Category Archives: History

Arts & Crafts

Bank holiday weekends in the Lakes can be a tad hectic, especially when the weather is as nice as it was last weekend.  So we tend to try to get ‘off the beaten track’ and steer clear of the main tourist hot-spots.  Luckily, there are still plenty of places to choose from.

P1020630One we keep for just these occasions is Blackwell, an amazing Arts & Crafts house just a couple of miles south of Bowness.  Built as a holiday home for the Manchester brewing family the Holts in 1901, it was designed by the well-known architect M H Baillie Scott in a [ ] Arts & Crafts style where everything from the structure to the interior décor and furnishings adds to the overall design.  The result is stunning.

The house sits on a terrace overlooking Lake Windermere, but unusually the main rooms face south, away from the best views, in order to catch the sun.  There are odd glimpses of the fells from some of the windows, making sudden dramatic ‘statements’ as you move around the house.  And if you like Arts & Crafts, then the interiors are to die for.  The main living room resembles a medieval great hall complete with vast inglenook fireplace and minstrels’ gallery, while the smaller drawing or sitting room is a confection of delicate white pillars and foliage, more like some of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s iconic designs.

And although most if not all the original furniture has vanished, the new owners Lakeland Arts have done an amazing job of filling the house with appropriate and complementary pieces by the likes of Knox, Voysey and Benson, as well as furniture designed by Baillie Scott himself, and other pieces by local Arts & Crafts designer Arthur Simpson of Kendal.  It all fits remarkably well and gives a good indication of how the house would have looked in its heyday, while still giving plenty of free space for visitors to wander about.

My own favourite bits are the fireplaces in the main rooms, all built as inglenooks with stained glass windows overlooking the garden, and beautiful tiles.  The garden, although comparatively small, is pretty, and then there are those amazing views.  It must have been a stunning place to live (even for part of the year) and it’s still a lovely place for a mooch.

Here’s a selection of photos I took on Saturday including the windows in the main reception hall, the impressive south-facing “back” of the house, a detail of the garden, and the spectacular view across the lake.

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National Trust: challenging gender stereotypes

I associate the National Trust with many things – history, beautiful gardens, hill farming, scones and jam.  But not so much with views on unconventional sexuality.

Yet in their latest members’ magazine that’s exactly what they’re doing, with a fascinating piece called ‘Prejudice and Pride’ on the less conventional people to have lived in their properties over the centuries.

There’s an initial, more general article by author Sarah Waters which explains how a better understanding of the challenges facing some former residents helps us to understand the places themselves.  And that’s followed by a series of mini biographies of some of the more unconventional figures themselves, linking them to the various National Trust properties where they lived and loved.

As you might expect, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West loom large, not least because the National Trust now owns several of the properties (Sissinghurst, Knole, Monk’s House) they were associated with.  But there are also some less well-known figures, such as actress Ellen Terry’s daughter Edy (Smallhythe Place), 19th century MP William Bankes (Kingston Lacy), and theatrical designer Oliver Messel (Nymans).  More of a cop-out is Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who seems to have been labelled as gay (both at the time, and now) simply because his marriage failed and he enjoyed dressing up.

However, apart from that it’s an intriguing exploration of a subject that’s too often swept under the carpet.  I particularly liked Ms Waters’ comments about the many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of servants living and working in these properties over the years, who struggled to hide their own unconventional relationships.  Overall, hats off to the National Trust for a sensitive and unsensational article.

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Coppermines in the sleet

Tuesday was Dave’s birthday and although the weather wasn’t great we decided to take the day off and go out somewhere.  ‘Somewhere’ proved to be Coniston, after an interesting drive avoiding fallen trees.  We hadn’t been for over a year (even though it’s only about 12 miles away) so it was great to see the place again.  First stop was a coffee in front of a roaring (and very welcome) log fire in the Meadowdore Café – an old favourite from days of yore when I visited the area with my parents.  And then we donned boots and waterproofs and set off for a walk up the famous Coppermines Valley.

The weather at valley level wasn’t great – cold, windy and spattering with rain – but as we climbed it deteriorated.  Coppermines (a hanging valley) isn’t all that far above sea level but as soon as we got up and over the lip, we met the wind.  In spades.  Howling straight off the snow-covered fells above, and bringing curtains of horizontal sleet with it.  You might say it was bracing.  It was also freezing, wet, and difficult to stand upright.  We struggled along the miners’ track for a few hundred yards, took some photos of a sheep (those Herdies are tough), and decided enough was enough.

We thawed out soon enough over a pub lunch at the Black Bull, but it does make you wonder how the miners managed – not only having to walk further in bad weather, but then putting in a twelve hour shift of hard work afterwards, in clothes that were quite probably soaked right through.

Here’s a couple of photos to show what it was like.  The blobs show how hard it was to keep the sleet off the camera lens!

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Archaeological riches?

Saturday morning was horrible – foggy and wet – so we headed for our nearest big town, Barrow in Furness.  It’s not the most romantic destination around, but it has all the ‘big stores’ to hit, plus The Dock Museum, which is great to poke round on a wet day.

The journey was interesting as the road south down the lake had flooded badly in half a dozen places after overnight rain.  We got through in our trusty 4×4 but I was glad we weren’t in something low-slung!

We got the chores out of the way first (tins of paint, grub from Tesco) then trotted along to the museum.  As ever there are all sorts of tidbits of information about Barrow’s history to while away an hour or so.  The shipbuilding industry, iron-ore working, Barrow’s sudden growth from small village to giant sprawl in the mid nineteenth century, and its role in the two world wars.

This time, we had the bonus of an extra exhibition.  Billed as ‘Archaeology on Show’, it celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society with an exploration of ‘the rich archaeological finds from Barrow and Cumbria’.

Sadly, although the finds might have been rich the exhibition wasn’t, terribly.  We’d expected more than about twelve separate exhibits: an aurochs horn, part of a stuffed reindeer, a few photographs of the county’s Anglo Saxon heritage.  It had the feeling of something put together by a village school rather than a premier society; the best word I can find to describe it is ‘sparse’.  We can’t complain too much as entry – to both the exhibition and the rest of the museum – is free, but I’d still have liked a bit more content from a county the size of Cumbria with a history of settlement dating back, apparently, 750,000 years.  A shame, as previous exhibitions have been really fascinating.

 

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Ghostly pictures

Just in time fspiritphotograph3-720x1119or Halloween, there’s a fascinatingly creepy but ultimately common-sense article about the Victorian practice of photographing ghosts on the Hyperallergic blog here.

The article debunks some of the old myths surrounding ghostly photographs and is illustrated with some really good examples, as well as some that wouldn’t fool anyone these days.  But when the technology was new and people had no understanding of how it worked, it must have been only too easy to believe that the camera never lied.

Reminiscent of the perils of air-brushing and Photo-shopping these days!

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Ghostly Lancashire

This month’s Lancashire Life magazine has an amusing little piece about haunted stately homes in and around the county, presumably in the run up to Halloween.

Locations on the list include Rufford Old Hall which is said to be haunted by Queen Elizabeth I (and no, the article’s authors couldn’t think why she would choose to “manifest herself in West Lancs” either!) and Lancaster Castle, once a prison, which houses numerous spirits including one of the famous (infamous?) Pendle Witches.  More unusual are the Grand Theatre, Lancaster, and the Winter Gardens at Morecambe, both of which are home to theatrical ghosts.  Over the border into Cumbria there’s Muncaster Castle, described as “one of the most haunted castles anywhere”.  I’m not sure about that claim, but during a visit a few years ago I did notice a very creepy atmosphere in one of the downstairs rooms.  Whether it was ghostly activity, or just cold and damp (this is an old stone castle after all) I couldn’t say, but it made for an entertaining trip out.

Also on the list are a handful of haunted Lancashire pubs, involving a pun about “serving spirits” which I wish I’d thought of!

It’s amusing just how many of these ghosts and spirits involve young women with broken hearts.  Clearly there was a great deal of heart-breaking going on in the past; either that, or it was the only way women had of getting their own back on their cheating or murdering relatives!

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Borderlines on the border

Carlisle is a lovely little city – about as far north as you can go in north-west England without sticking your toe over the Scottish border – which is rapidly turning into something of a literary venue.  Just a few months ago I went to a crime writing weekend there with a bunch of friends, and on Saturday it was the turn of the annual ‘Borderlines‘ literary festival.

This is much more varied than the crime weekend and involved writers, poets, historians and even a shepherd, all giving workshops or talking about their books.  Speakers included tv historian Kate Williams, Terry Waite, shepherd James Rebanks who wrote a stonkingly popular autobiography about his life with the famous Lakeland Herdwick sheep, and many, many more.

I chose a couple of talks that were about as far removed from each other as possible, while still being on the subject of books.  The first, by Jenny Uglow and Steve Matthews, was about the nearby Wreay Church, which was built in the 1840s and most unusually for that time, designed wholly by a woman.  The woman in question was Sarah Losh, the daughter of a local land-owner, who was staggeringly well-educated, had been on the ‘Grand Tour’ to Italy, and decided to build a church for her local community when her beloved younger sister died. Not only was this exceptional for a woman back then, but she chose to build in a simple Romanesque style rather than the much more fashionable Gothick, and included various symbols of life and re-birth which are still being discussed today.

The talk would have benefited from a few slides, as I’ve never visited the church and would have loved to be able to picture the architecture that was being described, but it was still a fascinating dip into a subject I’d heard nothing about.  I feel a visit to Wreay coming on very soon!

In the afternoon, after a pleasant lunch with a couple of writer friends, I went to a talk by two writers of conspiracy thrillers, Tom Harper and Simon Toyne, who described how they chose their particular settings (the Amazon and the Arizona desert, respectively) and what elements go to make a book a conspiracy thriller.

Throw in catching up with another writer friend who I discovered sitting right behind me, plus a spectacular train ride skirting the Lakeland fells, and it made for a really enjoyable day out.  Hats off to Carlisle for organising the whole thing; I’ll be back next year for sure.

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