Cumbrian ‘stairways to heaven’

A Cumbrian heritage group is inviting visitors and local residents to climb one of its many ‘stairways to heaven’ this year, having put together some enticing information about the rewards that climbing a few stairs or steps can bring, writes Sandy Felton.

The group, Cumbria’s Living Heritage, have drawn together some amazing staircases or steps across the county, which is now home to the UK’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site. You will find extraordinary staircases at National Trust property Sizergh Castle and Levens Hall in the south to Hutton-in-the-Forest, Carlisle Castle and Dalemain in the north. All with a story to tell and a wow factor attached – seeking them out is all that is required.

At Hutton-in-the-Forest (pictured above) you can discover the Cupid Staircase, featuring magnificent carving of winged boys swinging on acanthus leaves. Make the ascent and find the Cupid Room, considered the finest in the house and the first of a suite of three rooms designed for Henry Fletcher, back in the 1740s.

Climb the stairs at Sizergh Castle (banner top of page) – although there might be quite a few to negotiate – and you will find the Elizabethan Inlaid Chamber, one of the finest examples of inlaid panelling ever made for an English country house. Sumptuous light and dark inlays of poplar and bog oak create a shimmering effect in the wood, which features geometrical strapwork and foliated scrolls. We have Walter Strickland to thank for the chamber, who commissioned this work in the first half of the 16th century. The craftsmanship is further accentuated by an elaborate plasterwork ceiling and a frieze reminiscent of Henry VIII’s magnificent Great Watching Chamber at Hampton Court Palace.

At Dalemain House near Penrith you could look for the home of Mrs Mouse, tucked into the staircase’s woodwork or visit Levens Hall and Gardens near Kendal, and discover its long oak staircase leading to bedrooms that collectively feature Gillows of Lancaster furniture.

One of my favourite’s in this house is the clasp of interlocking bees taken from Napoleon’s cape, (pictured left)  found in his coach after the Battle of Waterloo! There is also the Duke of Wellington’s campaign bed and one may begin to wonder at the link between the famous Iron Duke and the house – simply that Sir Charles Bagot married Lady Mary Wellesley, the Duke’s niece!

There are plenty of steps in Cumbrian gardens – visit Ruskin’s Brantwood on Coniston Water or Wordsworth’s former home at Dove Cottage in Grasmere to discover some amazing gardens and views (pictured right).

The mountain gardens that Ruskin created are renowned for peace, tranquillity and spots of heaven on earth and all are well worth the efforts of those who make their discovery on foot. You can also take a sail on the heritage vessel, Steamboat Gondola to enjoy the beauty of Coniston from the water – pick up Gondola from Coniston and it will take you to the jetty at Brentwood – a pretty special way to arrive.

Visit Carlisle and you can climb the stairs at the Cumbrian Museum of Military Life at Carlisle Castle and experience the stories of the 34th the 55th Regiment of foot, the Border Regiment and Kings Own Royal Border Regiment.

At Backbarrow you can climb the steps to discover some amazing vintage motorcycles and cars at the Lakeland Motor Museum or you can climb the beautiful staircase at Blackwell, The Arts & Crafts House on the shores of Lake Windermere. Blackwell’s stairs will lead you to some beautiful Arts & Crafts styled bedrooms, with leaf-like door handles inspired by nature and some amazing views over Windermere itself. Climb another short flight and you can discover ‘Form over Function – Ceramic Art at Blackwell’ – an exhibition focussing on how art can be created from the craft of working with clay.

If you are visiting Kendal then pop over to Abbot Hall Art Gallery where you climb to the first floor to find the Elisabeth Frink: Fragility & Power exhibition running until 29th September.

Of course some of us find it difficult to climb stairs and that includes me and it is good to know that despite the restrictions heritage homes have when it comes to making some of their amazing features accessible, each Cumbria’s Living Heritage member does all it can to ensure those unable to tackle stairs do not miss out.(pictured left the magnificent staircase at Holker Hall)

Several members are one-level attractions while others do try and enable those of us who struggle with climbing to reach the higher floors (eg Blackwell which has a lift).

While all of our stairs so far have been physical they can of course also be metaphorical – whether you are at ground level admiring sculptures in Grizedale Forest, or finding your inner geek while taking in the Donald Campbell ‘Bluebird’ displays at the Ruskin Museum in Consiton, seek them out and you will have memories for a lifetime.

Cumbria’s Living Heritage Group was formed five years ago and is a group of heritage attractions, museums and historic homes and gardens, including some within the National Trust and English Heritage. They are on a mission to make heritage less dusty and more appealing to all age groups.

Head to www.cumbriaslivingheritage.co.uk and follow the individual member links, to seek out your personal and magnetic stairway to heaven this summer.  You can also find special offers and other useful information at the website.

Photo credits: Banner Sizergh Castle, Reckless Gardener; Hutton in the Forest ©Reckless Gardener; Lake Windermere ©Reckless Gardener – rest of photographs ©Cumbria’s Living Heritage.

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