The Heritage open days scheme is a neat little idea where interesting properties that wouldn’t normally be accessible open to the public for one weekend a year. Last year we took advantage of it to visit an old chapel in Kendal, a rather strange Youth Hostel near Grasmere, and the fascinating “Merzbarn” project developed by wartime artist Kurt Schwitters.
On Sunday we headed for the area around Ulverston and tracked down two more properties: Swarthmoor Hall, and the old iron blast furnace at the tiny hamlet of Newland. Swarthmoor Hall is a small sixteenth century manor house hidden away at the back of a housing estate on the northern fringes of Ulverston. The access lane is narrow enough to be alarming and it didn’t help that it was also hosting a women’s cycling event so the area was buzzing with bicycles, but we got parked without killing anyone and set off to explore. Not only is the house old and full of character (with hardly a straight line or a right angle to be seen) but it was also the home of the founder of the Quaker movement, George Fox, in the seventeenth century, when he married the widow of the then owner Thomas Fell. Although much of the original fabric of the house from that time has been lost there are still rooms that Fox may well have used to worship, study, and sleep, so Swarthmoor has become something of a pilgrimage site for anyone interested in the Quakers. Sadly, some of the information boards were on the propagandist side, and the staff were also a little hostile, but it was still interesting to have a poke around.
The Newland blast furnace was even harder to find, in spite of sat nav, maps, and directions downloaded from the Heritage open days web site. After driving round in ever decreasing circles (and ever increasing frustration!) for a while, we eventually tracked it down somewhere between a coal merchant, a corn mill and a working farm – but it was more than worth the effort. The staff – all volunteers and part of the trust fund that has conserved the site – were warmly welcoming, knowledgeable and great fun to listen to; let us wander all over the main ‘charging house’ and exhibition to our hearts’ content; and then led groups of visitors around the site pointing out various interesting bits and pieces. These included the old water wheel pit, still only partly dug out even at more than six feet deep, the system of leats and channels bringing water from the nearby Newland Beck, the furnace itself (once we’d donned hard hats to duck under the very low access arches), and finally led the way up the valley to show us the site of further mills and the former dam. All in all a friendly, informal and fascinating tour led by blokes who clearly know their stuff and love every last brick, stone and bit of wood on site. It was a pleasure to listen to them, and we can’t wait to find more weird and wonderful places and properties to visit the same time next year.