The Story of Lowther opens to the public

Lowther Castle by Dave Willis, Cumbria Tourism

Lowther Castle by Dave Willis, Cumbria Tourism - Credit: Archant

The Lowther family have made an indelible mark on the landscape and now an exhibition at their ancestral home tells the full fascinating story.

Dan Pearson and Jim Lowther at Lowther Castle

Dan Pearson and Jim Lowther at Lowther Castle - Credit: Archant

IT is impossible to pass Lowther Castle without being intrigued by its past. This spine-tingling shell of a building, once compared favourably to the palaces of the Chinese emperors, is filled with the ghosts of a family of remarkable people who made fortunes and feckless sons who spent them.

This is a long and fascinating story involving Vikings, vegetarians, secret weapons and an ancestor known as ‘Wicked Jimmy’ and it is being told in full thanks to Jim Lowther, current owner of the castle and a member of the 850-year-old dynasty.

He decided to tell the story of his family, the castle and gardens in an exhibition entitled ‘The Story of Lowther.’ It is now open to the public.

‘The opening of this exhibition marks the culmination of a dynamic 20-year restoration project, in which we have been working to add new purpose to the castle and the gardens,’ he said. ‘Our aim is to make Lowther Castle one of the north’s most enticing visitor attractions. In words and objects, with colour and a great deal of chutzpah, the exhibition brings Lowther Castle and its rich history vividly to life.’

Jim doesn’t exaggerate. This exhibition opens with a room made out as the castle tower showing its perilous state in the 1950s. Visitors are then taken back to the beginnings, when Dolfin, a man of Viking descent, settled in 1150 by the river Lowther.

The story tells of the Lowthers’ constant battle with the Scots while they consolidated their lands and status. One of the jewels in this room is the original seal of 1283, granted to Hugh de Lowther by Edward I. Another highlight is the ledger of Viscount Lonsdale in which he lays down his reasons for being a vegetarian – highly unusual for the landed gentry in the 17th century.

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The vast wealth created by the 18th century ancestor Sir James Lowther of Lowther derived from coal and land, including plantations in Barbados, and the power through involvement in politics.

One of the more alarming family members was Wicked Jimmy, a demonic character and the room devoted to him takes a look at the many facets of his personality, the walls painted dark grey and the windows kept closed to hint at his stormy nature. Lowther’s appalling treatment of his political agent, John Wordsworth, the father of poet William, is represented with some of the original legal papers from their long legal battles.

Despite marrying Mary Crichton-Stuart, daughter of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and Mary Wortley-Montagu, in 1761 he had a string of mistresses. One he fell in love with was the daughter of a tenant and when she died he could not bear to have her buried. The body remained lying in bed until the increasing putrefaction became unbearable. He then had her body placed in a glass topped coffin and kept in a cupboard. Eventually, the poor woman was taken to a cemetery.

The room also features the stunning silver collection that remains in the family – the bulk of it bought in the 1750s by Wicked Jimmy and his mother on one of their sprees to Garrard & Co. This collection includes the Pitt Salver, a gift to the Lonsdales from Pitt the Younger’s family.

Perhaps the showpiece of the Lowther exhibition is the Yellow Room – yellow floor, yellow walls, yellow ceiling – devoted to the history of Hugh Cecil Lowther (1882-1936).No surprise to discover he was known as the Yellow Earl.

The flamboyant Earl was said to be a ‘boxer, horseman, compulsive show-off, enthusiastic ladies’ man and spendthrift.’ The room recreates a dinner at Lowther with Kaiser Wilhelm II, a shooting guest at the castle on a number of occasions.

During the war, Lowther Castle was requisitioned by the army. They spent three years experimenting with a secret weapon and photographs in the exhibition reveal a tank on night manoeuvres.

In 1953 James Lowther inherited the estate with a desire to concentrate on farming. He saw Lowther Castle as an extravagance and said it was a place that ‘exemplified gross imperial decadence during a period of abject poverty.’

The army had damaged the grounds and buildings and the castle had remained empty for many years. James couldn’t even give the place away so finances forced him to demolish parts of the property.

He left the shell of the castle intact as a silhouette. The forecourt became pig pens and the concrete on the south lawns laid by the army was a base for a broiler chicken factory. The remainder of the gardens were used for timber plantation.

Happily, this tale doesn’t end there thanks to Jim Lowther. His story of Lowther itself is a one of endeavour, enterprise and energy – and this is a step in Lowther Castle’s journey to becoming one of the UK’s most impressive visitor destinations.

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