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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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Revealing the lost treasures of Lowther Castle and grounds

Andrew Mercer is searching for solutions, as many have before him. “There’s no manual I’ve found that says ‘This is how you restore a castle.’”

Lowther castle photo
From left; Jim Lowther, Dominic Cole and Andrew Mercer

So what do you do with a 200-year-old gothic ruin which has lain abandoned for more than 70 years?

The answer, according to Andrew and his team at Lowther Castle and Gardens Trust, combines restoration with respect for the animal and plant life which has been reclaiming the place for decades.

Today marks a new era: the first time one of Cumbria’s most striking buildings and its grounds have been open to the public since 1938.

A project aimed at making the castle a major visitor attraction is supported by £8.9 million from the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the European Regional Development Fund.

About 18 jobs will be created and 75,000 visitors are expected in the first year, rising to an estimated 120,000 three years later.

The castle ruins are being stabilised. Fallen masonry will be replaced. Work to uncover the 17th-century gardens is underway, overseen by landscape architect Dominic Cole, who was lead designer on the Eden Project.

The best-preserved buildings are the stables. Refurbishing these into a visitor centre with café and shops will take a year.

The East Sculpture Gallery will then be restored, with items from the Lowther family’s art and silverware collections shown for the first time. Work on the gallery should take three years and the gardens more than a decade.

Anyone who has followed progress at Lowther Castle will have long ago learned the art of patience.


Lowther has been the family seat of the Earls of Lonsdale for centuries. The Lowther family accrued vast wealth from industry and agriculture. They created Whitehaven. Their name echoes down Lowther Streets in Carlisle and Penrith.

Their boldest statement, Lowther Castle, was built between 1806 and 1816. It was the first commission of architect Robert Smirke, who went on to build the British Museum.

The castle, four miles south of Penrith, sat in 130 acres of gardens, some of which had been created in the late 1600s.

The house and gardens were among the grandest in England. They were enjoyed to the full by Hugh, Fifth Earl of Lonsdale, when he inherited the title and the estate in 1882.

The Fifth Earl had expensive tastes. Known as ‘the Yellow Earl’ after the colours of his racehorses, he had a regiment of yellow-liveried servants, a fleet of yellow cars, and a hothouse to grow yellow gardenias for his buttonhole.

Hugh was the first president of the Automobile Association, hence its yellow insignia. He instigated the Lonsdale Belt for boxing and in later life was Honorary President of Arsenal Football Club.

Lowther became renowned for entertaining distinguished guests. In its heyday the castle had 200 staff, including 18 gardeners.

Parties and sporting weekends were attended by royalty and heads of state. For the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Earl built a five-mile drive and flattened several farms to expand the estate.

During the late 19th-century the Earl’s income was £4,000 a week: equivalent in today’s money to about £12.5m a year.

But the castle devoured resources. The Earl’s extravagant lifestyle and a slump in income during the Depression led to its closure in 1935. The family moved to nearby Askham Hall.

The grounds were briefly opened to visitors in 1938 before the castle was requisitioned by the War Office for use by a tank regiment during the Second World War.

The Fifth Earl died in 1944 with no heir. The Sixth Earl died in 1953 and was succeeded by his grandson James, the Seventh Earl.

He inherited a family business in a critical state. Lowther Castle had become a beautiful, crumbling millstone. The Seventh Earl described it as “a place that exemplified gross imperial decadence during a period of abject poverty.”

His solution: remove the roof and abandon it.

The Seventh Earl’s son, Jim Lowther, is a trustee of Lowther Castle and Gardens Trust and a driving force behind the current project. He sympathises with the predicament his father faced.

“When my father inherited in 1953, the castle was completely empty. The roof was leaking. It hadn’t been lived in for 18 years. My father wanted to keep it as a functioning building. He invited interest from three local authorities but there were no takers. Everybody was broke.

“He was faced with Hobson’s choice: knock it down or keep it on as a burdensome maintenance responsibility. He chose a halfway house: to de-roof the main part of the house and keep the stable courtyard and the sculpture gallery intact, thinking some use might come of it one day, which it has.”

The grounds were used to house chickens and pigs. The intricate gardens were overplanted with lines of conifer trees for timber. And Lowther Castle became an intriguing silhouette on the skyline. A monument to another age.


Work in the gardens behind the castle began last autumn. Only a select few people have ever seen them. Earlier this year a set of stone steps and a water fountain, both overgrown for more than 60 years, were discovered.

Traces remain of 20 formal gardens dating back four centuries. Parts of the original 17th-century gardens were overlaid several times, latterly by those rows of conifers.

“We need to get our philosophy right in terms of how we deal with this,” says Andrew Mercer. “Some of these gardens are going to be restored. Some will be left in an abandoned form. If people come expecting pristine castle gardens, they’re going to be disappointed.”

Some trees are being felled to reveal the gardens and restore views to the castle. Woodchip paths are being laid. But this is a place where paths are little more than a suggestion.

“People are not restricted in where they go. I don’t want people waving sticks saying ‘Don’t go there!’ I don’t want signs everywhere.
“I want people to make their own discoveries. Finding things for ourselves is one of the great pleasures of life.

“It’s a place to potter. I walk my dogs here every weekend. After six months I’m still finding places I didn’t know.”

Everywhere offers glimpses of something. A granite bath under a tree. A stone trough in a moss coat. A balustrade wall and stone steps leading down to a pond. Wooden summerhouses – 18 of them – some more than 200 years old.

Jubilee Summerhouse, where the Queen and Prince Philip would relax during Lowther Horse Trials, sits on a manmade escarpment with stunning views across to Helton Fell.

Gazing out across green fields and big skies, Andrew says: “It was when I came around this corner, I thought ‘I could do something here.’

"The castle is interesting enough. But this view for me really connects the castle and the gardens with where it was placed.”

Behind the house the south lawns will be restored. The Yellow Earl used to gallop his racehorses past here to the woods beyond.

The stable courtyard was concreted over by the army during the Second World War. “We were agonising over what was the original surface,” says Andrew. “Rather than talk about it, I got a man in with a digger.”

Stone setts have been revealed and will be fully exposed and restored in the coming months.

On one wall of the East Sculpture Gallery, above a long-removed artifact, are the words ‘From the palace of Caesar’s Rome’.

The main part of the castle, abandoned by the Lowthers, is now occupied by jackdaws and ravens. Stand on a carpet of grass and gaze up at stonework dressed with dandelions and trees.

Andrew says restoring the castle to its former glory would be impossibly expensive, and less alluring than leaving it largely to nature.

“If you were going to design a heritage business, this is almost the perfect scenario. A ruin and a vast country garden. It’s the fact that it was lost. It’s obviously been abandoned. This rather romantic feel to the place.”

Jim Lowther has been looking for a solution for 20 years. “I’d been talking to my father about it since 1999. He very politely said ‘I pulled the thing down. I don’t want to be alive when it is reconstructed.’

“He died five years ago. About two days before he died he said ‘I suppose if it looks as if I’m going to die, it means you can do that damn fool plan of yours with the castle.’

“Immediately after he died we were straight there pulling down the chicken sheds. It’s such a beautiful place. I’m really excited by the idea of sharing this place which has been private and excluding for so long.”

Lowther Castle and gardens are open every day from 10am-5pm. Admission £5 adults. One child free per paying adult. Additional children £2.50.



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