk that’s alive with wild garlic in the spring.
Browse our cottages around Penrith.
Blackwell, The Arts & Crafts House, Bowness-on-Windermere
A modern historic house, Blackwell was designed as a holiday home by the architect MH Baillie Scott. Overlooking Windermere, it’s a beautifully crafted example from the Arts & Crafts movement. There are no roped-off areas, and you can sit in the fireplace inglenooks and window seats to enjoy the atmosphere of the house and its views.
Blackwell hosts a number of Arts & Crafts exhibitions and has a contemporary craft shop. No visit would be complete without popping into its tearoom, which also serves food outside in good weather. The view from the terraces is just outstanding, as is the menu - this is highly recommended!
View our cottages in Bowness-on-Windermere.
Lowther Castle & Gardens, the Lowther Valley
Truly magnificent to look upon, the remains of Lowther Castle are still grand and imposing, even though only a shell is left of the original building.
The castle was abandoned in 1937 and now stands as an intriguing historic sandstone shell. Its 130 acres of gardens have been painstakingly restored and are really what you go to see on a visit to Lowther Castle. You’re free to explore the extensive grounds: pick up a map with your tickets or just wander and see what you’ll discover. There are shady woodlands, scented rose gardens, high terraces with river views, breezy meadows, and so much more. Perhaps the pièce de résistance, particularly for children, is The Lost Castle, an incredible adventure playground!
You can hire bikes and either cycle or walk for miles on the estate, which covers much of the Lowther Valley.
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Owned and run by the National Trust, Townend is a 17th century yeoman’s house. It’s built in Lakes vernacular style, with characteristic round chimneys and a whitewashed exterior with flagged kitchen floors, narrow passages and a tiny, twisting staircase. This atmospheric cottage has a lot of dark oak furniture, ornately carved by a 19th-century resident.
You’ll feel close to the former occupiers thanks to the very real evidence of their lives. In the library, you’ll find over 1,500 books, some with fingerprint marks and folded down corners! Townend is small but utterly charming and a real pleasure to visit.
Dove Cottage, Grasmere
Dove Cottage in Grasmere needs little introduction. This tiny 17th century cottage has achieved fame as the home of William Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808. This is another house of vernacular construction, with lime-washed walls, a slate roof and latticed windows with panelled oak shutters. Writers Coleridge, Southey and De Quincey were all regular visitors to Dove Cottage, and De Quincey took over the cottage’s tenantship after the Wordsworths left.
The museum is worth visiting for its letters, books, portraits and memorabilia.
Browse cottages in Grasmere.
Isel Hall, Cockermouth
Isel Hall is a real hidden gem, unknown to most visitors (and residents!) of Cumbria. Between Cockermouth and Bassenthwaite, and on a steep slope above the river, this ancient house is far from opulent but instead feels homey and welcoming. Despite that, it still has a number of impressive features including a Tudor hall, medieval pele tower and a billiard room.
Outside are terraces with spectacular views and a display of rhododendrons in the spring. The Lawson crest – a sun held aloft by two arms – is prominently featured throughout.
Rydal Mount, Rydal
Rydal Mount near Ambleside is another house associated with Wordsworth, who lived here from 1813 to 1850 – much longer than he lived at the better-known Dove Cottage. Originally a modest 16th century farm worker’s cottage, the house was extended in the mid 18th century to form a family house of respectable proportions. There are excellent portraits of William, Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth and much of the Wordsworth’s furniture and books.
The house is still owned by the Wordsworths, who often use the home privately, so you have that lovely lived in feel that’s often missing from historic houses. The gardens, too, are wonderful. Overlooking both Grasmere and Rydal lakes, they are multi-levelled with a number of pleasant terraces.
Take a look through a collection of cottages near Rydal.
Wordsworth House & Garden, Cockermouth
William Wordsworth has connections to so many historic houses across the Lake District and Cumbria! Wordsworth House in Cockermouth is the grand Georgian home where he grew up with his sister Dorothy. Now owned by the National Trust, you can get a real flavour of every day life in the family household. Chat to the maid in the kitchen (and maybe sample some of her food!), explore the colourful garden, or take a look at the contemporary clothing. There are also regular exhibitions and events focused around literature and history.
See all of our cottages in Cockermouth.
Allan Bank, Grasmere
Wordsworth pops up again at Allan Bank, alongside Coleridge and Canon Ranwsley, one of the founders of the National Trust. Wordsworth and his family lived here briefly in the 1800s, even though he once called it a “temple of abomination"! The Wordsworths certainly had some trouble there during their tenancy, and fires in the 1950s and 2011 did some serious damage. It was after this that the National Trust began extensive restoration work, which continues to this day.
You can now enjoy the inside of the house, which has been set up like a family home and offers activities in front of the large windows, as well as places to sit by the fire. Children can play dress up, you can have a knit and a natter, or try your hand at some art, inspired by the surrounding scenery.
Outside you may be lucky enough to spot a red squirrel, or maybe you’ll take a stroll along the woodland paths. There are also picnic spots where you can munch away as you enjoy the view.
Have a look at some holiday cottages in Grasmere.
Hill Top, Near Sawrey, Hawkshead
Hill Top was once home to Beatrix Potter, bought in 1905 with the proceeds of her books. Most of this tiny cottage is late 17th century, with a small extension built by the beloved author. It’s of typical Lakes construction, with rubble walls, a stone roof, stone-flagged floor and panelling. The interiors are exactly as they were in Beatrix’s time and a small but pretty cottage garden full of vegetables can be found outside. Beatrix bequeathed her entire property and land portfolio to the National Trust when she died.
Holker Hall & Gardens, Cark-in-Cartmel
Holker Hall at Cark-in-Cartmel is a rose-coloured neo-Elizabethan Victorian mansion. The present house replaced an Elizabethan original that burned down in the 19th century, and the rebuild echoes that style with oak linenfold panelling and moulded plaster ceilings. Like all Victorian reproductions of older styles, the effect is somehow loftier and more theatrical than the original. This is a stately home of the grandest sort, in a wonderful Lake District setting.
The hall is still a family home to Lucy Cavendish and her husband, and many generations have added their own touches to the place. You can wander the rooms unimpeded by set walkways or roped-off areas, giving you a real sense of hominess. Outside, the gardens and deer park cover 200 acres, with wild meadows sitting happily alongside formal gardens, fountains and even a labyrinth!
Popular events during the year include tours with the head gardener, Holker Chilli Fest, and a classic car show.
Take a look at our cottages around Cark-in-Cartmel.