I‘ve never really been especially taken with the countryside. Having grown up in the Trent valley, where the landscape was flat, undistinguished and essentially dedicated to agriculture on an industrial scale, before moving to a Thames Valley that was not quite as flat and only marginally more picturesque in a rather tepid sort of way, trees, rocks and grass generally fail to excite me much. By contrast, Cumbria’s winter landscape is inherently dramatic, with mist covering the mountain tops and biting cold. It’s easy to see the romantic sublime in the landscape, albeit a rather domesticated one. The first day I spend in Cumbria is actually rather sunny and warm, even high up above Windermere at Blackwell. Blackwell is described as an arts and crafts house and certainly the white plastered exterior, half-timbered great hall and minstrel’s gallery do rather create comparisons to places like Wightwick Manor. But the design is perhaps more reminiscent of Mackintosh than Morris, more Art Nouveau than Arts and Crafts, with stylised flower motifs in stained glass in the minimalist white drawing room and a peacock frieze in the Great Hall. There are two exhibitions on while I’m there; a set of Julia Margaret Cameron photos and a set of 19th century ceramics from local firms. In the afternoon, I head southwards to Cartmel Priory, a somewhat higgledy piggledy building whose tower looks like a geometric version of Brueghel’s tower of Babel and whose interior combines Norman arches with Flemish wood carving, Hanoverian creed boards, medieval misericords, a Tudor font cover and a modern sculpture of St Michael by Josefina de Vasconcellos. The day is finished with a walk along the promenade at Grange Over Sands, the genteel walk contrasting with a view of marshland, reed beds, rocks and mudflats that is as far from the picturesque as it’s possible to conceive. I rather like it.
By the following day, the weather has closed in and the morning is accordingly occupied with the obligatory visit to Dove Cottage and Grasmere. The church at Grasmere is a rather odd affair, bisected down the centre with an arched wall and containing some typically Parnassian stained glass by Henry Holiday. Somewhat predictably, the daffodils are beginning to flower on Wordsworth’s grave. Later highlights of the day include a Gilbert Scott church at Ambleside; a standard enough design for him but perhaps set apart by the polychromatic local stone used. The interior has yet more Holiday stained glass; a mawkish monument to Matthew Arnold this time. The church at Staveley is rather more nondescript but the stained glass inside is considerably more impressive; William Morris angels against an inky blue night and yellow stars flank a central white and red Burne Jones vision of the resurrection. The final place I visit is Kendal with its ruined castle on the hillside, Hepworth sculptures and ramshackle parish church.