Heavy and persistent rainfall throughout Cumbria isn’t ideal for sightseeing, but when I’ve traveled 3,674 miles to see a beautiful site with Beatrix Potter connections on the east bank of Lake Windermere, I’ll persevere as long as I can.
That was my plan when we boarded the steamer for a day of cruising on Lake Windermere. After all, it was just cloudy when we started.
White Cross Bay, Lake Windermere
The steamer set sail, and we were surrounded by dozens of tourists so intent on smartphone scrolling that they were oblivious to the unfolding sights. They paid no attention to the island inhabited only by a community of cormorants whose acidic droppings strip tree branches. They missed seeing Cragwood, a magnificent Edwardian country house-turned-hotel. And they sailed right past White Cross Bay, where a World War II-era factory made Sunderland seaplanes and a memorial inscribed “Watch therefore for ye know neither the day nor the hour” was dedicated to two cousins who drowned there in September 1853.
And then the much-anticipated Brockhole came into view.
Brockhole was the summer home of a Manchester silk merchant named William Henry Adolphus Gaddum. His wife, Edith Potter Gaddum, was Beatrix Potter’s cousin. A frequent visitor to Brockhole, “Cousin B” wrote the Gaddum children, Molly and Jim, her famed illustrated letters, telling them tales about a frog named Jeremy Fisher and the red-furred Squirrel Nutkin.
Just as the boat docked at the Brockhole pier long enough for us to disembark, it started raining. Hard.
The deluge eased into a steady rain as we made our way up the sloping hill and through the gardens. Both were the creation of a self-taught Lakeland landscape designer named Thomas Mawson.
“Life to me from my very early years was one of set purpose,” Mawson wrote in his autobiography, The Life and Work of an English Landscape Architect. “My cherished dream was landscape architecture.”
Mawson began his career by studying arboriculture in London nurseries, looking carefully at notable area landscapes, sketching from nature, asking local artists to help him improve his draftsmanship, and reading classic texts by John Claudius Loudon, Humphry Repton and John Ruskin. While honeymooning in the Lake District in August 1884, Mawson and his wife, Anna, decided to start a nursery and contract landscaping business there. The following January, Mawson’s mother and two brothers, Robert and Isaac, joined them there in Windermere and the Lakeland Nurseries opened for business.
The Mawsons produced annual catalogues of seeds, bulbs, perennials and trees for sale in their nursery. They partnered with another local business to create garden ornaments like trellises, pergolas, gates and garden houses. While Robert and Isaac focused on the nursery, Thomas offered his services in planting and remodeling gardens and parks; creating waterfalls, rockeries and ornamental lakes; and even draining land and making roads.
After a slow start, Ruskin’s niece, Joan Severn, recommended Mawson to a local gentleman who was looking for advice on laying out the garden at his new home. That led to several other commissions by wealthy industrialists and businessmen who built holiday homes in the Lake District.
Five years later, Mawson’s talent for using the landscape to its best advantage, tailoring its features to individual properties, was in demand. Knowing just what his clients wanted, he created Arts and Crafts-style gardens featuring topiaries, herbaceous borders, expanses of grass, formal beds close to the house, and tree-lined avenues, all complemented by handcrafted local stone steps, wooden trellises, wrought-iron gates and walls with intricate brick and tile designs. Brockhole was one of them.
Dan Gibson designed Brockhole for the Gaddums in 1897, employing Lakeland pitched slate roofs, chunky chimneys with rounded tops and locally quarried stone to create an Arts and Crafts-style home. The north end of the property afforded beautiful mountain views, while the home’s living spaces faced Lake Windermere. The Gaddums took up permanent residence at Brockhole in 1900.
Sloping terraces of local stone and slate transition from geometrically planted flowerbeds near the house, then to meadows and woodland, and finally to the lakeshore.
Mawson saw terraces as a series of changing gardens, each with its own particular charm, connected to the best parts of the house. Mass plantings of perennials were irrigated with a series of underground water tanks that collected rainwater from the house’s gutters. Hedges not only divided the garden into compartments, but also shielded a kitchen garden from view, creating a sheltered, sunny site where fruit, vegetables and espaliered apple and pear trees grew. A lawn was groomed on which to play croquet and tennis.
Quarried stone from nearby was employed to make sundials, garden houses where the Gaddums could admire the view, and dry stone walls with plant-filled crevices, common throughout the Lake District. Mawson provided instructions on how to make those walls in his book, The Art and Craft of Garden Making. Further down the slope, walls were constructed with locally found boulders.
Mawson planted copper beech and lime trees along the entrance drive, as well as oak and ash trees in the parkland. Conifers around the boundaries of the property to shelter the house and grounds from wind and driving rain, just like we experienced.
Much of Mawson’s original garden layout and plantings at Brockhole have been preserved, such as clipped yew and boxwood hedges, rhododendrons, wisteria and magnolias. Roses, scented plants and ornamental trees and shrubs have been added to provide interest throughout the seasons.
Mawson also designed the gardens at Blackwell, a nearby Arts and Crafts paradise that was the holiday home of another Manchester merchant named Edward Holt.
Mawson also was responsible for the terracing and balustrading of Skibo Castle, Andrew Carnegie’s summer home in Scotland. Later, Mawson designed parks in keeping with the City Beautiful Movement, in which beautiful surroundings were created to help people live contented lives. He was most proud of his work for the King of Greece in designing palace gardens and parks in Athens. Mawson died on November 14, 1933 and is buried at Bowness Cemetery, Windermere.
Today, Brockhole serves as the Lake District Visitor Center, featuring educational displays, a café and a shop that sells locally produced foods, ales and other products, including Herdy merchandise inspired by the area’s Herdwick sheep.
Back on the steamer, we saw rowers trying to practice on Lake Windermere as determinedly as we tried to sightsee. Rain-covered windows and fog-obscured shores got the better of us, though, so I admitted defeat. We scrapped our plans and spent the rest of the day drying out back at Lindeth Howe. The sun came out after everything had closed for the day.
Windermere Lake Cruise steamers and launches run daily to Brockhole during the main tourist season from Easter through October.
For more on Thomas Mawson, read Thomas Mawson: Life, Gardens and Landscapes, by Janet Waymark. Also check out Mawson’s autobiography, The Life and Work of an English Landscape Architect, as well as his book, The Art and Craft of Garden Making.