Bassenthwaite: Mirehouse

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Surrounded by the breath taking scenery of Skiddaw, Ullock Pike, Grisedale Pike and Lake Bassenthwaite, Mirehouse occupies a perfect spot on the outskirts of Keswick. Planted in 1786, great Scots pine – the only species of native forest conifer in Britain – line the walk towards the house. The long walk along the drive takes you past the Bee Garden and Poetry Walk with stunning views of Ullock Pike and Dodd Fell. Although records indicate that there was people living at Mirehouse during the 16th century, the present house was built in 1666 by the 8th Earl of Derby. The only time Mirehouse has been sold was with the sale by the Earl to his agent Roger Gregg in 1688. The Gregg family and the Story family owned the house until Thomas Story left it to John Spedding of Armathwaite Hall in 1802.

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With more emphasis on convenience than grandeur, the house has been enlarged over time. The wings were added in 1790 for Thomas Story and the rear extensions were constructed in 1830 by the London architect Joseph Cantwell for John Spedding. In 1832 the south side of the house was demolished and new higher rooms were built. Further rooms were added in 1851 and a servants’ wing and chapel were completed in the 1880’s. The cross on the south side of the house (below) marks where the half timbered chapel once stood. Riddled with dry rot, it was demolished in the 1960’s. The two storey late Georgian house features seven bays between two canted bay windows with a porch of four Tuscan columns (above) and the building has painted roughcast walls. The lawns were terraced in the 1850’s and the Victorian colonnade (below) is the most formal aspect of the garden. The colonnade houses a display of the winning poems in the annual Mirehouse Poetry competition.

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The interior of the house is essentially a tribute to the Spedding Brothers, James and Tom, and their friends among the Romantics of the early 19th century. Although in many ways Mirehouse is a typical English Manor House, its charm lies in the poetic inspiration of its literary connections and its landscape. The front rooms are of a “cultured gentleman” (Jenkins, 2003) and contained within which is a collection of letters and works of Francis Bacon. Many first editions of Bacon’s work are displayed as well as Spedding’s collection of Bacon’s papers. James and his brothers were educated at Bury St Edmunds and became friends with Edward Fitzgerald (who gained fame with his translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam. Following the death of Edward, younger brother of James, in 1832, Tennyson wrote a poem entitled ‘To JS’ – the first of his great elegies. The quiet composure of James is depicted in the opening lines of the tribute:

The wind, that beats the mountain, blows

More softly round the open wold,

And gently comes the world to those

That are cast in gentle mould.

James reviewed the 1842 Poems in the Edinburgh Review and being close friends with Tennyson, regularly discussed his draft poems. The numerous paintings, letters and drawings, as well as early photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, tell the story of the friendship between James and the Tennysons, Fitzgerald, Hallam, Thackeray and other literary figures.

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The library contains letters and manuscripts relating the story of Thomas Carlyle and some of his struggles with some of his works. Thomas was a close friend of James and a regular visitor to Mirehouse. Describing his friend as “Dear hospitable Spedding”, Thomas called on James on his way to his Scottish home at Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire. While working on his Frederick the Great in 1851, Thomas remarked “I am deep in extremely dull German books about the history of Frederick.” Following the publishing of Volume One in 1857, Thomas wrote “If I live to get out of this Prussian Scrape (by far the worst I ever got into) it is among my dreams to come to Mirehouse.” Taken from The Literary Associations of the English Lakes: “There are those who would fain have that library filled again with the voices of old time. Tennysons’s deep-chested tones, FitzGerald’s laugh, Monckton-Milne’s wit, Carlyle’s strong Northern brogue, James Spedding’s dignified speech, and Tom Spedding’s humour.” Mirehouse is set in a wonderfully inspiring spot in Cumbria and exploring the stunning landscape surrounding the house, you truly get a sense of the poetic voices of the past. Canon Rawnsley had a favourite time to visit Mirehouse:

“Mirehouse in April is at its best. The great grove of Scots fir seems bluer in head and ruddier in stem against the evening light… Lambs cry from the home meadow, and the ravens, as they sail over to Skiddaw Forest, almost have a kind of geniality in their voice… The long lighted evenings with their saffron glory over Wythop prolong the spring-like day, and keep the thrushes singing until star-time.”

Mirehouse is Grade II* Listed.

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