I’ve not written an architectural post for a while, mainly because restrictions over the past year have largely precluded visits to National Trust, English Heritage, Cadw and other properties, and I’ve been avoiding visits to towns and cities. However on the first day of my recent mini-break up in the Lakes I did have the opportunity to take a look at a historical curiosity close to the start and finish of my walk near the ferry terminal on the western shore of Windermere – the Claife viewing station.
This neo- Gothic style tower was built in the 1790s as a viewpoint over Windermere and became paricularly popular during the late Georgian and early Victorian period when viewing “picturesque” sites became the thing to do amongst the wealthy visitors to the Lakes.
It’s only a short walk from the ferry terminal, and is well signposted from there. You first reach the castellated wall at the entry to the site.
A short way along the path and the tower comes into view up on the hillside. There’s stiff, but short climb up some steps to reach the tower.
The original building on the site was constructed for one Reverend William Braithwaite in the 1790’s. He comissioned an architect, John Carr, to build a summer house a two storey octagonal tower in a neo-Classical Style. On his death, the land was purchased by John Curwen, the wealthy owner of Belle Island, the largest island on Windermere, which is visible from the tower.
The Curwens had the tower enlarged and modified in the neo-Gothic style which was becoming fashionable. They entertained their friends in the tower holding landern lit parties. Visitors were encouraged to enjoy the views.
‘that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture’
According to the early 20th Century architectue critic, Christopher Hussey, a Picturesque view has elemnts of
“roughness and sudden variation joined to irregularity of form, colour, lighting, and even sound”Hussey, Christopher (1927). The picturesque: studies in a point of view.
Following popular guide books of the time, the visitor, on reaching a recommended viewpoint, such as the tower, would turn their back on the landscape, looking at the reflection in the Claude Glass. The National Trust website tells us
many amateur artists and tourists used a ‘Claude glass’ to frame the landscape. These small, tinted, convex mirrors were used to make a natural scene look more like a picture by the celebrated seventeenth-century landscape painter, Claude Lorraine.
Over the years the building fell out of use and deteriorated. Along with the nearby land it was left to the National Trust in 1962 and they have worked to partially restore the tower, making it accessible to visitors to get a taste of the views experieinced by the original visitors.
There’s views over the lake from both the ground and first floors
On the first floor, the National Trust have inserted samples of coloured glass. The Curwens had
windows tinted with coloured glass, designed to recreate the landscape under different seasonal conditions. Yellow created a summer landscape, orange an autumn one, light green for spring, dark blue for moonlight and so on.https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hawkshead-and-claife-viewing-station/features/claife-viewing-station-National Trust
There used to be “viewing stations” throughout the Lakes, with seven around Windermere. As far as I know, Claife is the only one remaining.