Word of advice, when visiting Townend don’t start the way I did! Firstly, if you’re coming from the north, don’t follow your satnav as you will have to navigate a single-track road for some way and will arrive at a T-junction where the sign is up high and slightly behind you where you can’t see it, leaving you with no indication of which way to turn for the car park (it’s left incidentally and, yes, I went right!) Secondly, don’t arrive at 11am on the dot as there are bound to be lots of early birds who arrived before you and nabbed all the places on the 11 o’clock tour, meaning that you have to wait for the second tour at 12. And an hour is a long time to wait when there’s only a tiny garden that takes about a minute to circumnavigate and very few facilities (just a coffee machine if you’re gasping).
I booked my slot on the later tour by detaching a clothes peg marked ‘12.00’ from the string hanging by the front door, which is certainly an interesting way of distributing spaces and which means that the NT doesn’t have to have any reception staff on site. Mind you, this also means that there is nowhere to buy a guidebook until you get into the house and I for one would certainly have been grateful for something to read while I waited. The novel booking system also left me wondering what would happen if two couples arrived at the same time and found just two clothes pegs remaining – an umbrella duel, perhaps?! In my own case, I have to admit I would probably have trampled over the old and infirm to ensure my own slot rather than wait a further hour.
Speaking of the old and infirm, I do have to mention a couple I met in the courtyard with an extremely old and doddery little dog. The list of her ailments was certainly impressive, leaving me wondering if there was anything left that was actually still working… the owner replied that her ‘cuteness muscles’ were still functioning fine and I have to admit he was right about that!
Anyway, with nearly an hour to wait, I headed back up the hill towards the car park and sat on a bench for a while until the rain drove me back to my car. All that was then left was to console myself with a very early picnic lunch.
Now, I have to say, I’m not sure what is best to recommend with this whole tour business. Certainly, arriving a little before 11am should get you a spot on the first tour (I doubt there are people camping out all night to book their space) as there are 15 places available. However, taking the 12 o’clock tour was actually a good move in the end, as it meant I could go straight back into the house when it opened for general admission at 1pm, giving me the chance to get a closer look at everything and to take some photos (a little difficult as the house is fairly dark). So, folks, you’re on your own here, make your own choice.
As always, I would certainly recommend taking the tour if you can navigate these tricky waters. My guide John was extremely informative about the house and its inhabitants and the 50+ minutes in what is a fairly small house passed very quickly.
Townend is certainly unusual for this neck of the woods in that neither Wordsworth nor Beatrix Potter ever lived here! However, having said that, we can’t escape these local dignitaries entirely as it appears that Potter lived nearby in her later years and would walk across to visit Clara Browne, the last of the family to inhabit the house.
What does make Townend particularly notable is that it was owned and occupied by the same family for over four centuries between 1525 and 1943. There could even have been earlier Brownes in Troutbeck village as far back as the mid-15th century but the first documentary evidence dates from 1525. In addition, no one has lived in the house since the death of the last Browne, the aforementioned Clara, during the Second World War, so the house remains very much as it was then and everything you see is right where it belongs.
All in all, there are records of 12 generations of Brownes living at Townend (including no fewer than eight Georges!). The house certainly expanded over the years as did the Browne family’s prominence in the community, helped by judicious marriages and the choice of important professions. Two earlier Brownes were even appointed High Constables of the Kendal Ward and there is a very small loft hatch in one of the upstairs rooms that leads to the ‘felon’ loft where criminals were sometimes kept before being transferred to jail. Handcuffs and leg-irons were apparently found up there, which is a slightly macabre aspect of this quaint Lakeland farmhouse.
Among these numerous Browne inhabitants, however, one in particular has left his mark all over the house, namely the last George Browne or Victorian George as the volunteers sometimes call him (to differentiate him from all those other Georges). Father of Clara, this particular George was very handy with wood carving tools and he carved his way around the entire house, leaving very little that is untouched by his handiwork. Opinions vary as to whether George’s touch is a blessing or a curse but I admit that I quite like it. It’s certainly different and adds more interest to what would have been a lot of plain, dark wood furniture.
George was definitely an eccentric soul and also created what my guide jokingly referred to as the first fitted kitchen, an odd conglomeration of furniture all slotted together. He even added a pair of carved feet on the side of the integrated longcase clock as if someone was lying down inside it! Here and there, he also tried to inflate his family’s standing by cheating, adding dates to furniture to make it appear a lot older and more significant than it actually was. This also ties in with his construction of a fake staircase that leads nowhere but would have suggested to the casual visitor that the house had three storeys and not just two.
However, one thing George didn’t need to hype up was the library. The books gathered here were collected over 400 years and cover a vast range of topics, including a number of books that are out of print and cannot be found anywhere else (not even in the British Library). In fact, the collection is so important that it ranks among the top three in the Trust’s portfolio (I’m not sure which others join it in the top three but I’m sure I’ll find out during the course of my travels). Sadly, visitors are not allowed into the library and can only look at the books from the doorway, which spoiled it a little: having been told that the oldest book there was a New Testament from 1548 and the newest ‘The Pied Piper’ by Neville Shute from 1942, I wanted to go in and see how quickly I could find them.
And lastly, a slightly spooky coincidence – upstairs in one of the bedrooms George carved the frame of a mirror with a garland of oak leaves; it was as if he knew that the oak-leaf symbol would one day become more important to the house and I’m sure that very mirror has lost count of the number of times it has reflected the National Trust’s familiar logo on the badges, jackets, bags and umbrellas of staff and visitors.
Highlights: George Browne’s carving extravaganza, excellent guided tour