The re-awakening of Lowther Castle & Gardens
Summer is a time to indulge in one of the nation’s favourite pastimes – visiting stately homes and gardens. Looking for somewhere for a day out a few weeks ago, I realised I’d never been to Lowther Castle & Gardens – so off we went – and what a treat it is! Its setting in rural Cumbria, on a promontory wrapped by the little river Lowther, is pure romance. Add to this a gothic ruined pile; a history of extravagance and folly; and now not only designer-made gardens but also the largest wooden play-area in Europe, and you can see why it is such a popular attraction.
We were there to enjoy the 130 acres of gardens, for the last ten years or more overseen by master garden designer Dan Pearson. (We also found time to sample the tea room which serves delicious fare plus locally-made ice cream!) Dan is a hugely respected garden designer who has designed gardens and estates from the US to the far east. All his projects show a huge sensitivity to the setting and character of the place, and Lowther Castle is no exception. Drawing on the historic garden ground plan, which stretches back into the 18th century, he has now brought to life in a fresh, modern way not just the gardens surrounding the castle but the castle itself – boldly planting into the interior of the roofless space.
Rising from the ashes
The castle had not been lived in since the 1930s, and once the castle roof was removed in 1957 – to reduce taxes following the death of the 5th Earl Lowther- nature soon began to take its course. Dan Pearson has worked with this trend, not against it, offering planting that is at the same time not only both beautiful and graceful, but also evocative of re-wilding; the silver birch saplings grouped in the main shell; and planting which echoes the castle’s glory days; with extravagant swags of creepers and clematis draping the still-massive walls. Some more unusual planting is also to be found here, perhaps hinting at the 4th Earl’s passion for global exploration.
It was a warm day when I visited, and the large parterre garden next to the ruins was humming with bees. The box hedging shapes are a clever reminder of the 18th century formal gardens here, whilst giving structure to the space and a sheltered micro-climate for the planting to really get going – and it has!
The planting here includes some of my favourite larger perennial flowers such as pale yellow cephalaria gigantea, and swathes of deep red thistle cirsium rivulare atropurpureum.
I am very fond of baptisia, a great garden-worthy plant of American origin, but not often grown. At Lowther I was able to enjoy a feast!
Further away from the castle, Dan Pearson has envisioned a beautiful and tranquil updating of some of the historic garden areas that had long fallen into decline. The sweeping formal lawns have been gently transmuted into soft green grasses interspersed with large swathes of wildflower meadow. This area was humming with insects enjoying the nectar-rich flowers – honey-scented clovers; scabious and ox-eye daisies; and masses of the parasitic yellow-rattle flower, without which the space would soon revert to a grassy wilderness again.
Historic gardens with a modern twist
In 2020 the Rose Garden was replanted with 2,500 David Austin roses surrounding a new formal pond and fountain; revelling in the sunshine they freely opened their perfumed petals for us. We admired 3m-tall rose briar arches, stunning works of art with metal thorns as big as your hand, which could in the future become structures for climbing roses too.
A large orchard has already been planted, and thousands of metres of paths cleared to link up the various garden areas and allow visitors an enjoyable stroll in sun and shade. Not to be missed are the wonderful pastoral views from the dramatic Western Terrace across summer fields, the river winding by at the bottom of the valley, in juxstaposition to the grim and towering prospect of Helvellyn in the far distance.
Lowther Castle through the centuries
Lowther has seen several re-inventions since it was first built as a castellated house in the 15th century as Lowther Hall. In the 18th century we know the family already had a passion for gardening, with acres of formal gardens, parterres and avenues laid out to dramatic effect around the house, as this painting shows:
The present extraordinary building is the partly pulled-down remnants of Lowther Castle, built in the 1806 for the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, who owned wide estates across Westmorland. Everything was done lavishly at Lowther Castle, from entertaining foreign royalty to the development of the gardens.
Artists and poets were very taken with Lowther Castle; Wordsworth stayed at the castle several times and celebrated it as “Lowther! in thy majestic Pile are seen Cathedral pomp and grace in apt accord with the baronial castle’s sterner mien”.
The 6th Earl’s extravagance (he apparently spent £3000 a year just on cigars!) put an end to the castle both as a family home and as a fashionable country estate. Inevitably the gardens also fell into decline.
Into the future
The present regeneration of the gardens is still a work in progress – and actually that was one of the things we particularly enjoyed about our visit, the sense of being amongst an emerging new garden. Dan Pearson is clearly undaunted by the scale of the place, or the challenge of creating new planting without losing the feel of the historic. We were told that future phases will include reviving the Japanese garden and the Iris garden, and transforming the abandoned Scented garden into a Katsura grove. I’m looking forward to return visits!
Visiting Lowther Castle Gardens
Book your tickets at https://lowthercastle.org/
Visiting other gardens
Find out what we thought about some of the other gardens we’ve visited over the years:
Some European gardens well worth visiting on holiday:
And some of these artists’ gardens are open to the public:
Feeling inspired and would like your garden designed? Get in touch!