While tourists are a fixture in the Lakes – and have been since the days of the Romantic Poets – the Western Lakes are slightly off the beaten track. As the sat nav directed us across Ennerdale Common at a leisurely pace, sheep bounding away on either side, the landscape was already starting to look wilder, more like the dramatic, undiscovered country that Wordsworth and Coleridge originally fell in love with, and that can sometimes seem a world away from the bustling Lakes of today.
We skirted Buttermere, ‘the lake by the dairy pastures’, which was immortalised in Melvyn Bragg’s novel, in turn inspired by the real life Mary Robinson (1778-1837), the beautiful Maid of Buttermere. To the north of us was Cockermouth, Wordsworth’s birthplace, while ahead lay the coast and the seaside port of Whitehaven. Our destination was Irton Hall in the foothills of the western fells between Wasdale and Eskdale. With a history stretching back to the 14th century, the hall was home to the Irton family for generations. The 14th century pele tower still stands, as does the Victorian clocktower, while other parts of the mansion date from the 19th century. Both Oliver Cromwell and Henry VI found their way to Irton Hall, and within the grounds is a 1,000 year-old tree, known as the King’s Oak. Tradition has it that Henry VI, refused shelter, spent the night under the oak before fleeing over the fell to Muncaster where he presented the glass bowl known as ‘The Luck of Muncaster’ in thanks for the welcome he received.
We were staying in Broughton House, immediately christened ‘The Palace’, and wished we’d brought friends and family – it sleeps fourteen! The west wing of Irton Hall, Broughton’s spacious rooms, elegant chandeliers and grand staircase with stained glass windows made it a dream holiday home. The kitchen was big enough to host dining on a baronial scale, while the pool table in the palatial living room might have been intended primarily for bored teenagers but certainly kept us entertained. In fact, we could have cheerfully spent the whole weekend relaxing in Broughton House and wandering the surrounding parkland, but there was a lot more to explore. Our first port of call was nearby Muncaster Castle, appropriate given its historic links to Irton. Muncaster has been in the Pennington family since 1208, and is still lived in by the current generation. As the narrators of the audio tour, the family invite visitors to discover the castle’s fascinating history, from Tom Fool, court jester at Muncaster in the 16th century with links to Shakespeare and today a mischievous ghostly presence, to the historic interiors, and characters like Sir William Pennington-Ramsden who came second in the Grand National on a one-eyed horse. The gardens are especially lovely, and the grounds also house the World Owl Centre, with more than 40 species of owl.
Located in the National Park’s only coastal village, Ravenglass, Muncaster Castle is just round the corner from the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. Better known as La’al Ratty, and originally opened in 1875 to transport iron ore, it’s the longest miniature railway of its kind in the UK, and visitors can hop aboard the miniature steam engine for a seven mile journey along the coastline between Eskdale and Ravenglass. The railway winds through beautiful countryside, crossing tidal Barrow Marsh, passing through farmland and woodland, and offering spectacular views of Muncaster Fell and the Scafell range – one of Wainwright’s favourite parts of the country.
Opting to let someone else do the washing up on our last night, we headed to Whitehaven for a meal at an Italian recommended by a friend. Family run Casa Romana has a sister restaurant in Carlisle, and was packed with locals, always a good sign in a tourist-friendly town like Whitehaven. While today its grandeur is rather faded, the historic 17th century harbour, enhanced by nautical sculptures and a brand new marina, is still the focus for spectacular maritime events. The unique Beacon offers the chance to explore the history of the area through displays, exhibitions and interactive galleries – with the opportunity to admire the views through the telescopes in the Viewing Gallery – while the nearby Rum Story is an award-winning attraction set in the original 1785 shop, courtyards, cellars and bonded warehouses of the Jefferson family, taking visitors from a tropical rainforest to an African village, a slave ship, Cumbrian cottages and a Cooper’s workshop.
We left the next day feeling as though we’d barely scratched the surface of the Western Lakes, and sure that next time we planned a trip to England’s largest National Park, we’d forgo the usual destinations in favour of the road less travelled.
For more information please visit www.irtonhall.co.uk