If you go down to the woods today to see Lowther Castle on the Lowther Estate you’re sure of a big surprise.
Hidden among the park’s ancient trees is what’s believed to be the largest wooden adventure play structure of its kind in Britain, ‘The Lost Castle of Lowther’.
Hand-built on site by adventure play experts, CAPCO, using ethically-sourced materials, the new attraction is the latest phase in the ongoing restoration and reinvigoration of the neo-gothic ruin of Lowther Castle.
Blooloop caught up with Jim Lowther to learn about Lowther Castle’s colourful history, future plans and the value the wooden play castle is adding to its family offering.
A Foaming River, the Yellow Earl and Secret Weapons
The Lowther family has lived on the estate in the UK’s Lake District since the Vikings first settled, making their home by a foaming river that came to be known as ‘Lowther’, a corruption of the Norse word for foam: ‘lather’.
“Then it became, basically, a Norman knightly family, and eventually we became Earls of Lonsdale in the mid- 18th century, ” explains Lowther.
“The family seat was established, first of all, as a Pele Tower, in the mid-12th century on the same site, then rebuilt in 1640 as Lowther Hall, which we call Lowther 2, the Pele Tower being Lowther 1. Then Lowther 2 was rebuilt in 1886, again on the same site (Lowther 3) which is now called Lowther Castle.”
Lowther Castle was opened to the public for one summer in 1938 by the trustees when the fifth Earl of Lonsdale, a flamboyant character known as the Yellow Earl because of his fondness for the colour, ran out of money.
“The Yellow Earl legalised boxing as a sport, hence the (yellow) Lonsdale Belt; he was the president of Arsenal FC, and the first president of the AA, which is why the Arsenal away strip is yellow, and why the AA is yellow.”
In 1939, the castle and park were requisitioned by the British Army for the duration of the war. The CDL (Canal Defence Light) Regiment moved into Lowther Castle and used the park and the castle for the development of a secret weapon: a stroboscopic light mounted on the top of a Matilda tank. They spent five years developing the technology at Lowther, based in the stable courtyard of the castle.
“The whole park was cloaked in the Official Secrets Act. They practised using this battlefield weapon, but it was never actually used until the South Korean war.”
Taxes and Intensive Broiler Chickens
Shortly after the end of WWII, the Yellow Earl died, leaving enormous debts.
“My father (the seventh Earl) inherited the estate in 1953, most of the contents having been sold in 1947 to help pay taxes left by the Yellow Earl, ” says Lowther.
“The estate was pretty much bust but very large indeed, a quarter of a million acres; the country was bust, and probably the most significant factor of all in terms of what then happened, is the fact that Cumbria then was an extremely isolated place. The M6 hadn’t been built.
“So, my Dad weighed the options of what to do with Lowther Castle for three years. He looked at what his friend the Duke of Devonshire was in the process of doing with Chatsworth, of opening it to the public, as a means of preserving the house and the collection, but thought that that type of solution wouldn’t work here at Lowther.”
Lowther’s father considered giving the estate away to the National Trust but the organisation was still in its infancy with no real connections in Cumbria. He offered it as a possible police training college or hospital to Blackpool and Manchester Borough Councils, but they declined.
In the 90s Lowther Castle itself was a hazardous, derelict wreck.
Eventually the Earl, who had been an engineer in the war, came to the conclusion that demolition was the answer. However, the people of Penrith objected. He took heed and left it standing, merely removing the roof and demolishing the offices in the west wing, converting the stable courtyard into accommodation for estate workers.
“The demolition sale of architectural contents happened in 1956; the de-roofing contract was let to Hinchcliffe of Preston and was executed in 1957.”
The once-manicured grounds were turned over to commercial timber, namely sycamore and spruce. The army had used the south lawns for parking tanks, so the Earl used the remaining concrete bases to develop an intensive broiler chicken enterprise – not before he tried intensive pigs, which he kept in some of the stable accommodation in the courtyard.
“By the end of the fifties, the whole place was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, shut down and, to all intents and purposes, abandoned for the next fifty years.”
When his father died, Jim Lowther went through his filing cabinet and found all the files on the process behind the decisions of the 1950s: “…his options paper, the full process, and the eventual solution, and I honestly don’t blame him for having done it – his major objective was to save the estate, which he did achieve.”
The estate, at 75, 000 acres, is still sizeable and relatively profitable, but by the end of the 90s Lowther Castle itself was a hazardous, derelict wreck.
“Great big chunks of the ruined house were beginning to collapse and fall off.
“At that precise time, I got a letter from English Heritage saying the building was now Grade 2 listed and they’d created this new register of buildings at risk, and they would like to see me do something positive for the site.”
The scale of the challenge was formidable:
“A vast, derelict castle, a 120 acre overplanted garden -all the original garden features were buried underneath commercial forestry; the south lawns were covered in chicken sheds, the stable courtyard had been abandoned by the early 1970s, as my dad beat a retreat from invading dry rot, and used to store turnips and chicken shit for a number of years. The whole place was just a diabolical mess.”
Lost Gardens of Heligan Meets Fountains Abbey
When Lowther Castle was given to Jim Lowther twenty five years ago, his father hadn’t wanted him to do anything with it: “…partly because he had a profitable chicken business, but much more so because he told me that he was ashamed of what that castle represented: that it was an opulent, decadent thing, lived in by people who had no care for the plight of poor people.”
However, with English Heritage exhorting him to take action, Lowther went on a fundraising mission, knowing he would need tens of millions of pounds.
“Then I met Bryan Gray, who in 2004-5-ish was Chairman of the North West Development Agency. Pretty quickly we made a deal between the Lowther Estate and the NWDA, to set up a team to try and find a sustainable solution for the site that would leverage enormous amounts of public money and deliver large amounts of public benefit.
“The solution we came up with was to do a Lost Gardens of Heligan meets Fountains Abbey: to restore the castle as a ruin, to convert the stable courtyard into visitor facilities, to get rid of all my dad’s nasty carbuncles, smarten up the garden, and make it into a major historical visitor attraction that would put Lowther and Cumbria on the map.”
In order to do this, they set up a charity, Lowther Castle and Gardens Trust (LCGT). Lowther then leased the castle and the gardens to that charity for fifty years; the charity received ten million pounds worth of public money, largely from the NWDA, and partly from the European Regional Development Fund. In 2011 building work started on the conversion.
“The key people who delivered the project for us professionally were the architect Feilden Clegg Bradley (FCB)and the garden designer Dan Pearson, with help from Dominic Cole. He had designed all the gardens at the Eden Project and at Heligan and was instrumental in the master planning, while the execution was overseen by Dan Pearson.
“So, in 2011, 2012, we were building furiously. Then, at the end of 2012/beginning of 2013, the builder that was doing all this went bust; the project was nearly complete but not complete, and that caused all sorts of financial troubles for the charity, from which it never really recovered.”
When the Conservatives took over from New Labour, it was clear that no further government support would be forthcoming.
“By the end of 2015, it was obvious that the charity’s continued operation of the site was not going to be financially sustainable, even though it had done a fantastic job up until that point. We came to an arrangement between the estate and the charity for the estate to take over from the charity the job of operating the site.
“The charity has now reverted to overseeing the public benefit, the charitable objectives of the site, and future fundraising, and the estate is running the project and investing in the operation. That really came into being in March this year and, in expectation of that, I had been travelling all over the UK looking at historical/historic/cultural visitor destinations, and I decided that the one thing Lowther Castle lacked was a distinctive, strong family offering.”
Thus, the idea for ‘The Lost Castle’ play structure was born.
The Lost Castle
“It was pretty obvious to me that there was only one player worth talking to, ” says Lowther.
cThis was Simon Egan, founder of CAPCO, who had previously turned an unloved wood and swamp into a children’s treehouse adventure world as director and co-founder of BeWILDerwood.
In expectation of the handing over of the operation to the estate at the beginning of this year, Lowther asked Simon Egan and his son, Freddie, to come up with some designs.
“They came up with these designs that were captivating immediately – we didn’t even go through any iterations of design: they captured the essence of the place straight away, and came up with something that was fantastic: basically, a scaled-down copy of the ruin of Lowther Castle, with its regency, neo-Gothic splendour.”
The next major consideration was where to site the structure within the 120-acre garden. Rather than plonking it right next to the car park, Lowther wanted a longer route so visitors could discover what the gardens had to offer.
“We decided to put it as far away as we could possibly get from the pay-line so that kids and families would have to walk all the way through the huge garden and get really well warmed-up in the process, ” he says.
“And, then, one final consideration was that by putting it where we decided to put it, it also happened to be completely outside of the envelope of the historic footprint of the garden, on a part that my dad had overplanted in the ‘60s.”
Building began in March.
“We also threw in two other components of the project for them to build, which was a snack shack and a little loo block.
“Simon’s and Freddie’s drawings were easily understandable, so we sailed through planning, and the final structure looked exactly – exactly – like the 3-D computer generated images that Freddie did, with the superimposition of trees. The illustrative sketches were exactly like how it turned out to be.”
Visitor Numbers Increase Three-Fold
The Lost Castle opened to the public on the second of August. Before mid-September, it had already transformed the business – visitor numbers increased three-fold.
“And, through the introduction of children’s charges, which this Lost Castle enabled us to add, we also increased the spend per head three times, so the cash takings have gone up nine-fold.”
He is quick to put this growth into context. “We were starting from such a low point of such low visitor numbers – 30, 000 people – and such a low spend per head, that almost anything we might do that was imaginative and would captivate people’s imagination, allowing them to have more fun and spend more time at Lowther Castle, was going to have a financial effect.”
Nevertheless, “as a result of all of this, I’ve just commissioned Simon to build, this winter, the second phase, which I wasn’t actually going to do until 2018.
“Our next big project is to make Lowther the centre of cycling in Cumbria. I want to create a big bike hub, offering more things for families to do here, and I want to open up 20km of private trails through our beautiful, historic parkland: the wider, 3, 000 acre park. I’m working in conjunction with a variety of others to do that.
“I think CAPCO have done a great job for us, they’re a really excellent team; I love their designs, and I hope to work with them for many years to come.”
The castle with the colourful past is clearly looking forward to a brighter future.