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Lowther Estate History

The river Lowther winds from Keld, four miles south of Penrith, into the rivers Eamont and Eden and thence to the Solway Firth. It flows through Lowther Home Park, beneath the castle, beneath the church and its family tombs, through the ancient Lowther woodlands. Over the years, the river has witnessed many changes. It saw Bronze age tombs being built, Iron Age hill-forts. It saw the Romans come and go and it saw the arrival of the Vikings – among whose number was Dolfin, the 12th century settler said to have given the river its name.

The estate grew from the river and outwards. Sir Hugh de Lowther – the first of the family to be knighted – was granted a charter by Edward III to enclose 200 acres and make a park thereof. Deer were among the park’s earliest inhabitants. Sir Hugh acquired further lands in Westmorland and Cumberland, the land in the former including 14 bovates (a measurement of land, usually around 20 acres, based on the amount one ox could reasonably plough in a season). In the 14th century, the motte and bailey structure that had housed Sir Hugh was replaced with a pele tower. Marauding Scots were a constant menace at that time and pele towers provided a measure of safety. Land holdings continued to grow – through marriage and enterprise – to include several more manors around Lowther including those of Hackthorpe, Thrimby, Bampton and Askham. Lowther Church was built – burying as it rose ancient Saxon hogsback tombs.

In the 16 th century, Lowther Hall acquired another tower and in the early 17th, an entirely new central portion. This was all knocked down in 1691 and replaced with a house entirely grander. Fire in 1718 razed much of this new house to the ground. In the 16th century also, an oak tree, still standing and known as Jack’s Yak, took root at the north entrance to the park. Three large groves of beech, now ancient, grew up on the highest part of the estate in the South Park – to the drunken Scots raiders who ran from them, they resembled three squadron of ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s English horse and are known to this day as the Squadron of Horse. In the early 18th century, a group of pine trees – in the company of the then Earl of Lonsdale – made the journey to Barbados, where he had been made governor. They grew there from 1710 until 1720 when Lonsdale brought them home and replanted them. They too remain.

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The Lowther family by now extended its influence across the north of England and there were several branches. Whitehaven on the west coast of Cumbria was a creation of one branch. There were Lowthers of Swillington and Lowthers of Maulds Meaburn. A branch found itself in Ireland and another was known as the Ingleton branch. A viscounty was created and then died out; and in the 19th century was created once again. Lowther Estate endured, nibbled at the edges in times of austerity and enlarged in times of wealth. Coal and iron were often the source of the latter.

And perhaps the estate’s most remarkable addition came in 1806 when designs for a new seat were formed and Lowther Castle was built over the top of its fire-ravaged predecessor. At the time the new castle (designed by Robert Smirke, later architect of the British Museum) was hailed as ‘magnificent and princely’- its staircase measuring apparently “sixty feet square and ninety feet high”.

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By the beginning of the 20th century, the home park had been expanded to include 1000 acres of farmland and 3000 of woodland. Lowther Castle enjoyed its heyday before the first World War, when the stables were bursting with horses and the kennels with dogs. Mirroring the century, this epoch came to an end with the Great Depression of the 1930s. The house was closed in 1936 and in 1957, its roof was removed.

Today the river Lowther weaves round the castle, the church, the home park as it always has – witness now to an altogether more stable period in the estate’s history. Lowther Castle is as impressive a ruin as it must have been a family seat. The gardens, under the care of the Lowther Castle and Gardens Trust, are coming back to life. The park is still home to the deer, the ancient trees, the ancestors. The farmland is managed sensitively and practically by Lowther Park Farms; the woodland by Lowther Forestry. And all is now shared with the public who can enjoy the remarkable beauty and setting of one of England’s most ancient estates.