Recently I wrote about my rediscovery of the Coniston area after not having visited for some years. I enjoyed the scenery from on board the National Trust’s Steam Yacht Gondola so much that I returned just two days later to visit another of Coniston’s local gems, Brantwood.
Brantwood is a house and 250-acre fellside estate which sits on the peaceful north-eastern shore of Coniston Water, and was once the home of John Ruskin, the famous 19th century writer, artist and social reformer. Ruskin’s visionary ideas went on to inspire many of our greatest thinkers, and are just as relevant today as they were in Victorian times.
Brantwood is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for some time, as Ruskin’s work is very relevant to my ‘day job’ as a freelancer researching sustainability and related societal issues. On arriving at the house, you are invited to watch a 15-minute film which gives an overview of John Ruskin’s life, and helps you to understand the house, gardens and estate as you begin to explore.
A bit about Ruskin
John Ruskin was born in 1819 in London, and was the only son of a Scottish sherry merchant. He became a notable critic of art and architecture and eventually Slade professor of Art at Oxford. Despite his position in life, Ruskin showed great compassion for those less fortunate than himself, many of whom were suffering extreme poverty during the Industrial Revolution. Ruskin became increasingly interested in social justice and, according to Brantwood, ‘an educational philanthropist and an increasingly radical voice in Victorian society’.
Today, Ruskin is regarded as the catalyst that led to a great deal of change. Although he died in 1900, we see his ideals today in the welfare state, and his thinking inspired many others who went on to form organisations such as the National Health Service and National Trust.
Ruskin had a daunting range of interests, understood that everything in life is interconnected, and disliked society’s move towards specialisation. He also believed that art could transform the lives of those who were oppressed, and wanted everyone to appreciate the natural beauty all around them. As well as being a keen artist, Ruskin was a philosopher, geologist and conservationist.
Ruskin’s incredibly active mind and concern for others came at great personal cost, as his work took its toll on his health, and in 1878 he suffered the first in a series of breakdowns. Ruskin died aged 81, having spent his last 28 years at Brantwood. Apparently he left behind 39 volumes of writing and thousands of drawings and watercolours, although he did not regard himself as an artist and therefore didn’t exhibit his work professionally during his lifetime.
Exploring the house and grounds
In contrast to the busy north-western corner of Coniston Water, I found the area surrounding Brantwood to be surprisingly tranquil even on a hot, sunny day in the height of the summer holidays.
You can reach Brantwood along a fairly narrow local road by car (there are passing places and there’s a good sized car park when you arrive, with parking free of charge) or take a lake cruise from Coniston Pier to the Brantwood jetty on a Coniston Launch, or in true Victorian style on board Steam Yacht Gondola. There are joint ticket options, so see Brantwood’s website for details on these.
Leaving the jetty, you pass Ruskin’s harbour and walk up through Brantwood’s pretty Lower Gardens. The driveway to Brantwood itself is on the opposite side of the road.
It was in 1871, when Ruskin was recovering from serious illness, that he heard Brantwood was for sale. He’d known Coniston since early visits to the area as a child, and immediately offered the asking price of £1500.
The house and estate were later bought to be preserved for the nation by Howard Whitehouse, who tried, unsuccessfully, to gift them to Oxford University. He instead passed them to his own foundation, Education Trust Ltd, who still care for them today. As you can see on looking around, the house is full of items belonging to Ruskin, many gifted to Brantwood to enhance the experience of those visiting the house.
Here are a few pictures from inside the house to give you an idea of what to expect:
What may not be obvious from seeing Brantwood in leaflets and tourist guides is quite how much there is to visit in the 250 acres of grounds surrounding it.
Inside the top of the house is the Severn Studio, which houses a variety of contemporary arts and crafts exhibitions throughout the year, and in the adjacent Linton Building you can play a 21st century version of Ruskin’s lithophone for yourself – there’s lots of information here about the geology of the Lake District too.
Next to the house entrance there’s another display area describing Ruskin’s philosophy towards the gardens at Brantwood, which he used as a place to test his many ideas about land management and horticulture.
As well as directly influencing the garden designs himself, Ruskin also had a cousin, Joan Severn, who laid out further gardens towards the end of the 1800s, and became Ruskin’s carer during his final illness. After her own death in 1924, the garden was left to return to nature until the Friends of Brantwood stepped in the 1930s. The gardens as they are today were further developed by Sally Beamish who became Head Gardener in 1988. Brantwood have created a great book about the development of the gardens, The Gardens at Brantwood: Evolution of John Ruskin’s Lakeland Paradise, written by David Ingram.
If you enjoy visiting gardens, there are eight unique areas to choose from across Brantwood’s extensive fellside grounds, with some steep and stony footpaths and characterful sets of steps wherever you go. Don’t do what I did and dawdle for too long in the Northern Gardens – the Fern Garden and Professor’s Garden – because as pleasant as these areas are, you need to leave plenty of time to visit the Southern Gardens above the car park too. Here you’ll find the Zig-zaggy garden, Painter’s Glade, High Walk and Maple Walk – I really did my visit the wrong way round and would have liked more time in these areas.
After finishing the Northern Gardens, fetching a much needed bottle of water from the car, and shedding some of my cumbersome baggage, I headed for the Southern Gardens.
I first took the Zig-zaggy Garden from the car park and, in a bit of a hurry by now to fit everything in, ignored the sign at the entrance (never ignore a sign!). It was only when I reached the top that I realised my camera card was full, and worse still, after carrying an empty camera bag around with me the entire day with the spare cards in, I’d just left it at the bottom of the hill in the car!
My head swimming with the heat, I decided to scrap some of the duplicate images I’d already taken on the camera and plough on, rather than retrace my steps. It was a lucky thing really, as when I returned home and started to leaf through the book I’d purchased about the gardens, it turns out that on a walk up through the Zig-zaggy garden, you should imagine that you are leaving Hell and journeying upwards to cleanse your soul.
It then has this to say…
Sally Beamish remarks that ‘visitors are advised not to be tempted to retrace their steps and descend through Purgatory as this may lead to eternal damnation’.
Phew – that was a lucky escape then! 🙂
Guided garden walks are offered on selected days of the year as part of Brantwood’s house and garden ticket price, so if you’re an especially keen gardener, it might be worth planning to visit when one of these is scheduled.
Finally (and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know what’s coming!), although I just didn’t have the time to stop for tea during my visit, I did visit the Jumping Jenny Restaurant, which overlooks the Lower Gardens and Coniston Water, and even though it was nearing closing time it was still clearly in demand! The name ‘The Jumping Jenny’ comes from the boat Ruskin owned, which you can see along with his carriage in the old Coach House next door.
To make the most of a visit to Brantwood I really do think you need to make a full day of it, as I had no idea how much there is to see outside of the house itself. If you’re after an outdoors experience and you’re not so bothered about seeing the house, there is a gardens-only ticket option too – I’ve seen a photograph of the Maple Walk in autumn, and the colours look like something really worth seeing during the later months of the year.
- If you enjoyed this article, you may also like to join me on my trip on the National Trust’s Steam Yacht Gondola, which stops at the Brantwood Jetty between Easter and the end of October.
Have you visited Brantwood or the wider Coniston area recently? Have you any tips for making the best of your time there? Let us know by leaving a comment below.