Rydal Hall opens largest hydro-electric scheme in the Lake District

Rydal Mount Garden

Rydal Mount Garden - Credit: Archant

One of the Lake District’s best known historic houses is generating more than visitor interest. Eileen Jones reports

View of Rydal Falls from the window of the summerhouse at at Rydal Hall in the English Lake District

View of Rydal Falls from the window of the summerhouse at at Rydal Hall in the English Lake District - Credit: Alamy

From the window of the Grot, a tiny stone hut beside Rydal beck, you look straight into the waterfall that’s crashing down from the high fells. Few sights in the Lake District deserve the word ‘awesome’ better than this.

Built originally for artists to sketch and paint the falls in relative comfort in the grounds of Rydal Hall, the Grot, or grotto, has provided a stunning close-up of the power of nature since it was built in 1668.

Now that power has been harnessed in the largest hydro-electric scheme in the Lake District. It was opened recently by the Bishop of Carlisle

The £2m project, a major contributor to the National Park’s ‘Low Carbon Vision’, replaces an existing hydro-electric plant in Rydal Beck which dates back more than 90 years. The new scheme gives power to the whole Rydal estate, with enough surplus to run some 400 local houses.

The Library

The Library - Credit: Archant

Rydal Hall, with 34 acres of gardens and woodland, was built by the Le Fleming family and it is now a Christian conference, holiday centre and retreat. One of the most magnificent buildings in the Lakes, it overlooks the formal Edwardian gardens designed by the Lancastrian garden designer, landscape architect and town planner Thomas Hayton Mawson in 1911. The Italianate terracing includes herbaceous borders and lawns set against the imposing architecture of the Hall.

The gardens include an informal woodland garden with ponds leading to the Grot, a grade II listed building which became famous as part of the Picturesque movement (1780s to 1830s) as an example of a wild and rugged scene to inspire dramatic landscape painting.

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An early 19th century woodland path leads to the community vegetable garden set in the old walled kitchen garden, with an orchard planted with 30 northern varieties of apple dating back to the 1850s.

This spring the gardens are being turned into a wonderland as gardeners and artists are working together for a dramatic installation on the theme of Alice in Wonderland. Even in the depths of winter, head gardener Kate Jackson was preparing the ground – literally – for the collaborative project with the artists of the Lakes Collective.

They exhibit each year at Rydal, having made many pieces for the sculpture trail and staged last year’s fascinating ‘Swarm’ exhibition among the trees in the grounds. In order to prepare for the arrival of Alice, Kate has been planting tulips in the formal garden which will match the colours of the Lewis Carroll fantasy.

She has also been working with garden consultant Tom Attwood on a master plan for the Hall’s extensive grounds. Tom, who used to work at Rydal and is familiar with both the lie of the land and its history, has been helping with new designs, starting with the herbaceous borders.

This rural idyll provides the setting for one of the most ambitious modern engineering projects which has created the hydro-electric scheme with minimal disruption to the daily life of the estate with its campsite and youth centre – and footpaths crossed by thousands of walkers heading for the Fairfield Horseshoe.

The diocese worked in partnership with Kendal company, Ellergreen Hydro, and has also invested in a similar scheme with Ellergreen at Scandale, the next valley towards Ambleside.

Rydal Hall manager Jonathon Green is particularly proud of the project. ‘We’re thrilled that our diocesan environmental policy will be seen to be in action here at Rydal Hall. It’s wonderful that we will be able to continue to use our God-given resources within the hall’s grounds to such wonderful effect.’

Jonathon is a working priest and has been general manager of Rydal Hall since 2007. He trained and worked in catering and hotel management before deciding to study for the ministry, and was ordained a priest 18 months ago. He lives on site with his wife Anne, resident black Labradors, and a staff of up to 25 depending on the season. The estate manager is Martin Scrowston who is responsible for managing and maintaining the gardens and the many listed buildings in line with the conservation status. ‘We manage the estate and buildings to encourage sustainable tourism balanced against the need to care and conserve this sensitive environment for future generations to enjoy,’ he says.

The hall was built by the first Sir Michael Le Fleming in the 16th century, enlarged in the 17th century, altered and refaced in the 18th century, with the main front dating from the early 19th century. The Le Fleming family can be traced back to 1126, and are possibly linked with the Norman Conquest. Originally the family lived at Coniston Hall, and came to Rydal in 1575 to the ‘Old Hall’ which was built on a knoll next to the present main road. In the early 1960s, the building was sold by the family to the Diocese of Carlisle.

It now has 30 bedrooms which can be let for conference use or on a daily bed and breakfast basis by holidaymakers who want a real escape. There’s no TV in the rooms, but no religious expectation either - Jonathon says that the ethos is of hospitality and welcome.

The splendid rooms are used for day conferences, lectures and meetings, booked by a diverse list from the Lake District National Park to the Arthur Ransome Society. The Wordsworth summer and winter schools organised by Dove Cottage are hosted here, and it’s occasionally used for weddings.

When Jonathon’s son James was married there in December, on the first day of the big floods, and caterers couldn’t get through from Keswick, the day was saved by a delivery of 100 fish and chip suppers from the Walnut Cafe in Ambleside.

In the grounds are the campsite, with its eco-pods and a resident artist based in a yurt, and a youth centre which sleeps 29 and is booked by groups and for family get-togethers. Perhaps most welcome of all is the popular Old School House tearoom.

Jonathon seems to have found his perfect role at Rydal. ‘I love working with our guests and our international community members in this exceptionally beautiful and atmospheric place.’ International indeed - recent staff members have been recruited from the Ukraine, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, France, Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, South Korea, Argentina, Ecuador and the USA as well as Britain.

‘We learn such a lot from meeting these people from all over the world. One girl who came here as a volunteer for a gap year was from Kathmandu. She had never been on a bus, or in a shopping centre, let alone a plane. She had never seen television.’

Jonathan is curate at the nearby Church of St Mary. It was built by Lady le Fleming of Rydal Hall in 1824. William Wordsworth, who lived nearby at Rydal Mount, helped choose the site, and was church warden there in 1833.

Surrounded by such history, the team at Rydal Hall are proud to be pioneers of an ultra-modern energy scheme. Says Jonathon: ‘We are very excited for the future. The power output at Rydal and Scandale makes the Diocese of Carlisle carbon neutral in its use of electricity. We’re very proud that our landscape, our waterfalls and our investment can contribute to this.’

Crumbs of comfort

Thousands of weary walkers every year collapse gratefully into the warm and cosy Old School House tearoom in the grounds of Rydal Hall. In fact, 34,000 of them, to be precise.

And while we’re counting, the café stays open for 364 days of the year, closing only on Christmas Day.

It’s the most welcoming of refuges for hikers heading down from the Fairfield Horseshoe, and for groups of ramblers and runners who meet there to mull over the day’s adventures in front of the woodburning stove.

Originally the classroom for the children of the Le Fleming family who lived at Rydal Hall, the café has been running for 20 years and was refitted eight years ago to create a light and modern interior, with art on the walls and cakes on the tables.

Everything here is home-made – the soup, the scones, the well-filled sandwiches, and the cakes which are baked daily by Anne Green, wife of the director of Rydal Hall.

Recently, a group of walkers from Holland were recovering from their efforts on the Horseshoe. ‘We don’t have hills like that at home,’ said one, easing herself into a chair. ‘And we certainly don’t have cakes as good as these.’

For more information go to www.rydalhall.org