Travel: Cumbrian getaway

Lake Gardens - Hill Top (National Trust picture)

Lake Gardens - Hill Top (National Trust picture) - Credit: Archant

Mandy Bradshaw swaps the Cotswolds for Cumbria and discovers a world of dazzling gardens

Cragwood Hotel

Cragwood Hotel - Credit: Archant

Dabbing rainwater from my other half’s coat before we entered one of the National Trust’s smallest properties, I reflect that sometimes first impressions are pretty accurate. I hadn’t been to the Lake District since childhood when it formed one of two stop-overs on the long journey from Norfolk to Scotland. Driving north on what turned out to be one of the country’s hottest summers, the scenery gradually became green. My abiding memory of the Lakes was of water, everywhere, laid out in front and falling from the sky.

Rain is a fact of life in Cumbria and, boy, are they geared up for it. Gardens offer the loan of umbrellas and at Beatrix Potter’s tiny cottage staff are ready with towels to dry off visitors. It’s necessary to protect the two up, two down 17th century house bought with the proceeds of her first book, ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, and the inspiration for several more. Inside, the cottage is just as she left it while books in every room show how it influenced a tale or provided an illustration.

Judging by photographs, the garden too is little changed. A long flagstone path leads past beds of flowers and fruit, jumbled together in true cottage style. Geraniums rub shoulders with aquilegia, gooseberries and sweet peas, roses scramble along a fence, wisteria covers the cottage and there’s a small vegetable garden of beans, potatoes and, yes, lettuce. We didn’t find Peter Rabbit but did spot several clues from the children’s hunt, designed around a different Potter tale each year.

Rydal Mount Garden

Rydal Mount Garden - Credit: Archant

Hill Top is the smallest garden we visited but it had something in common with even the largest – and every private plot we passed along the way – dazzling colour. Unlike our home county of Gloucestershire, this is ericaceous country and the rhododendrons and azaleas were in full bloom. Startling yellows, shocking pinks, deep reds and dusky apricots were, my husband remarked, the colours of a child’s paint box. They glowed under the grey skies and were a refreshing change from the pale herbaceous borders of the Cotswolds.

Colourful shrubs form the backbone of the gardens at Cragwood Country House Hotel, where we stayed. It’s the perfect base for visiting several gardens in the area, close enough to avoid tedious journeys, isolated enough in its own 20 acres to give perfect peace. The rooms are comfortable, scrupulously clean and the friendly staff equal to those in any slick, city hotel.

Once the home of industrialist Albert Warburton, Cragwood still has the feel of a private house rather than a hotel, with crackling fires, bowls of fruit and sweets, newspapers and board games in the lounge all adding to the homely atmosphere. There’s nothing homely about the food though – except, perhaps, the size of the portions. Head Chef Calvin Harrison produces beautiful plates worthy of any fine dining restaurant that are deceptively filling, just right for refuelling fell walkers – or garden visitors.

Cragwood Hotel

Cragwood Hotel - Credit: Archant

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Cragwood’s gardens, laid out by Thomas Mawson, are a mix of natural woodland and Edwardian formality with pillars and walls from the estate stone that was used to build the Arts and Crafts house. Tended by a team of three, the grounds are immaculate with sharp-edged lawns setting off borders of iris, geraniums and sedum all against the backdrop of Lake Windermere, which forms the garden’s boundary. Here too there are acid-lovers and their rainbow colours can be admired in all weathers from the comfort of armchairs in the large, bow windows.

It was into these that we collapsed after a trip to Brantwood, the hillside garden of Victorian writer, artist and philosopher John Ruskin. Clinging to the side of Lake Coniston – it’s possible to catch a ferry to the garden – this curious mix of woodland walks and landscape experiments requires strong boots and stronger legs to experience all it has to offer.

Aside from trails on narrow paths past tumbling streams, there are eight distinctive gardens. These range from Ruskin’s favourite, ‘The Professor’s Garden’, created to provide everything needed for life from flowers to fruit and veg, to the ‘Pond Garden’, set in bluebell-filled woodland, and the unusual ‘Zig Zaggy’, based on sketches by Ruskin. Inspired by Dante’s Purgatorial Mount, it uses planting to depict the purging of the seven deadly sins on a figurative journey through purgatory.

Brantwood Lower Garden to harbour

Brantwood Lower Garden to harbour - Credit: Archant

More traditional planting is seen in the ‘Trellis Walk’ where clematis combines with sedum, alliums, geraniums and oriental poppies, and the ‘Southern Gardens’ with, for me, the standout combination of clear blue meconopsis against sulphur yellow azalea. Entry to Brantwood includes admission to the house, where Ruskin’s interests, encompassing everything from architecture to geology, are documented. Standing in the turret he built to allow unsurpassed views over the lake, it is easy to see why he loved this place.

After a homemade soup and quiche lunch in Jumping Jenny, a restaurant in the old stables and named after Ruskin’s boat, we headed back to Lake Windermere and another writer’s horticultural creation. If Ruskin’s gardening was often experimental, Wordsworth’s was pure landscape. Although planting in the four acres of Rydal Mount has changed since he lived there from 1813 to his death in 1850, his design is little altered, as sketches from 1850 show; all the Wordsworths were keen gardeners and the poet had a hand in the gardens of friends and neighbours.

Today, the house the poet shared with his wife and sister is owned by his direct descendants, who visit frequently. Inside, the rooms are full of pictures, furniture and paperwork relating to Wordsworth, including his initial refusal to Queen Victoria’s invitation to become Poet Laureate. Rydal Mount is a place of romance with the house and garden appearing almost to be enveloped by the nearby fells. There’s secluded seating, such as the poet’s summerhouse, terraces for strolling, moss-covered walls and views of Lake Windermere in one direction and Rydal Water in the other. Wordsworth’s favourite spot was atop a 9th century Norse mound, once used for beacons warning of border raiders.

View from Cragwood's Lounge

View from Cragwood's Lounge - Credit: Archant

Around the house, clad in wisteria and actinidia, the planting is a mix of shrubs and perennials, including allium, nepeta and cotinus. Move further down and there is gunnera and skunk cabbage in a carefully sculpted water garden. As befits the place where Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ was finally revised and published 200 years ago, spring sees masses of narcissi forming a golden host, not least in ‘Dora’s Field’, which was planted by William and Mary in memory of their daughter, who died in 1847.

We sampled but a few of the gardens the Lakes have to offer, nearby there are also Holehird Gardens, run by The Lakeland Horticultural Society, Stagshaw Gardens, an informal woodland garden, and Rydal Hall, another of Thomas Mawson’s creations, and that’s before you get into National Garden Scheme members. More rugged than many of the Cotswold plots that are my usual stamping ground, they fit well into the countryside, the bright shrubs echoing the yellow gorse.

It was with reluctance that we tore ourselves away from Cumbria, despite the less than perfect weather. On a last wander along Cragwood’s waterside frontage, we agreed not to leave it so long before returning.

The view from a Cragwood window

The view from a Cragwood window - Credit: Archant

Cragwood Country House Hotel:

Hill Top:


Rydal Mount: