Well, here I am in the beautiful (if slightly damp!) Lake District. I’m staying in a lovely little cottage not far from the shores of Windermere, which is as central as I could get for the nine Cumbrian houses and gardens that I am hoping to tick off over the course of the week. So for those of you following this blog, be prepared for a spate of e-mails over the next few days as there should be at least one, if not two, updates every day.
I decided to start my week with two very unusual properties, which are also very recent additions to the NT family. The first of these – Wray Castle – has only been open to visitors since April 2012 and is continuing to evolve.
As you’ll see from the photo at the top of this entry, Wray Castle is something of an oddity, an imposing Gothic-style castle that was actually built in the 1840s as a retirement property! At that time, many wealthy people were building ‘villas’ in the Lakes but James Dawson (a Liverpudlian surgeon) had a vision that was slightly more extravagant than the average retiree. Fortunately, his wife Margaret came from money, being descended from the Preston family of distillers and wine traders, so there were sufficient funds in the family kitty to fulfil this vision. Ironically, the architect of Wray Castle – one John Jackson Lightfoot – apparently drank himself to death before the castle was finished, so alcohol not only funded the build but also saw off its builder.
I’m sure everyone will have their own opinion about the result of Dawson and Lightfoot’s collaboration. In fact, inside the house, various quotes from notable commentators are presented on one of many information boards, with Wordsworth having called it a ‘dignified feature’, while American author Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to it as ‘a great, foolish toy of gray stone’. I have to say that I tend to come down on Mr Hawthorne’s side of this argument rather than on that of our very own English poet. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my castles to be, well, actual castles.
Whether you think it dignified or foolish, either way I would definitely recommend having a look at Wray Castle, as the Trust has created a really unique visitor experience. Those interested in the history of the house and its occupants can take a guided tour of the property, while families with children could spend all day here as many of the rooms are geared towards family entertainment: there’s a billiard table, a table-tennis table, giant Jenga, microscopes for a close-up look at nature, drawing materials and even a room designed to look like the great outdoors, complete with gate, ‘grass’ and walkers’ signposts. One room was also closed during my visit as it was hosting a child’s birthday party! There is also a camera located on the top of the tower so even though you can’t climb up there, you can still take in a 360 degree view on computer screens in the study, or rather what used to be the study. Each room helpfully carries a sign reading ‘I used to be…’ and what used to be the smoking room is also worth a look as it is being used as a ‘lost and found’ room to highlight some of the oddities discovered by the Trust since it took back control of the castle.
And never fear, if you want some refreshments, there is a ‘pop-up’ café managed by staff from The Tower Bank Arms in Near Sawrey, complete with sandwiches, cakes and drinks, although you will need to use recyclable crockery and cutlery as the castle’s water supply isn’t sufficient for anything more substantial.
One thing you mustn’t expect to see at Wray Castle is lots of art and artefacts. There are some fine examples of Minton tiles in the entrance hall and the lantern hall gallery on the first floor is pretty impressive, but all in all, the house is pretty much a shell, having seen most of its contents sold off by various owners as they tried (and failed) to maintain the property. Having cost £60,000 to build, the castle steadily halved in value for each of its later owners and was finally acquired by the NT in 1929 for £4,500.
Over the years, the Trust has let the building to various tenants, including the Freshwater Biological Association, which had research facilities on site, and later to the Merchant Navy, which used the castle as the College of Marine Electronics. Some of the servants’ rooms still have en-suite bathroom facilities left over from these days and while the Trust is planning to remove these over time, it has certainly not ignored this part of the building’s history and has managed to recover the old ship’s wheel and replace it at the top of the stairs where it stood in the RMS Wray Castle days. I was also interested to discover that the Natural History Museum housed some of its exhibits here during WWII. I imagine these were mainly smaller exhibits but it would be nice to think there might once have been a T-Rex waiting to greet visitors in the central hall!
Now, as most visitors to the Lakes will know, if you’re touring around the Windermere and Grasmere area, most tourist attractions have something to do with either Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth. Well, Wray Castle has something to do with both of them! Wordsworth knew the original owner James Dawson so he often came to visit and there is a black mulberry tree in the grounds that is believed to have been planted there by Wordsworth himself in 1845. Meanwhile, after the Dawsons died and the property was inherited by the Rawnsley family (Margaret’s relations), it was let as a holiday home and Beatrix Potter stayed there for several months on a family holiday in 1882, celebrating her 16th birthday during the trip. This was her first visit to the Lake District so her love of Cumbria could be said to have started at Wray. In the Morning Room (which is being recreated to the Potter days thanks to photos that Beatrix’s father took at the time), copies of Beatrix’s diaries are available so you can see exactly what she thought about the holiday and subsequent visits to Wray Castle.
The Rawnsley ownership is also significant in that Canon Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust and an active supporter of the preservation of the Lake District, was the vicar of the local church for several years. He also met the Potters during their stay and became a lifelong friend of Beatrix.
One other thing I have to say in Wray’s favour is that it is probably responsible for me getting a fairly good phone reception at my self-catering cottage! Between 1998 and 2004, the castle was owned by a company called Wray Castle Ltd, which used the building as a conference centre and received funding for some restoration from Vodafone in return for them being allowed to put a mobile phone mast on the top of the central tower. The castle is almost directly opposite my cottage on the other side of Windermere (which incidentally makes it an annoyingly long drive when you can see it just across the water!) so I imagine I have been tapping into signals from that very mast, which can still be seen poking above the central tower, just one more thing that you don’t usually see at a National Trust house.
Highlights: Overall wackiness!
Refreshments: Decaffeinated tea
Purchase(s): Mini guide (more of a leaflet than a book)
NT Connections: Through Beatrix Potter, Wray Castle is connected to Hill Top, the Beatrix Potter Gallery and Melford Hall