Take a trip down the western side of Windermere and down a few narrow roads, and you’ll reach Wray Castle. Built in the 1840s, this new-gothic creation was the brainchild of James and Margaret Dawson, a Liverpudlian couple, who moved to the Lake District because, well, why wouldn’t you? Unlike other castles I have visited throughout the course of writing for this blog, Wray is a bit of a fib. It emits an air of old-world majesty and you could be tricked into thinking it was once lived in by Dukes and Earls of times gone by. The tarmac surrounding the building kind of dampens the charm, but it is still quite an imposing construction.
The Castle is now in the hands of the National Trust, and I visited to check out their new exhibition entitled ‘The Women of Wray Castle: Convention & Control’. It brings together the research work undertaken by the staff at Wray Castle and is actually quite eye-opening and challenges the rumours and preconceptions surrounding two women with links to Wray Castle. The first woman I have already mentioned: Margaret Dawson.
Margaret was the daughter of a northern businessman, Robert Preston. Preston was a well-respected wine merchant and gin distiller who had rebuilt his family fortunes, which he then passed onto his daughter upon his death. Previous discussions have suggested that her husband James essentially took this money for himself, as was his right under the marital law at the time, and used it to build the castle of his dreams. Margaret was said to have taken one look at it, declared that she hated it, and never stepped foot in it again.
As it turns out, Wray Castle was entirely her idea. Her father had written into his will that Margaret was to inherit the money as a ‘feme sole’, so legally James couldn’t touch a penny of it! Now I’m not going to go into a full legal drivel, but at the time, this was pretty progressive, and thankfully quite common. Industrial ‘new money’ families believed in keeping money within the family, safely tucked away from prying husbands.
Upon Margaret and James’ death, the Castle and surrounding estates passed to her 15-year-old nephew, Edward Preston Rawnsley, who chose to rent it out Airbnb-style to visitors to the Lake District. This brings me onto another of Wray’s important women, who is surely more well-known. Her name was Beatrix Potter.
I don’t know about you, but nearly every Cumbrian child has read a Beatrix Potter book or had one read to them at some point. She was a fantastic author who moved to live at Hill Top near Ambleside in 1905, buying it with the money she earned from her most famous publication: The Tale of Peter Rabbit. What many don’t know about her is that she had a keen interest mycology (the study of fungi) from a young age. This is the part of her personality that the Wray Castle exhibition focuses on.
The exhibition at Wray Castle uses art installations to tell the stories of the women it focuses on, and one of my favourites was Lydia Denno’s collection of tiny books which includes mycological diagrams and text about Beatrix’s interest in this science. It is titled ‘Beatrix = Mycologist’ and is undoubtedly one of the cutest and inventive pieces in the exhibition.
As it turns out, Beatrix Potter actually wrote a scientific paper on the subject, which she called ‘On the Germination of Spores of the Agaricinae’. I won’t even pretend to know what that means. It was even presented to the Linnean Society, although not by Beatrix herself. A friend of hers, George Massey, took it the panel, who proceeded to dismiss it entirely. Beatrix was the only person working in this particular field at the time, so it surprises me that it would be rejected. One explanation could be that she was a woman.
Even now, women are still underrepresented in STEM subjects as a whole. There is a small part of the exhibition that focuses on this, providing quite shocking statistics on the topic, but it leads on to my favourite part. In one of the upper floor rooms you’ll find a collection of three crinolines affixed to mannequins, representing the social, economic, and physical restrictions placed on women in the 18th and 19th centuries, and even in the present day.
What’s even better though are the pieces of fabric pinned to a hanging on the right-hand side of the room. Visitors to Wray Castle are invited to provide their opinion on the exhibition and what it represents. I photographed a couple of my favourite quotes:
Having talked with a member of the Wray Castle staff, I discovered that this was the first exhibition to be held in Wray Castle, and previously it was relatively empty of furniture. It is great to see it being used for an event of this type, and I hope they choose to create further exhibitions when this one is over. I’d definitely be back if they do!
I’d recommend sitting in for one of the talks presented by the staff in the Wray Castle library. I listened to one about the history of the Castle, and how/why it was built. It was fascinating to hear about the lengths the Dawsons went to in order to give it as much of an old feel as possible. It worked to an extent, but when you take the interior of the castle in as a whole, there are telltale signs that it was built a few hundred years after peak castle-building time. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing construction, but the vibe is different once you get inside.
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