Close to the coastal village of Ravenglass in the western Lake District, you’ll find the Pennington family’s home, an 1,800-acre estate that has witnessed battles, provided tomfoolery and graciously welcomed guests for over 800 years.
In 1325, a pele tower was added to protect against invasion from the Scots. Unique to the north of England, these towers are small stone buildings with thick walls, designed to withstand the sieges that characterized the time when King Edward I was determined to impose English rule on Scotland, and King Robert the Bruce led his fellow Scotsmen in fights to resist him.
In 1464, Sir John Pennington harbored the fugitive King Henry VI, who was found wandering nearby by shepherds after being defeated in the Battle of Hexham. In appreciation, the king gave Sir John his enameled green glass drinking bowl and said that as long as it remained intact, the Penningtons would prosper. Known as the “Luck of Muncaster,” it’s the family’s prized possession.
Thomas Skelton was the castle’s court jester in the 16th century. Better known as “Tom Fool,” he was the inspiration not only for the character in Shakespeare’s King Lear, but also for the word “tomfoolery.” Tom liked to sit under an ancient Spanish chestnut tree on the grounds and watch for travelers. Before a bridge was built in 1828, the only safe way to cross the River Esk was through the shallow fords below the castle. Travelers often asked Tom for directions. If they were rude, he sent them across the quicksands instead, to teach them better manners. If he liked them, he’d point out the fords. Tom’s ghostly spirit is said to still play tricks on visitors to Muncaster.
For centuries, visitors have been charmed by Muncaster. The future King Edward VII proclaimed the view the most perfect in Europe. John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic, called it “the gateway to paradise.”
Patrick Gordon-Duff-Pennington, his daughter Iona, and her family still live at Muncaster, in a stately home with beautiful furniture, fine wood carvings, and paintings by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. The two-story octagonal library and the dining room’s antique leather wallcovering embossed with gold leaf are something to see.
Outside, you can recharge at Creeping Kate’s Café, named for a racehorse once owned by the Penningtons. You can relax on the terrace while watching for the herons that perch in the trees every afternoon. And you can explore 70 acres of gardens, including a Japanese garden, hundreds of rhododendrons, a wildflower meadow and woods where bluebells and lilies flourish, and a garden where near-extinct native Himalayan trees and plants are cultivated.
And then there’s the terrace. In the early 1780s, the first Lord Muncaster laid out this half-mile long promenade that offers beautiful views of Scafell Pike and the western Lakeland fells. Alternating yew pillars and box hedges provide protection from the winds.
Muncaster Castle is also involved in the conservation of owls and other birds of prey. In a partnership with the Hawk Conservatory Trust, it provides a home for Burrowing Owls, Harris Hawks, a Steppe Eagle, a Blue-winged Kookaburra, falcons, Hooded Vultures, a Boobook Owl, Yellow-billed Kites, a Barn Owl, a Tawny Owl, a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, a Brown Wood Owl, and a Great Grey Owl. Daily half-hour narrated programs teach visitors about owls and birds of prey as they fly overhead.
A Hooded Vulture found our pink rain shoes so irresistible that he swooped down, landed in between us, gave them a close look, and spent a very long few minutes ensuring that we had a very warm welcome to Muncaster before flying back to his handler.
For more on Muncaster, see Gardens of the Lake District, by Tim Longville, and Houses of the Lake District, by Christopher Holliday. Besides being a gracious host, Patrick Gordon-Duff-Pennington is an enthusiastic poet who has published three volumes of his work: Those Blue Remembered Hills; Last Post and Reveille; and Patrick of the Hills.