‘Villas of the Lake District’

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A Talk by Dr. Adam Menuge

Lecturer in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Cambridge

Dr. Menuge began by describing the characteristics of a villa. These were primarily places of retreat where one could put aside worldly cares, either for a short while or as a permanent lifestyle change. Possession could signify the achievement of social and economic aspiration, and living in one presumed a comfortable existence. So while there were variations in form, a villa had to be substantial enough to house servants. Unlike a country house though it was not seen as part of any dynastic concern and could be readily traded when occasion arose. In reshaping their lives those who got villas built were also transforming the landscape in creating a relationship between house and garden, leaving only traces of earlier agricultural working.

While ownership of a villa in the Lake District might now sound highly desirable that would have been incomprehensible in Daniel Defoe’s day. Hills were then seen as a blot on the landscape, a hindrance to travel and an impediment to the military. That began to change in the second half of the Eighteenth Century when people started visiting, encouraged to take more than a passing interest in the landscape by the guide books of Thomas West and others, along with cartographic prints. Wordsworth’s poetry, the isolation during the Napoleonic Wars, the coming of the railways, and increased interest in conservation all helped to form a new aesthetic and swell tourist numbers.

While the notion of a villa suggests a classical form, that, we were shown in a series of illustrations, was by no means common practice. What Wordsworth thought the first such, Belle Isle, built in 1774, could hardly have been more different in form. With an octagonal shape, and windows looking in eight directions, it got called ‘The Pepper Pot’ while Brathay was built in the Gothic style. Belmont, by contrast, was a good deal more conventional. Features found in houses included crenellations, Italianate towers, bay windows, mullions and transoms.

Getting a villa built where it commanded a good view of the lake was important. From Bella Grange you could see in both directions. No great elevation was needed to get a panoramic view as the later vandalised Caife Station, put in a prime vantage spot by Windermere, showed.

Funding for these houses came from a variety of sources: beer, gin, cotton, and sugar were mentioned, the latter involving complicity in the slave trade, and which provided the means to build Storrs Hall and Croft Lodge. On the other side of the coin, Eusemere was owned by Thomas Clarkson, never given the credit he deserved for his anti-slavery work.
The later Victorian period was the heyday of the Lake District villa. A typical approach would conceal sight of the villa along a tree-lined approach until suddenly revealed. Strategically placed at the right height, it might well, as at Storrs Hall, have had substantial extensions. Outside there would be an ornamental garden at the front and elsewhere an orchard, vegetable garden, and cow house. Nearby would be a boathouse for recreational use with, perhaps, participation in such high jinks as the Keswick Regatta. All in all, Arcadia in Britannia.

After the First World War many budgets came under strain and a number of villas were converted to institutional use, with some now owned by the National Trust.

This was a most informative and interesting talk and we were very grateful to Dr. Menuge for finding the time to come and give it.

Michael Cullen