Many, many years ago, when I was about 15, I was camping on the site at Coniston Hall. A great location, in the woods on the west shore of Coniston Water. Looking across the water towards Grizedale forest I couldn’t help but notice a large house on the opposite bank of the lake. I later discovered that it was Brantwood, which had been John Ruskin’s main home from 1872 until his death in January 1900. Today it’s owned by a Trust and is one of the main tourist attractions in the area.
It can be reached by road (the narrow lane on the east side of the lake) but many visitors arrive at the house’s jetty by the boats from Coniston that call there regularly.
I remember arriving there by in just such a way, struggling to keep a two year old from wriggling out of my grasp and over the side, just over 20 years ago. But this year the house was only about a mile and a half from the cottage where we were staying so we made our way there on foot.
Given that Ruskin wrote extensively, and influentially, on architecture, the house itself is nothing to write home about. It had been extended several times and had a jumbled appearance (is that an architectural term?) rather than a cohesive style.
But the view from the house and it’s garden is pretty magnificent and that was the reason why Ruskin bought it. He spent his time looking out from it towards the fells and the lake rather than looking at it. The house was functional rather than beautiful.
I guess the best way to describe the style of the house is “vernacular” but Ruskin couldn’t resist including Gothic touches, which don’t really match the rest of the house, when he build this extension for his Dining Room.
When it comes to the architecture of his own house it was clearly a case of “do what I say not what I do”. However his main motivation of living in beautiful surroundings is very much in tune with his ideas and philosophy.
The entry price allows access to seven rooms within the house and the gardens. It didn’t take very long to tour the house but although the weather was rather mixed, with a blustery wind, we managed to dodge he showers and spend an hour or so wandering around the very pleasant grounds.
The rooms inside the house are filled with Ruskin’s own furniture and belongings – he even designed the wallpaper in some of them – and give a good feel of what it was like when he lived there. The views from the windows in his study, drawing room and dining room were outstanding. The rooms themselves were light and airy. Wonderful spaces to live and work.
The gardens extend on the hillside behind the house, with a small, more formal cottage style garden leading down to the jetty.
Although there were some areas, including the High Walk and the Harbour Walkand that were more formal gardens planted with flowers and decorative plants, much of the estate consisted of woodland
with much of the ground dominated by ferns and mosses.
But we enjoyed wandering along the numerous paths.
This is “Ruskin’s Chair”.
We’d seen a sign for it but, not really knowing what I was looking for, I managed to wander right past it.
The gardens weren’t full of sculpture like Grizedale Forest, but there were a number of features – like this
and at one point I thought Salvador Dali had been employed to design part of the garden.
This was part of the Zig-Zaggy which
is based upon designs first sketched by Ruskin 130 years ago, and is said to represent Dante’s Purgatorial Mount.
Brantwood was worth the visit, to learn about Ruskin and see how he lived and particularly to appreciate the scenery and to enjoy the gardens. There’s also a decent cafe – try to avoid going for you brew or dinner just as one of the boats come in, though – and a gallery showing works by a featured local artist. But I wouldn’t see it as a “rainy day” visit as exploring the house doesn’t take very long and much of pleasure is walking around the gardens.