Lowther Castle is a country house in the historic county of Westmorland, which now forms part of the modern county of Cumbria, England. It has belonged to the Lowther family, latterly the Earls of Lonsdale, since the Middle Ages. It is a fully managed ruin, open to visits by the public to the shell of the castle and some of the gardens since 2011. Additional work was completed since that time, most recently on the extensive gardens.
In the late 17th century John Lowther, 1st Viscount Lonsdale rebuilt the family home, then known as Lowther Hall, on a grand scale. The current building is a castellated mansion which was built by Robert Smirke for William Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale between 1806 and 1814, and it was only at that time that Lowther was designated a "castle". The family fortune was undermined by the extravagance of the 5th Earl of Lonsdale, a famous socialite, and the castle was closed in 1937. During the Second World War, it was used by a tank regiment. Its contents were removed in the late 1940s and the roof was removed in 1957. The shell is still owned by the Lowther Estate Trust.
George Macartney, when visiting the summer retreat of the Chinese emperor in Chengde in 1793, could compare the magnificence of what he saw only with Lowther Hall: If any place in England can be said in any respect to have similar features to the western park, which I have seen this day, it is Lowther Hall in Westmoreland, which (when I knew it many years ago) from the extent of prospect, the grand surrounding objects, the noble situation, the diversity of surface, the extensive woods, and command of water, I thought might be rendered by a man of sense, spirit, and taste, the finest scene in the British dominions.
In the 19th century, an East India Company ship, HCS Lowther Castle, was named after the estate.
William and Augusta Lowther 1st Earl and Countess of Lonsdale
William Lowther was born in 1757 and he was about 52 years old when he built Lowther Castle. He was the eldest son of Reverend Sir William Lowther and Anne Zouch. He was educated at Cambridge University and in 1780 at the age of 23 he became a Member of Parliament. A year later he married Lady Augusta Fane, the daughter of John 9th Earl of Westmorland. He held the position of Parliamentarian for 22 years until 1802 when he inherited the estates from his cousin Sir James Lowther.
Sir James Lowther had a rather disreputable history. He incurred a large debt to the father of William Wordsworth and refused to pay it despite numerous requests from the family. When Sir James Lowther died in 1802 and William inherited his fortune he immediately refunded the money to the Wordsworth family with interest. He also befriended William Wordsworth and assisted him financially. Wordsworth frequently stayed at Lowther Castle as many of his published letters are written from there.
Wordsworth wrote several poems for William. Part of his verse about Lowther Castle is as follows:
"Lowther! in thy majestic Pile are seen
Cathedral pomp and grace in apt accord
With the baronial castle’s sterner mien"
Lady Augusta Lonsdale, William's wife, was also a patron of the arts and she kept an album in which some of the poets visiting Lowther Castle wrote verse. Wordsworth wrote a long poem in her honour in the album which has been included in his published works.
Robert Southey, another famous poet, was also a frequent visitor at the Castle and he too wrote in Lady Lonsdale's album. A verse he composed about Lowther Castle is as follows:
"Lowther! have I beheld thy stately walls,
Thy pinnacles, and broad embattled brow,
And hospitable halls.
The sun those wide spread battlements shall crest,
And silent years unharming shall go by,
Till centuries in their course invest
Thy towers with sanctity."
The Earl and Countess also encouraged artists to visit Lowther Castle. The most famous of these was Joseph Turner. He painted the recently acquired work called “Lowther Castle – Evening” which hangs in the Bowes Museum and is shown on the left. William also became the patron to Jacob Thompson who painted his portrait which is shown above.
In 1839 Mrs Harriette Story Paige visited Lowther Castle with Daniel Webster, a famous American politician. A detailed account of her experiences were given in her diary, in which she noted that:
"We reached Lowther just at the hour of lunch, contrary to the English etiquette, which usually establishes the time for arriving, an hour or two only,before dinner, when at the announcement of that meal, the guests meet, for the first time. The Castle bell was rung, as we passed through the arched stone gateway, after a drive through the noble parks."
Daniel Webster's wife also kept a diary and described her experience of the same visit to Lowther Castle.
William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale
William Lowther, 2nd Earl of Lonsdale was born in 1787. He was educated at Harrow School and Cambridge University and in 1808 he followed in his father's footsteps and became a politician. He was an MP for the next 33 years until 1841. In 1844, when his father died, he inherited the Lowther Estates.
Lowther did not marry, but had several illegitimate children. Two of these inherited from him large sums of money on his death. One of these was a daughter, Frances Lowther, born in 1818 to the Paris Opera dancer Pierre-Narcisse Chaspoux. Narcisse later had a liaison with Charles Lewis Meryon and gave birth in 1821 to Charles Méryon, the French artist. Frances Lowther later married the MP Henry Broadwood and had several children.
His other child who was given an inheritance was Francis William Lowther, a Royal Navy officer. He was born in 1841 to Emilia Cresotti, a singer in the Paris Opera. William also appears to have had two other illegitimate daughters. One was Marie Caroline Lowther Saintfal, born in 1818 to Caroline Saintfal and registered in the Paris Baptisms. The other was to the famous French ballerina Lise Noblet, who wrote to him about their daughter.
William died in 1872. As he had no legitimate heirs, the Lowther Estates passed to his nephew Henry Lowther.
Henry and Emily Lowther, 3rd Earl and Countess of Lonsdale
Henry Lowther was 54 years old when he inherited the Lonsdale Estates. He died only four years later after an attack of pneumonia. He therefore had little impact on the development of Lowther Castle.
Henry was born in 1818. He was the nephew of the 2nd Earl of Lonsdale and the eldest son of the Hon. Henry Cecil Lowther, the 2nd Earl's brother. His mother was Lady Lucy Sherard. He was educated at Westminster School and Cambridge University and in 1841 he joined the 1st Life Guards. He was also a Member of Parliament representing West Cumberland between 1847 and 1872.
In 1852 he married Emily Susan Caulfield, the daughter of Mr St George Caulfield of Donoman Castle of Roscommon, Ireland. The couple had six children. When Henry died in 1878 the Lowther Estates were inherited by his son St George Lowther who became the 4th Earl of Lonsdale.
St George and Gladys 4th Earl and Countess of Lowther
St George was born in 1855 and was only 23 when he inherited Lowther Castle. He had a passion for exploration and when he obtained his fortune he spent much of his time aboard his two steam yachts making long voyages to far parts of the world. He had a scientific interest in the sea and his careful studies of the behavior of the Gulf Stream were important enough to be published by the American Hydrological Department.
In 1878 he married Lady Gladys Herbert a very famous socialite. She has been described as “one of the professional beauties, a select group of a half-dozen society ladies who like the super models of today were constantly talked about and whose portraits were on sale to the public. Everything about her seemed impressive. She was six feet tall and her dark eyes and brilliant colouring made any women near her look pale."
The marriage was not considered to be a success as St George was constantly away travelling and Gladys was caught up in a social set which did not meet with his approval. Gladys often entertained at Lowther Castle and one of her visitors was Lilly Langtry who was said to be the mistress of King Edward VII. In her autobiography Lilly describes her stay at Lowther Castle as follows.
“Lady Gladys Herbert and Later Countess of Lonsdale was superbly beautiful, with brilliant colouring and the features and carriage of an ideal Roman Empress. We were great friends and at one time almost inseparable. I spent part of one summer with her at Lowther Castle soon after her first marriage and she met me at Carlisle Station with her pony car to drive me to the Castle. As we wisked through the Park and the impressive walls of Lowther loomed before us she intimated that the one thing she was most anxious for me to see was the emu strutting about the grass."
In 1882 at the age of twenty six, St George died after a short illness which was followed by pneumonia. His younger brother Hugh Cecil Lowther inherited the Castle.
Hugh and Grace Lowther 5th Earl of Lonsdale
Hugh Cecil Lowther was born in 1857 and was only 25 when he inherited the Castle. Being the second son of the Earl he did not expect to be the manager of an estate and so had not been appropriately educated. He was at Eton for only two years and left at the age of twelve after which he spent his time playing sport.
In 1878, four years before obtaining his inheritance, Hugh married Lady Grace Gordon, third daughter of the Marquess of Huntly who was three years his senior. Her family opposed the marriage as Hugh was then not wealthy and seemed irresponsible. Their assessment of his character proved to be correct, as the following year he invested a great deal of money in cattle in America. The venture collapsed and the Lowther family was forced to save him.
The couple then lived near Oakham and Grace became pregnant but suffered a bad fall while hunting and lost the baby. After this she was unable to bear children and she remained a partial invalid for the rest of her life.
After he obtained his inheritance in 1882 Hugh indulged his many passions. He bought chestnut horses, carriages and many other extravagances. He had yellow-liveried footmen, a groom of the bedchamber, a chamberlain and a master of music to supervise the 24 musicians who travelled from house to house. His household travelled in a special train. Hugh declared that because of his childlessness he was the last of the Lowthers which ignored the rights of his younger brother Lancelot who was to inherit the vastly depleted estate.
In August 1895 the Kaiser visited Lowther Castle for some grouse-shooting and the imperial flag flew over the house. The kings of Italy and Portugal later came to stay, and the Kaiser a second time in 1902. The Kaiser gave Lonsdale the order of the Prussian crown (first class) and a Mercedes. Hugh's fondness for cars made him the first President of the Automobile Association. He was also the first president of the International Horse Show at Olympia. In 1920 the walls of Horse Show arena were decorated with a replica of the gardens at Lowther Castle.
During the First World War he helped to found the Blue Cross where his chief role was as a recruitment officer of both men and horses. He had his own pals battalion called the Lonsdale battalion (11th Battalion, Border Regiment). The battalion was almost wiped out on the Somme.
After the war Hugh gave up hunting and became more involved with race horses. He became a senior steward of the Jockey Club. He had only one major win and that was the St Leger in 1922. He was rarely seen in the House of Lords.
Because of his extravagance he was forced to sell some of his inherited properties. In 1921 Whitehaven Castle was sold, and in 1926 Barleythorpe. The same year the west Cumberland coalmines closed. In 1935 he left Lowther Castle because he could no longer afford to live there and moved to much smaller accommodation. Grace died in 1941 and three years later in 1944 Hugh died, aged 87.
Closure of Lowther Castle
In 1939 or 1940 the castle was requisitioned for the war effort and used for tank development. It was returned to the family not before 1954. The family could not afford use or upkeep and offered to give it away to the National Trust and other institutions, however, in those depressed post-war years they did not find takers. In order not to have to pay taxes they stripped the castle and removed the roof.
Hugh Lowther was the last resident of Lowther Castle. His brother Lancelot the 6th Earl inherited the estate in 1944 but because of Hugh's large debts was forced to sell many of the family's treasures. A large auction sale was held in 1947. Lancelot died in 1953 and was succeeded by James his grandson.
James wished to develop the estates and concentrated on farming. He saw Lowther Castle as an extravagance. After he returned from World War II, he said “it was a place that exemplified gross imperial decadence during a period of abject poverty. The army had damaged the grounds and buildings during the war and the castle had been empty for many years. James offered the Castle as a gift to three local authorities but all refused. At that time the only options for large country houses were to open them to the public or demolish them. Faced with £25 million in death duties, he could not afford the former so he decided to remove the roof and demolish much of the stonework. "Just the façade and outer walls remained", according to the castle's owner.
The forecourt became pig pens and the concrete on the south lawns that the army had laid he used as a base for a broiler chicken factory. The remainder of the gardens was used as a timber plantation, with Sitka spruce trees.
Significant improvements have been achieved since then. After the 2006 death of Lord Lonsdale, the chicken-broiler unit and the trees were removed. With a great deal of funding from various sources, some garden restoration was done and a restoration of the castle shell and the full reinstatement and conversion of the stables was also completed.
After an initial £9 million restoration, the castle and some gardens opened for public visits in 2011, for the first time since 1938; other garden areas were still overgrown at that time.
In 2016, the Lowther family again began to manage the property in advance of the official reopening for the 2017 season. A report in October 2018, summarized the situation at that time as: "The part-demolished castle shell and the wrecked garden have been resurrected with impressive energy and conviction. Lowther is now once again one of the leading showplaces of Cumbria". In the same year, the property was cited as the Large Visitor Attraction of the Year 2018 in the Cumbria Tourism Awards.
As of mid-June 2019, the TripAdvisor Web site had 1,084 Reviews on this attraction, averaging a 4.5 star rating. The site mentioned one benefit not often covered in news articles, the "adventure playground in the woods ... amazing for the younger visitor.
The Lost Gardens of Lowther Castle
The gardens of Lowther Castle were abandoned in 1935 but before that they represented centuries of careful cultivation by successive generations of the Lowther family. There exists a detailed description of the gardens written in the lifetime of the 5th Earl who was the last person to live at the Castle. This description is given in the following paragraphs with appropriate photographs accompanying the narrative.
Gardens on the Western side of the Castle
“To the back of the shrubbery behind the Terrace one finds the Rock Garden. This was the especial interest of Lady Lonsdale and is particularly noted for its unique collection of Alpine plants and Japanese dwarf maples turning to scarlet and crimson in the autumn. All manner of climbing plants trail over rustic arbours and rustic bridges span its water lily ponds.
Nearby accessible only by two almost invisible paths and completely hidden away is the Sweet Scented Garden. This stands alone among gardens – an oval gem surrounded by tall dark shrubs. All known sweet scented flowers grow here in round and oval beds arranged down the centre with scented lilies in the middle of each bed (these scented lilies can be seen in the photo to the right). Around the edges of this oasis of concentrated perfume are set rustic seats in arbours of honeysuckle with, between them pools fed by miniature waterfalls (these water features are still in the Sweet Scented Garden at Lowther Castle today.) In the centre bed is an old French vase which was originally in the gardens of a house in Coblentz and had been much admired by Lord Lonsdale when in Germany for the Army manoeuvers. Round it are carved the lines from Omar Khayyam which commence “O moon of my delight”. This was placed in the Sweet Scented Garden by the Kaiser himself as a gift to Lord Lonsdale, during one of his visits to Lowther. To this garden came Lord and Lady Lonsdale on most evenings after dinner — to sit and enjoy its scents and quiet.
Close to it, and equally hidden away, is the Japanese Garden, adorned with Chinese and Japanese ornaments, life-size bronze birds and animals, Japanese shrines, dwarf trees, scarlet lacquer dwarf bridges set among miniature lakes, filled with Japanese water-lilies and iris, tiny islands, and hidden paths. Beyond the Japanese Garden lies the Rose Garden. Here are set out some 25,000 rose bushes with rambler rose tents in all four corners. The bushes are planted on a stretch of green turf with a fountain and small rockery in the centre. (the remains of this fountain are still in the garden today) Leading out of the Rose Garden is an Iris Garden enclosed by a clipped hedge and containing more lily ponds with stone seats and lead figures arranged round and about them.”
The Japanese Garden was created by local gardener Thomas Richard Hayes in 1904. A local expert in rock and water garden design, Hayes imported trees from Japan and used pools, curved bridges and statues of water birds to create an authentic feel.
The Terrace is one of three natural terraces formed within the grounds by land subsidences of past days - the rocks and boulders of the sub-soil having been left bare. Lying a little to the south-west of the castle, it has been turfed- over and faced with stone on the drop side to prevent deer or cattle getting up or rabbits getting in. The artificial portion of this lay-out is about a mile long and is bordered on the garden side by trees and shrubs. From this terrace the views over to the mountains beyond are unrivalled. Below, through the foreground of this landscape, wanders the River Lowther - sometimes over shallows and rapids, with deep pools intervening and crossed at intervals by stone hump-backed bridges. Between it and Hawes Water lie rolling hills whilst looking slightly left there is an uninterrupted view of miles over the park to the fells. Lord Lonsdale and his brother Lancelot have built a large rustic summer-house in the centre of the terrace which contains an old water clock taken from one of the former Lowther houses and having on it the inscription “Night cometh”
Gardens to the east of the castle
“Hugh's Garden was laid out to the designs of Lord Lonsdale himself just before the Great War and a most beautiful design it is, it is, with Versailles as its pattern. Radiating from the centre of a high piece of ground to the south-east of the castle, six wide turf avenues stretch down the slope like the spokes of a vast wheel broadening as they descend. Dividing the avenues are beautifully trimmed tall yew hedges worked along the top at intervals into strange shapes. There are two miles of these hedges and beds along their foot were planted with many thousands of bedding-out plants – a blaze of glory from early spring to late autumn. Some lovely old Italian well-heads in carved stone with wrought iron overthrows are set here and there amidst the wheel. The conception of this garden was entirely Lord Lonsdale’s own. From the hub of this wheel the views are almost the equal of the outlook from the Terrace.
Close to Hugh’s Garden is Jack Crofts Pond originally a cattle watering place now turned into a charming ornamental stretch of water."
In 2000 the Lowther Estate and English Heritage jointly commissioned a team of historians, landscapers, architects and engineers to review the status of the castle and its grounds, and they produced the Lowther Castle & Garden Conservation Plan. In 2005 the estate formed an informal partnership with the Northwest Development Agency, English Heritage, Cumbria Vision and the Royal Horticultural Society to regenerate the site. The objectives were to consolidate the ruin, restore the garden and open the site to the public. Sheppard Robson RIBA were appointed as architects. The castle and 130 acres of grounds were transferred to a charity called the Lowther Castle and Gardens Trust in 2007 and the site opened to the public on 22 April 2011. In March 2016 the property was sub-leased to Lowther Castle Limited, a non-charitable company formed to manage the activities undertaken at the Castle and Gardens.
Developments in the gardens continue. In summer 2016, The Lost Castle - The largest wooden playground in the country was opened at Lowther Castle. The hand-built playground is made from 11 miles of sustainably sourced timber. Work on the 130-acre garden was continuing in mid-2019, based on plans by Patrick James and Dominic Cole, under the guidance of designer Dan Pearson and the castle's current owner Jim Lowther (son of the 7th Earl of Lonsdale).
One of the projects is the Garden in the Ruin, a new phase after the 2015 plantings, including Hydrangea aspera Sargentiana and Parthenocissus henryana. The new Rose Garden had already received 1,250 eglantine roses, underplanted with brunnera, Galium odoratum and Chaero-phylum hirsutum Roseum; in spring 2019, 6,000 perennials were added, white Geranium macrorrhizum White-Ness, Calamintha sylvatica Menthe and Brunnera macrophylla Betty Bowring and Narcissus poeticus and Camassia leichtlinii alba.
In late 2019, an additional 2,255 David Austin roses will be planted. Future phases will include the addition of Japanese plants in The Japanese Garden and the conversion of the Scented Garden to Katsura Grove. The area around an old summer house to the west of the garden will be planted with honeysuckle, roses and bulbs. The modified gardens will open to visitors in spring 2020.
Lowther Deer Park hosts the music festival Kendal Calling, and Born Survivor, a obstacle run.