38. Acorn Bank – 15/5/2014


For the third time on this Cumbrian trip, I exited the Lake District National Park today and headed across to Temple Sowerby near Penrith to visit Acorn Bank. I didn’t really know what to expect from this property, assuming from the handbook entry that it was primarily a garden with woodland walks. When I arrived on a very drizzly morning (having slalomed around several sheep on the driveway), I was a little surprised to find a very imposing Georgian house of red sandstone with great views across the Eden Valley.



The gardens were a lot smaller than I expected as there are only three cultivated areas: a pretty Well Garden (complete with newts in the pond), a couple of orchards and a Herb Garden. However, the last of these is said to be one of the most comprehensive herb collections in the north of England and the cockerel in situ certainly had a lot to say about its significance, crowing it loudly from his spot in the adjacent greenhouse, so loudly in fact that I went back into the rain to get away from him!

There are reported to be over 250 or 300 herb varieties grown at Acorn Bank (depending on which piece of literature you read!). What makes it really interesting is that they are all planted according to their medicinal benefits, e.g. Heart, Head, Skin, Immunity, Anti Cancer, Stress, Digestion, etc. I work as an analyst for the food ingredients industry and it was good to see so many ‘active botanicals’ (as they’re known in the trade!) in their natural habitat. An information leaflet is available in the herb garden if you want to track down your St John’s wort or ginkgo biloba and see what it looks like before it becomes a tablet.

The gardens have been managed by the National Trust since 1950 when the property was handed over by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe (later Mrs McGrigor Phillips), a local writer (yes, another one). However, the herb garden was only established in 1969, significantly a year after the national ban on herbal medicine was rescinded. With all the herbal remedies that people take today it is amazing to think that less than 50 years ago they were banned.

It didn’t take me long to walk around the formal garden areas and then I headed back to the house for a guided talk. It was such a miserable morning that few other people had ventured out in the rain and I ended up being the only person taking the tour! And I had two tour guides as a guide-in-waiting was listening in and had her own extra snippets to add here and there. All in all, it was a very informal way to see things and to find out about the house.

Unfortunately, there is not yet a guidebook available for Acorn Bank (apparently it is in hand and may be published soon) so it was quite difficult to lodge all the facts and figures in my head. After all, I couldn’t really get the notebook out and start taking down details while I was being guided around, that might have been a bit rude. Mind you, it sounds as if new information about the house and its owners is coming to light all the time so any guidebook would probably need updating regularly.

Anyway, here are some of the key salient points as I can remember them from my tour. There was a religious house of the Knights Templar on this spot back in the 13th century but when they were suppressed it passed to the Knights Hospitallers who held it from 1323 until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries so I assume the monarchy owned it for a short while. In 1543, it became the property of the Dalston family and the current house gradually emerged from generation to generation, with building works taking place in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The newest look with the Georgian windows dates from the 1740s but there are still mullioned windows around the back, which reflect the earlier version of the house. In addition, the enormous fireplace in the main hall has ‘old’ written all over it, not literally of course (although some masons’ marks are evident).

The most influential owner after this was Dorothy Una Ratcliffe and her husband Captain Noel McGrigor Phillips who bought it in 1934. She had an interesting life, with an unhappy first marriage that eventually ended in divorce and a multitude of different careers as a playwright, poet, novelist, botanist, sailor, travel writer and art collector. When the Captain died in 1943, she stayed at Acorn Bank just seven more years before handing it off to the Trust (without any contents) and heading off to Scotland for marriage number three. The McGrigor Phillipses initials can be seen in various places around the house (including on the mantelpiece in the tearoom) and the D for Dorothy is usually placed above the N and P of Noel Phillips, which strongly hints at who was the stronger character in that partnership.

My tour of the house eventually took just over an hour, although I would think this was longer than usual owing to the informal circumstances. It ended in the Drawing Room where the wood panelling is due to be renovated this year so it could soon look very different. As with Allan Bank, which I visited earlier in the week, the house is pretty much a shell and plans about what to do with it are fluid. It only came back under Trust control in 1996 when the last tenant left but this was the Sue Ryder Foundation so various institutional alterations had been made and there is a lot of work to do to get it back to its heyday.

Another thing to mention is the watermill, which can be found at the end of a pleasant woodland walk. The first mention of a watermill on this spot dates back to 1323 but the present building is early 19th century. Restoration started in the 1980s and the first new batch of flour was milled in 2011, more than 70 years after the last batch. You can buy bags of the flour in the shop and I decided to get some to bring home… only that thought had no sooner popped into my head than it shot out again and I was all the way back in the Lake District before I remembered my plan. Oh well.

And one last thing, the tearoom is well worth a visit as you can get something a little different from the norm. For a morning snack, I had a slice of Westmorland Pepper Cake (fruit loaf with a bit of a kick) then returning for lunch I tucked into Cumbrian Rarebit with Cumberland chutney and salad. And, yes, it was as tasty as it sounds.

Highlights: Herb garden

Refreshments: Hot chocolate with Westmorland Pepper Cake; Cumbrian Rarebit with Cumberland chutney and side salad.

Purchase(s): Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (from the second-hand bookshop in the Dovecote)

Companion(s): None

PS: So, Cumbria is finished and that’s my first complete county ticked off the list. Who’d have thought that the first county to be completed would be one of the ones furthest from home! I think the next time I do a week away, though, I’d better head west as the West Country is a mine of NT properties (some of them actual mines!) and the sooner I get started on those the better.

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