A few weeks ago, I made a visit to another local attraction and historical gem, Lowther Castle. I have already visited the parkland surrounding the Castle when I went to Lowther Show, and I thought it high time that I visited the shell of the building that remains. In 2017, they opened a new exhibition taking the visitor on a journey from its Medieval beginnings to present day. Let me tell you, it is hugely interesting, and so I shall tell you its story… very briefly. The whole thing would take days!
There have been settlers at Lowther since the 10th century, but the Lowther family can trace their lineage back to 1150 when a Viking named Dolfin set up next to the river and began to build. The first Lowther to really make a mark though was Hugh de Lowther who gained the right to ‘impark’ on the land in 1283 for a measly £12. Of course given inflation, that would be quite a different figure nowadays. I was quite surprised that the exhibition contains the genuine imparkment seal as granted by Edward I, and also at how much of the detail is still visible considering its age.
Gradually the size of the dwelling at Lowther grew and, in the 1350s, a motte-and-bailey castle became a pele tower. In many of my visits to locations in the Borders, such as Carlisle Castle, warring with the Scots has been a constant problem and so the added height and security offered by the stone building was entirely necessary. Life from there moved along quite nicely with little investment given to the estate. In 1617, the first of a line of Johns inherited, followed by a second and then a third. This John was not pleased with the state in which he inherited Lowther Hall, as it was by that time. He began to ‘beautify’ the estate by building the stables and offices (costing about £15,460 in all), and a bowling green amongst other changes. He even bought the village of Lowther and, after moving the tenants to another location, brought it into his estate. John Lowther was quite unique in his time too. In contrast to most people, especially those in the landed gentry, John was a vegetarian, and thought that there was “no need to live by the death of others”.
Opulence increased tenfold under John’s tenure. According to the information boards in the exhibition, one of the rooms was lined with mohair, the walls were covered in paintings, and the panelling in the rooms was made of burnished and gilded walnut. Some of the ceilings were painted by Antonio Verrio, who also painted at Windsor Castle for Charles II of all people! Unfortunately none of this remains to illustrate the point, but I’m sure it would have been an incredible sight.
Another of Lowther’s ‘big names’ is the ominously-named Wicked Jimmy, or James Lowther as he should be known. Other nicknames included Tyrant of the North, Earl Toadstool, and Jimmy Grasp-all, which don’t really paint him in a good light. Jimmy inherited after a string of catastrophes for the family. In 1714, Richard Lowther died of smallpox, aged only 21, and then four years later, a fire started in the house. The incumbent at the time, Henry, was very apathetic when it came to the upkeep of the estates and didn’t think sweeping the chimneys was important, and so fire broke out. This is the state in which James found Lowther Hall, but the restoration of the house went largely ignored as he intensely pursued his political career.
By the age of 19, Wicked Jimmy was owner of Lowther Hall, and Whitehaven Castle (as it is now known), among other properties. His lands in Whitehaven included many collieries which would provide a brilliant source of income for the family in the coming years. It is estimated that the coal pits brought in £40,000 annually, which is roughly £8 million in the present day. Whitehaven as a town grew a lot under Lowther guardianship and the town’s gridiron layout apparently inspired the layout of New York City. If that’s true, that’s pretty amazing.
James and his mother weren’t averse to spending sprees. One such flurry led them to accumulate a fabulous collection of silver, which can be seen in the exhibition too. Much of it came from Garrard & Co., the creators of Diana, Princess of Wales’ engagement ring, which now adorns the finger of the Duchess of Cambridge.
Wicked Jimmy died with no heirs, and the estate passed over to a distant cousin, William Lowther of Swillington. William was a good family man and used the fortune he inherited to construct the castle as we see it today (mostly). Robert Smirke was the architect behind the creation which, if it was to be built today, it is estimated that it could set you back a cool £11 million. Smirke’s other notable works include the British Museum and the Royal Mint.
Flash forward to 1882 and we see the succession of Hugh Lowther, 5th Earl of Lonsdale, AKA ‘the Yellow Earl‘, possibly Lowther Castle’s most outrageous resident. He claimed many physical feats including walking 100 miles of the Great Northern Road at a pace of six miles per hour, and challenging (and, according to him, defeating) the boxing heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan.
As you can probably deduce from his nickname, he was a big fan of the colour yellow. He kept only golden labradors, dressed his staff in yellow (and navy) livery, and even attempted to breed buff-coloured turkeys. Hugh was the founder and the first President of the Automobile Association, lending his family colour to its logo in the process. His impact on British society can still be felt today in so many ways, and just a quick Google search reveals this. In short, huge character with fantastic stories.
He was known to travel with a 24-piece orchestra, spend £3000 a year on cigars, and would give his dogs their own first class train carriage. All of this obviously took its toll on his finances, and further down the line, it led to the sale of the contents of Lowther Castle, and the removal of its roof.
Lowther Castle and Gardens are now one of the best attractions in the area, and it’s full of things to do. The Lost Castle adventure playground at the far end of the gardens is really designed for children but, full disclosure, I did have a few swings on the zip wire, and climb up to the highest turret, and was very tempted by the big slides but they were wet and I was wearing tight jeans. Not a good combination. There are so many different parts to the gardens to explore, and I absolutely adore the little summerhouses dotted around the grounds. As we’re coming into spring the snowdrops are popping up all over, but I really want to go back in summer to see it in full bloom.