The Lowther Estate
Today the landscape of Lowther has the feel of a place discovered long ago by the outside world, then forgotten. The castle is half-ruined, the park and farmland seem to be not quite as self-consciously composed as many estates, and the countryside around can be wild and windswept. But people have lived at Lowther for thousands of years. About 5,000 years ago people from the Bronze Age were the first to leave their mark. Theirs are the earth monuments, the barrows, to be discovered walking the high fells. The trees of the parkland hide the mysterious shapes of Iron Age hill forts and settlements from 3,000 years ago.
Then, about a thousand years ago, a Viking came to this place, looking to settle by the river. He or she was probably of a group that came from Denmark and were already established in Yorkshire. We do not know his or her name, only that of a descendant, Dolfin. It was Dolfin who called the river ‘lowth-å’. And so Dolfin is the first connection with the name Lowther, the name of the river (top right), of the place and of the family who have lived here since.
In the middle ages, when all rights to hunt areas of land belonged to the King, Edward I granted the right to ‘impark’ an area of Lowther in Westmorland in 1283. This great honour meant the Lowthers could create their own deer park, the area now known as the south deer park (right). By the fourteenth century the family held estates in Cumberland as well as Westmorland (both now part of Cumbria).
It was during the 18th century that the estate grew spectacularly. The first Earl of Lonsdale, ‘Wicked Jimmy’, bought estate after estate for two precious commodities – iron and the coal needed to smelt it. The estate became the largest in England. It covered most of Cumbria – including the lakes – and land to the east and north. At one time it was possible to walk from the east coast to the west without stepping off Lowther soil.
Then at the turn of the 20th century was a further round of expansion, when the 5th ('Yellow') Earl bought more land and demolished 20 farms to make a home park fit for the visit of the Kaiser. The growth continued into the 1920s to make what was and still is the largest home park in England, with 1,000 acres of woodland and over 3,000 acres now farmed by Lowther Park Farms. The 5th Earl died in 1944, and when his grave was dug in the churchyard, Saxon and Viking 'hogsback' tombs were found - further evidence of Lowther's early settlers. The tombstones, shaped like houses, are in the porch of Lowther church,
During the 1940s and ‘50s, the estate contracted in a series of sales, to expand again under the 7th Earl of Lonsdale, who developed forestry, agriculture and conservation. Now the Lowther estates cover 75,000 acres, from Penrith to the Howgills, with land further afield in West Cumbria and the Lake District. Most is let and managed for agriculture, forestry and open recreation. This land is under the custodianship of Hugh, 8th Earl of Lonsdale, and his younger brother Jim. The National Trust leases 18,000 acres of Lowther land in the Langdales. From Bowfell in the west to Fairfield in the east, south to Loughrigg, this is some of the finest fell-walking country in the Lake District.
At the centre of the estate, in 600 acres of formal parkland, Lowther Castle stands guard. The first documented building on the site was a 12th century pele tower. The second was a mansion, gutted by fire in 1718 only 24 years after it was completed. The third building could have been a palace, such was the wealth of its creator, but following 80 years of semi-abandonment and after considering many designs, a romantic castle was chosen. The architect was a young Robert Smirke, who later built the British Museum in London.
Lowther village was moved from its original site north of the castle. To make way for the second house, Lowther village was demolished and rebuilt and, to improve the Earl’s view from the castle, rebuilt again further east in the early 19th century to designs of Robert Adam.
When the 5th Earl died in 1944, much of the castle’s contents and architectural fittings were sold in the largest of all country house sales over six weeks. While many other country houses opened to the public, or were demolished, Lowther Castle stood empty. The 7th Earl, inheriting in 1954 and unable to find a sustainable future for the Castle, in 1956 reluctantly decided to partly demolish it. He removed the roof and some of the structure but left the two facades, still magnificent, still Grade II* listed, but windowless, somewhat eerie, not at all the archetypal ruin the castle at first sight appears to be.
Behind the castle, hidden from view, are over 120 acres of gardens. They too lie abandoned but traces remain of 400 years of garden history, over 20 gardens in all.
The castle and gardens are soon to re-awake in a £9 million project, with support from the North West Development Agency and the European Regional Development Fund, to stabilise the ruins, develop the stables and create access to the castle, stables and its hidden gardens. The remaining collection of old masters, silver, and furniture will be shown for the first time in a specially constructed gallery in the stable courtyard.