It was a rainy day – had been rainy for days – and my friends and I were restless. We’d booked ourselves into B&Bs in Keswick (pronounced, in that English way of dropping consonants, “Kessick”) in the Lake District so we could do some dayhikes. Climbing Cat Bells, hiking around Derwentwater, walking up to Castlerigg Stone Circle – those had been our plans.
We could have gone walking in the rain, of course. We had the waterproof jackets and ponchos, the pack covers, the gaiters. But after two glorious weeks of hiking in sunshine, we just couldn’t get going on a wet walk.
The Lake District has a terrific system of buses that spiderweb from town to town. In my room at the B&B was a bus schedule; it ran more than 50 pages. Claudia leafed through, looking for somewhere to go on a rainy Sunday. We could travel south to Grasmere, or to Ambleside or Windermere (what my host called “the honeypot towns”), but she put her finger on Mirehouse Historic House and Gardens – just one bus stop north of Keswick. Despite spending a lot of time in the Lakes in the last five years, I’d never heard of Mirehouse.
Lakeland is more known for its exterior glories — magnificent high fells and wide glacial lakes — than for its stately homes. Although the gardens are open most days from April to October, the house itself is open only on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons (and Friday afternoons in August). And it’s family-run; this is no National Trust property. Mirehouse is lived in by the Spedding family. It has only been sold once since it was built in 1666.
You could visit only the gardens and be well-pleased. There’s plenty to see and do: formal landscaping with espaliered fruit trees tracing up ancient walls, a heather maze for walking meditation, bursts of white and purple and yellow flowering trees, a tiny church by the side of Bassenthwaite Lake,
children’s play areas, a lakeside walk through sheep pastures. We trotted through the grounds for well over an hour, till we were thoroughly wet from rain and that fuggy interior moistness that comes from wearing Gore-Tex jackets. We entered the house dripping, our hair matted like the fur of wet cats.
The receptionist at the front door greeted us as though she’d been hoping we’d show up. She pointed out a hall-tree where we could hang our soppy outerwear. Inside, we could hear the raindrops against the windows, a faint melody of piano music, murmuring conversation as families led their children through the rooms. The Spedding family has placed in every room an owl of some sort, and children are invited to spot the owls as they move through the house. It’s not as easy as it sounds; we played the game too, and sometimes we had to ask for the owl’s location.
The house has been through many renovations and expansions over its centuries. It’s not the architecture, but the history and culture, that you’re visiting here. The families who have lived here were often active in the colonies, both Asian and American, and in the political life of Great Britain, and they preserved maps, books, letters, photographs and all sorts of memorabilia from their adventures. But I also liked the table in the hall where 19 everyday items of 18th and 19th century life were placed, with an invitation to guess their uses. We missed the ivory glove stretcher, and the hunting boot hook, and, well… most of what we saw.
In the library, a lanky white-haired gentleman, a docent, I supposed, was displaying its contents to a woman who was blind. He placed a red sculptured head on the desk and asked her to feel it. She soon guessed it was a phrenology bust, from the “science” of intuiting character from the bumps on one’s head. He pulled out a huge leather-bound book, clearly very old, and allowed her to turn its pages. “It’s a dictionary,” he hinted, and she promptly identified it: a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary from the mid-1700s.
In the red-walled drawing room, a woman was playing classical music on the piano. A small sign invited us to sit and listen. Now that was new! Allowed – encouraged even – to sit on the furniture in a historic house! We sat and enjoyed the concert, looking through the Palladian windows onto the deeply green gardens outside.
The docent soon approached us and asked if we’d like to see some early maps of North America.
By now it was clear this man was no docent or staffer, even though we’d seen him delivering trays of tea to the receptionist and pianist. A check of his nametag revealed his identity: John Spedding, one of the family. Mr. Spedding took great delight in showing us maps and letters he thought we might like (and we did!). In the nursery, children are invited to play with the toys, and Mr. Spedding pointed out photographs of the children who lived in the house long ago.
We asked him about a sideboard in the dining room. We’d noticed a little side door, left open on its hinges, to expose a small white jar. “Oh, that’s a potty jar,” he explained. After dinner, when the women left the men to their cigars and port in the dining room, the men often needed to relieve themselves. Rather than leave the room, the potty was passed around under the table, then taken out discreetly by a servant. “There’s something of that nature in every room in the house,” Mr. Spedding told us.
It was soon time for us to catch the last bus back to Keswick, and we bade Mr. Spedding goodbye. The bus picked us up in front of the Old Sawmill Tearoom, across the street from Mirehouse. (If you go, order Aunt Grace’s sticky gingerbread pudding with rum sauce and cream.) We felt as though we’d spent the afternoon with friends in the country.