Houses have histories. They decline and fall. They express ambition and power and pretension and they carry the marks of failure.
Armathwaite Hall with its glorious views looking south across a stone balustrade towards Bassenthwaite and the fells beyond would seem the fulfilment of earthly ambition. It has been a prized site since the eleventh century. It was owned by grand Cumbrian families: the Speddings who built Mirehouse and the Fletcher Vanes of Hutton in the Forest who added a chapel and courtyards. They sold it to a tea merchant called Boustead in 1850. Thomas Hartley bought it in 1880 for £95,000 and set about turning it into a residence fit for a nineteenth century country gentleman, even though he had made his money in the local mines. His was the wainscoting and pewter and antlered heads that decorate the baronial hall.
Fifty years later – he lived long and comfortably – he died and no-one wanted to buy the imposing monument of a by-gone age. The hall, together with 133 acres of the finest landscape, was sold at a knock-down price of £5000 to hoteliers from Keswick. During the war the girls from Humanby Hall School made it their home. “Today’s owners, the Graves family . . .have worked hard to ensure its place as one of the Lake District’s most luxurious hotels.”
Mirehouse, a “relatively modest” house, remains a family home. The interiors retain the coal scuttle and photographs and magazines of daily occupation tidied for public viewing. Writers came –Wordsworth, Tennyson, Carlyle – and read in the wonderfully stocked library or sat at table in the pink dining room. The wooden chapel, built in the 1880s was demolished eighty years later.
Hutton is set in “Forests ancient as the hills”. The house is a composite of six different buildings, “a whimsical mixture of seventeenth century classical and nineteenth century gothic romantic turrets and castellations”. “With many rooms unencumbered by the paraphernalia of the modern world, devoid of electricity and central heating, Hutton in the Forest offers a view of the past unlike that of any other house in the county.” A wintry photograph shows the house fronted by a field silvered with frost, the red sandstone of the Gladstone Tower bright in the morning light, the ancient pele tower mutely in the shade.
Cumbria has its share of fine houses. The old castles – Muncaster and Sizergh – have evolved over the centuries. The historic homes – Levens, Swarthmoor, Dalemain and Holker – reflect the passing centuries. The grand houses built by the wealthy as they ostentatiously fled to the Lakes show how money sought a cultured, rural retreat. Blackwell, Broad Leys and Netherwood called on the finest architects of their day to create houses worthy of their settings. And the writers came – Wordsworth to Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, Ruskin and Beatrix Potter – to houses that are now interesting because of their presence.
The great houses of the Lake District persist. The geometrical topiary at Levens in a garden created in 1694 is modelled in the evening light. The hand-painted Chinese wall paper in Dalemain looks, even after two hundred years, as bright and fresh as if it had just been put up. A Buddhist shrine glows pink beneath the soaring gothic interiors of Conishead Priory. The “granite Austerity” of Muncaster Castle faces the glowering hills and the beautiful octagonal library with its walls of leather-bound books looks a place of comfort and repose.
Together Christopher Holliday and Clive Boursnell have created a book that embodies the variety and richness of the houses in the Lake District. In their structure and their furnishings these houses have their own stories to tell.