Always on the lookout for something a bit different to visit in the Lake District, I was intrigued to come across Derwent Island House on the National Trust’s website. This historic house, which dates in part back to the 1700s, opens to the public for just five days each year. There’s just one catch though: as the name suggests, it is actually on an island, and you have to paddle in a canoe to get there!
Derwent Island is situated towards the north-eastern corner of Derwentwater, and can clearly be seen from the Derwentwater foreshore outside Keswick, and pathway leading to Friar’s Crag. The house itself is in the middle of the island, and is rented by the National Trust to private tenants, so you can’t just turn up at any time to take a look!
I doubt I would be organised enough to live on an island. Imagine reaching home only to be asked by your other half if you remembered to pick up the milk while you were on the mainland. Of course you didn’t! Never mind – you could always go and hide in one of the many nooks and crannies around the island until their cravings for a nice milky cup of tea have gone and it’s safe to come out again!
The first thing to say about visiting Derwent Island House is that you need to book in advance for one of the open days by visiting its National Trust web page – you can also phone the ticket office online. Don’t leave it until the day itself though, as I was told the ticket office can’t accept bookings then. Set-off times are staggered throughout the day, and the meeting point is on the shore around 600 metres beyond the National Trust shop, which is near the Theatre by the Lake.
If you’ve read even just a few of my blog posts, it will probably not surprise you to know that canoes and I are more or less strangers, although to be fair I did go on a few kayaking excursions when I was at school, so I’m not completely unfamiliar with exploring the Lake District by boat – or getting cold and wet whilst doing so…
The canoes and supervision are provided by Keswick Canoe and Bushcraft, who supplied us each with a buoyancy aid and paddle. The idea is that you don’t get wet at all on this trip, so the Canadian canoes (open boats as opposed to the kayaks with closed-in tops) are tied in pairs so that they cannot capsize – assuming you just sit and behave yourself that is!
You are warned that you should expect to get your feet wet, as sometimes getting in and out of the canoes can involve stepping in the water or mud. As suggested by the National Trust, I took a pair of wellies to wear for the trip over, and put my boots in my bag, as did a few other people. I would probably have got away with wearing my boots, but if you don’t want to risk soggy feet for the rest of the day, you might want to go with the wellies option. You are asked to leave your rucksack etc. in the hallway of the house before going on the house tour, so don’t worry about having to carry them around!
Paddling over to the island was good fun. There were four of us in the paired kayaks, and because I was sitting at the back, I had to put in more effort than the person in front in order to steer the boat. There’s a bit of team work involved too. To turn left, those on the right need to paddle harder, and to turn right, the people on the left instead need to put some muscle into it!
Once on the island, we were met by a guide and given a tour of the grounds leading up to the house, and the house itself. The island measures around 250m by 150m at its widest point (according to the National Trust, as I didn’t get my tape measure out!), and its history dates back a long way. During the 12th century the island belonged to the monks of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, and in the 1500s it became home to a community of German miners who were working in the area.
The first part of the house was built by businessman Joseph Pocklington in the 1700s, and he sounded like a true eccentric! He built the Gothic chapel boathouse that you can still see today, as well as a druid’s circle and small fort. Apparently he would hold an annual summer regatta with mock battles, inviting the locals from Keswick to ‘raid’ the island. To add further amusement to the occasion he would then fire his canon at them on their way over.
In the 1800s the island was bought by Henry Marshall, who founded the flax spinning industry in Leeds, and it was eventually given to the National Trust in 1951. It has been tenanted since 1953.
Photographs are not allowed in the house, so I took a few shots on my phone to give you an idea of what the island is like. No, I wasn’t brave enough to take my usual camera in the canoe! 🙂
The tour takes in lots of historic features around the house, and tells the stories behind some of the furniture and fittings. You’ll see curious items such as the sun canon, an ‘executive toy’ in the library, which involved a magnifying glass, sunshine at a particular time of day, and a little gunpowder – I don’t remember who it belonged to, but I wonder if that was Pocklington’s too! There’s the light fitting which, once hung, nobody could reach to change the light bulbs, and there’s a 64-gun model ship – but no-one’s quite sure who left it there!
Once the tour is over, you then have the remaining hour or so to explore the island. There are toilet facilities for the public to use and, if there are enough volunteers on the day, you can buy a hot drink and perhaps a biscuit or cake. Some of us took packed lunches, as we set off late morning and were not due to return until the afternoon. The cloud was about as dark as it can get without raining, but just imagine how beautiful it will be here on a warm, sunny summer’s day!
After a good look round, it was time to head back to the mainland, and on the return journey I took a front seat in the paired canoes. On climbing into the boat, I reflected on how much tighter the buoyancy aid felt post-packed lunch! I tried to take a photograph whilst paddling back to dry land, but didn’t bank on just how nauseating the waves caused by the Keswick Launch would be whilst trying to take a picture on a very old digital camera I’d tied around my wrist! Still, you get the gist!
Overall I really enjoyed the Derwent Island House experience. It currently costs £14.25 per person to visit the island (£4 for children, and there are family tickets available too), so the trip can add up by the time you’ve paid the £7 for council parking by the Theatre by the Lake (for a ticket lasting six hours, as the next ticket down wouldn’t have covered the time comfortably).
It was such a shame that the sunshine didn’t make an appearance, but it only rained once I had made it off the island, so I classed that as a success given the colour of the sky! If you’d like to visit the island for yourself, there are four more openings this year, so you’ll get to see everything ‘greened up’ and looking its best. There can be few places on earth more beautiful than Derwentwater on a sunny summer’s day, so fingers crossed that for the next open day it will be dry!
Have you a favourite Lake District Gem which is only occasionally opened to the public? If so, do share it with us by leaving a comment below!