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January: The Grand Designs of Thomas Mawson at Rydal Hall

January:  The Grand Designs of Thomas Mawson at Rydal Hall
My photo was taken as I stood under the pergola with its concrete columns, looking towards Rydal Hall and its many balustrades looking like grand stone fences with stone staircases leading the garden wanderer from one area of the garden to the next.

As a professional Tourist Guide (with the cherished "Blue Badge") my Cumbria region guiding colleagues meet regularly for a day of Continued Professional Development (CPD) - gaining deeper knowledge on a specific subject led by an expert or another guide. Last year I led a CPD day around Ambleside which allowed Cumbria Guides to have more knowledge and confidence around my home town. This year I am pleased to say I have become one of two people who are co-ordinating the 2024 CPD programme for the Cumbria region.

Despite a recent snowfall and some icy paths, our CPD venue this week was at Rydal Hall in the heart of the Lake District, just a stone's throw from Ambleside, Rydal Water and Grasmere.

Our aim: to dig deeper into the reasons why for hundreds of years numerous poets and authors have visited and then chosen to call this stunning region their home. Our expert for the day, an established author and researcher himself, was Grevel Lindop. One of my favourite books from my Cumbria literature studies was (and is) A Literary Guide to the Lake District, written by Grevel Lindop. It was a real pleasure to meet with him and listen to him talk sharing his depth of knowledge and extensive research over the last 30 or so years.

Obviously William Wordsworth was one of the few writers who was born here, the rest came originally as university students, tourists or simply because they admired the people who were already here. As if an irresistible magnet pulled them here, and here they stayed.

An additional bonus for me was seeing the effect of the recent snowfall on the gardens. Laid bare for all to see without the distraction of colour except for the carefully positioned yew trees giving a rare glimpse of greenery amongst the white landscape. The tell tale signs that this is one of the many Thomas Mawson designed gardens in the locality are the balustrades, pergolas, urns and finials, stone staircases, and formal beds. These are all elements of his Arts and Crafts Movement inspired designs to complement the grand homes. Other examples can be seen at Langdale Chase, Broad Leys, Brockhole, Blackwell, Cragwood, the list goes on and yet the distance between these magnificent houses is minimal.

The Grot - or grotto - a little building with a big view of the waterfall at Rydal Hall - dates back hundreds of years, it was built in 1668. Even then it was all about the experience of looking - seeing a view and framing it, like a picture but 100 years before the Picturesque became a popular style of art. It became essential for artists and writers to include a visit here on their tour itinerary and amongst them was artist John Constable who in 1806 travelled to the Lake District and sketched the scene. There was an element of surprise about the view the tourist would behold - you can still follow the little path that goes under the bridge where you can hear the sound of the water rushing by, and enter the little building that looks like it could be the gardener's shed. It's deliberately blocking any view of the waterfall but once inside, framed perfectly for you, is the waterfall and a bench on which to sit and admire it, or perhaps to sketch it.

In 1909, a Lancashire lad by birth, Thomas Mawson had gained a highly respected reputation for garden design and he used his skills to shape the gardens of this centuries-old Hall with its views to the mountains beyond. He had already been commissioned by wealthy industrialists desiring a summer residence in the Lake District and he designed gardens for their homes in the fashionable Arts & Crafts style of the late 1800s - with plants going in the ground to become established, often before the buildings even had a roof.

I’m looking forward to a long season of both literary tours and garden tours in the Lake District.

I hope you enjoyed this short article, written by me, Alison Pickering. I am a Member of the Institute of Tourist Guides (MITG) and of the British Guild of Tourist Guides. All photographs used on this website are my own.