Bassenthwaite: Mirehouse


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.


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.


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.


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.


Bassenthwaite: Mirehouse Poetry Walk


Poetry Walk at Mirehouse comprises three sections – the lower garden, the rose garden and the colonnade. In the first section, the Morte d’Arthur extracts celebrate Tennyson’s stay at Mirehouse in 1835. William Wordsworth, the schoolfriend of John and Anthony Spedding, is honoured with his sonnet To Raisley Calvert and Inscriptions for a Seat. These are associated with parts of the Mirehouse estate now given to the Calvert Trust. The English poet Hartley Coleridge was a close friend of the Spedding family and the manuscripts of both The Dahlia and On Miss Margaret Spedding’s First Birthday are at Mirehouse.


Taken from Inscription for a Seat by the pathway side ascending to Windy Brow by William Wordsworth:

“Ye, who with buoyant spirits blessed,

And rich in vigour want not rest,

Look on this slighted seat – repose

From thoughtless joy and sigh for those

Who, bowed with age or sickness, greet

With thankfulness this timely seat…”


A surprising find along Poetry Walk is the survival of a rare snuff garden (below). Asarabacca (Asarum Europeum) was often grown in the 18th and 19th centuries in country house gardens for the purpose of making snuff from its roots and leaves. Considered to have a medicinal value as a sternutatory – to cause a sneeze to clear the head, it could also be taken internally. According to Thornton’s Herbal, the result is that  ‘it evacuates powerfully both upwards and downwards’! During the 19th century snuff taking declined and caused the plant to be grown much less frequently with few snuff gardens still surviving. The plant has glossy-green, kidney shaped leaves with the flower being bell shaped and purple.


Following his visit to Mirehouse in 1850, Thomas Carlyle wrote: ‘Mirehouse was beautiful and so were the ways of it… not to speak of Skiddaw and the finest mountains of the earth.’ With breath-taking views surrounding Mirehouse, it’s easy to see why it is so highly regarded.


Taken from Mirehouse by David Wright:

“The mountain’s rooted in a lake.

Young and hypochondriac

Tennyson sent wheeling over

Its black-velvet, moonstruck water

An Excalibur, as he

Recapitulated Malory

In blank plangent verse

While he stayed at Mirehouse”

Bassenthwaite: Mirehouse Bee Garden


Overlooking Lake Bassenthwaite and surrounded by Skiddaw and Grisedale Pike, Mirehouse stands in the most idyllic of spots in Cumbria. With the ghosts of Tennyson, Wordsworth and Carlyle occupying every inch of the house and grounds, Mirehouse is appropriately described as “more than the sum of its parts, Mirehouse is the Lake District with hand on heart” (Jenkins, 2003).


The Bee Garden is situated approximately fifty yards along the drive and emerges from the cover of the woodland into a spacious and sheltered walled garden. Created in around 1780, extensive restoration was carried out in the mid 1990’s. The plants that have been chosen provide nectar and pollen for the honey bees who in turn pollinate the flowers. In front of the hives is an inscription from Virgil’s Fourth Georgic which translates as “The first thing is to find a suitable site for your bees.”


Propolis is the name given to a variety of resinous substances that bees gather and use to fill any cracks or holes in their hive. They smear it on the walls and combs and use it to completely coat any foreign bodies that are too big for them to eject from the hive, such as moths, small rodents or lizards. Most propolis is collected in the autumn during the hottest part of the day. Some races of bee build fortifications of propolis at the entrance, making defence easy, and probably helping to control temperature inside the hive. This is likely to be the origin of the word propolis – literally in front of the city.


Knights of the Round Table

The Garden features a fernery and stone circle representing the Knights of the Round Table (above) as well as a herb garden, Cumbrian fruit orchard and apiary.


Royal Jelly is a whitish opaque substance which nurse bees feed to all young larvae. It is found in much larger quantities in queen cells and also makes up a large part of the adult queen’s diet. In order to produce royal jelly, a colony is encouraged to rear a large number of replacement queens. This is done by inserting a frame with artificial queen cells into a colony whose queen has been removed. Royal jelly is reputed to have a stimulating effect on people suffering from fatigue or depression.


A plaque (above) notes the purest of human pleasures is that of a planted garden – taken from Francis Bacon’s Of Gardens. “It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man; without which, buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks; and a man shall ever see, that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection. I do hold it, in the royal ordering of gardens, there ought to be gardens, for all the months in the year; in which severally things of beauty may be then in season. The green hath two pleasures: the one, because nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass kept finely shorn; the other, because it will give you a fair alley in the midst, by which you may go in front upon a stately hedge, which is to enclose the garden. For the ordering of the ground, within the great hedge, I leave it to variety of device; advising nevertheless, that whatsoever form you cast it into, first, it be not too busy, or full of work. Wherein I, for my part, do not like images cut out in juniper or other garden stuff; they be for children. Little low hedges, round, like welts, with some pretty pyramids, I like well; and in some places, fair columns upon frames of carpenter’s work.”