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Lake District Adventures - Brantwood, Coniston

For the last couple of weeks we'd been planning on hitting the road to make the journey to Coniston Water in the Lake District. We'd camped here, many, many years ago, we reckon it was 1996, so we were well overdue a visit. (I did stay for a weekend last year for my cousin's hen-do, but let's just say I didn't see an awful lot of the Lakes that time!). The weather forecast was not looking good all week, heavy rain was heading to the north-west, but we kept our fingers crossed that we'd still be able to go. By Saturday morning, the TV weatherman was still reporting ominous warnings of thunder and lighting, torrential downpours and possible traffic disruption. If you checked the same television channel's website forecast though, it told a slightly different story - light showers, sunny spells with heavier rain coming later in the afternoon. We hummed and we hawed and in the end I just thought, sod it, let's go. 

Driving up the A65 through the Yorkshire Dales the sky remained bright and cheerful but the minute we turned off towards Kendal, the heavens opened and there was a lot of spray and surface water. I began to question my sod it attitude.....After a short while the rain stopped and the sun came out a little, so optimism returned. I wanted to find somewhere to stop for a coffee break en route to Coniston, and always find that the best way to locate a good coffee shop is Instagram. I wasn't disappointed as a few nice places popped up but immediately thought I was on to a winner when I discovered Chesters By The River at Skelwith Bridge near Ambleside. It's a cafe, shop and deli all rolled into one, with artisan breads, cakes and takeaway picnic items. We stopped for coffee and cake, which were both so good and then we filled up on picnic items to have later in the day from the deli counter. We feasted on new potato and cheddar frittata, sweet potato and chickpea pasties along with some sourdough bread, it was picnic heaven. Their menu sounds great too with lots of delicious wood-fired pizzas and we'll definitely be back there for lunch next time. It's a gem of a place and I can't recommend it highly enough. 

Thankfully the weather in Coniston wasn't too bad at all, little glimpses of sunshine, light showers but it was on the muggy side. So it was one of those typical British Summer days out - jackets off, jackets on, jackets off, jackets on...... We parked the car in the main tourist information car park and then set off on our walk to Brantwood, home of John Ruskin, painter, writer, philanthropist, art critic and prominent social thinker. Although there is parking at Brantwood, we opted to walk the two and a half mile route to the house, meandering through the fields and the shore of the lake. It's quite an easy walk, the majority of it flat but if you don't fancy the return journey on foot, you can catch the launch at the Brantwood jetty which takes you back to Coniston. Our walk took us past cows playing peekaboo, a pair of lost sunglasses left on a fence post and the hedgerows bursting with wildflowers. We took the public footpath across the fields to Bankground Farm (which is where I stayed last year and it is the setting for the Arthur Ransome book, Swallows and Amazons). Bankground also has a tearoom where you can sit and enjoy the scenery or break up the walk to Brantwood. 

Brantwood was home to one of the most influential figures in Victorian times, John Ruskin. He was an artist, writer, philanthropist, conservationist and social revolutionary who inspired the likes of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement. He moved to the Lakes aged 52, in 1871 and set about restoring and expanding the house on the shores of Coniston Water.  He added the extra turret which gave him panoramic views of the lake and the hills around it (top right picture above). He filled his home with the treasures he'd collected on his travels - shells, minerals and fossils which he kept in his study alongside works of art from the Pre-Raphaelites and Turner watercolours. Ruskin believed that art and society were closely linked to nature and that an understanding of the natural environment strengthens society. His home is testament to this, with natural elements running throughout, from the small details of dried hydrangea heads and pine cones in the fire grate, the specimen jars of bees, butterflies and dragonflies to the wallpaper, a modern copy of one of Ruskins' designs, that graces the wall in the drawing room. It's a beautiful house, simple, calm and totally at one with nature - pretty much how I'd like my house to be. Brantwood has a tearoom which we didn't go into as it was packed to the rafters and you can also stay in one of the holiday cottages on the estate which would be a bit of a dream for me (bottom right picture above). We did buy a collection of his writings and some postcards of his drawings to frame at home from the little gift shop. 

‘Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them’.
— John Ruskin

But the real star attraction at Brantwood for me is the gardens There are 250 acres of them, which sit steeply on the hillside and parts in deep woodland. It's divided into eight areas and I had two real favourites - the Professor's Garden (Ruskin's own personal favourite), which is home to plants considered as healing for body and soul. There is a beautiful pergola with big, vibrant heads of clematis climbing around it and a small wooden shelter to sit and take the time to enjoy the flowers, the bees and the birdsong. Most areas are accessible for all, but others are up small, steep staircases that were a little slippy underfoot with all the wet weather. 

The other garden I particularly liked was the Trellis Walk, which is down towards the launch for the steam gondola. It's planted with perennials and climbing roses, leading you up a little path back to the house, framing the little stone building at the end. I happily spent quite some time there photographing the plants and it was only because it started to rain again and hunger was hitting us all that I reluctantly left this little bit of paradise. All three of us were inspired by our visit to Brantwood, even Harry, who at thirteen I thought would be bored and a bit whiny, but he loved the walk, enjoyed the nature aspects of the visit and even picked out a little picture postcard to put in his bedroom. 

‘The best thing in life aren’t things’.
— John Ruskin
The path of a good woman is indeed strewn with flowers; but they rise behind her steps, not before them.
— John Ruskin

We walked back to the village of Coniston for lunch at the Black Bull pub where the sun came out for a bit and we enjoyed eating outside, watching the people go by and many dogs happily snoozing under the pub tables after long walks on the hills. All in all, another lovely day in the Lake District. We'll be back in the summer with our tent for some camping adventures and I can't wait. 

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