Here in the Lake District and Cumbria our major buildings are different in character to those in many other parts of the country. Many started out as small castles, built here in the buffer region between more populous parts of England and marauding medieval Scots. Some were simple fortified towers, now built into private farmhouses scattered throughout the east of the county, and others have been developed over the ages into grand stone edifices.
Many of the Lake District and Cumbria's important houses are smaller in scale than those found elsewhere. We do have our massive monuments to elegance, but you can also visit several examples of more modest properties. This is quite a different experience from the ‘walk-along-the-special-carpet’, ‘don’t-lean-over-the rope’ type of property, as it’s often not difficult to imagine yourself transported back in time, living there quietly. If you wish to come and stay Sally's Cottages has lots of Self Catering in the Lake District
Unlike much of the country, many of our stately homes and castles are still under private or charitable ownership, rather than the National Trust or English Heritage. This has its advantages, as often the personal effects of past owners remain on display, and the interiors aren’t honed to unrealistic perfection.
Our grandest properties are Muncaster Castle on the west coast and Levens Hall, Holker Hall and Sizergh Castle, all in the south of the county.
Muncaster Castle is on an old, old site. The first buildings appeared here in the Roman period, and these foundations underpin a mid thirteenth century pele tower. Every generation of the Pennington family has added to and improved the property, and it is now a very large and impressive house. Highlights include gold-leafed, leather wall coverings, early furniture, portraits and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. This is a great place for youngsters to indulge their Harry Potter fantasies with oak four-posters and a huge, extraordinarily high-ceilinged octagonal library, followed by a visit to some of Hedwig’s friends at the Owl Centre. Muncaster is home to the annual Fools’ Festival, of Blue Peter fame, and promotes itself as a ghost-hunting venue. Opens 21st March. Closed Saturdays. The are lots of Lake District cottages in Eskdale or Ravenglass which are a great base for visiting Muncaster Castle.
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 sixteenth 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 seventeenth century, are Grade 1 listed. The most memorable part is the topiary garden, but they also have an orchard, a herb garden, rose garden and wonderful borders. Opens April 4th. Closed Fridays and Saturdays.
Holker Hall, at Cark-in-Cartmel, near Grange-over-Sands, is a rose-coloured, neo-Elizabethan, Victorian mansion. The present house replaced an Elizabethan original that burned down in the nineteenth 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. Opens 14th March. Closed Saturdays.
Sizergh Castle, near Kendal, 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 sixteenth 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 centuries. Opens 14th March, afternoons only. Closed Saturdays.
Dalemain is a smaller but nonetheless substantial home near Ullswater. It’s a surprising place to visit, as the Georgian shell is pretty much just that, encasing a home that is more Elizabethan and medieval than Georgian. Some rooms, such as the drawing room decorated in stunning Chinese hand-painted paper, speak of the later period, but the oak panelling, fretwork ceilings and newel staircase shout of the earlier.
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, and to a knight of the round table, who may, or may not, have lived near here. Hutton, too started as a defensive pele tower – how those Scots have dictated the architecture of the region! – 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 nineteenth century. Opens in the afternoons only from 31st March – 11th April, then from 28th April for the season. Open Weds, Thurs, Sun and Bank Holiday Mondays.
Mirehouse, west of Keswick, has a strong Lake District character, overlooked by Skiddaw, with grounds rolling down to Bassenthwaite Lake. It has poetic links in abundance, wonderful gardens, and access to the tiny, lakeside church of St Bega. The house itself, founded in the late seventeenth century with late eighteenth and nineteenth century additions, is more smart than grand. Its claim to fame is its extensive collection of the works of the fifteenth/sixteenth century 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, the woods and the path down to the lake. Opens 28th March, Wednesday and Sunday afternoons only (and Fridays in August). Find Lake District cottages for visiting Keswick and Mirehouse
Brantwood overlooks Coniston water and was the home of John Ruskin. It’s not easy to sum up Ruskin’s 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. Open daily.
Cumbria’s smaller houses are often absolutely charming. Try these for size…
Townend, at Troutbeck, near Windermere, is a seventeenth century yeoman’s house. It is built in Lakes vernacular style, with characteristic round chimneys and whitewashed exterior with flagged kitchen floors, narrow passages and a tiny, twisting staircase. This atmospheric cottage has a lot of dark oak furniture, carved ornately by a nineteenth-century resident. One of my favourite places in the Lakes. Open in February and March for guided tours only, otherwise from April. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Dove Cottage, in Grasmere, needs little introduction. This tiny seventeenth 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, small latticed windows with panelled oak shutters, slate and oak floors and oak wainscoting. Coleridge, Southey and De Quincy were all regular visitors to Dove Cottage, and de Quincy took over the cottage’s tenantship after the Wordsworths left. The museum is worth visiting for its letters, books, portraits and memorabilia. Dove Cottage is extremely popular with both domestic and international tourists, and only a small number of people are allowed in at a time, so it’s a good idea to go early in the year to avoid the crush. Open daily.
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 sixteenth century farm worker’s cottage, the house was extended in the mid eighteenth 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. Opens daily 1st March.
Hill Top, Near Sawrey, Hawkshead, was once home to Beatrix Potter, bought with the proceeds of her books in 1905. Most of this tiny cottage is late seventeenth century, with a small extension built by Beatrix. It is 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; she bequeathed her entire property and land portfolio to the National Trust. There is a small, but pretty, cottage garden. Hill Top is extremely popular with domestic and international visitors and can get very busy. Only a small number of people are allowed in at a time, so there can be a long wait for entry. We recommend visiting early in the season. Open 13th February. Closed Fridays except Good Friday.
Many of Cumbria’s smaller properties are located in relatively remote areas, at the end of long, narrow roads. Parking can be tight, and they tend not to have tea rooms or shops, so our advice is to arrive early and take a picnic. They are all splendidly situated with attractive gardens and views.