History and significance of Fell Foot Park: Part I

Sorry about the delay between blog posts – it’s been a busy couple of months. We’ve been concentrating on putting together the historic significance of the park, its landscape and views. As part of that we now have a potted history of the site to share with you in two installations. Some of the information you will know, but some you might not! For example, did you know that the road used to run alongside the lake (on the lakeside of the round lawn) until it was moved inland in the early 1800s? Keep reading!

Fell Foot was once the dramatic setting for a prestigious Lake District villa and has been significant as a recreational estate for over two centuries. A succession of wealthy owners from northern towns developed the site to pursue their interests in sailing and hunting in picturesque surroundings, and while the elegant Georgian villa has since been demolished, much of the basic form of the landscape survives, and an attractive collection of Victorian Gothic boathouses remains as the focus of a highly popular lakeside resort for today’s visitors.

Fell Foot in ancient times was the one fording point at the south end of Windermere for the track from Kendal to the Furness Abbey lands, and by the early 18th century the site had become a prosperous farm. Around 1784 it was sold by the Robinsons, a family of yeoman farmers, to Jeremiah Dixon, a Leeds merchant, and his wife Mary, daughter of the Leeds engineer John Smeaton, of Eddystone lighthouse fame. The Dixons enlarged the farmhouse into a substantial villa overlooking the lake, and laid out a pleasure ground, moving the public road in about 1810 from the lakeside to the landward side of the house. In so doing, they were creating one of the earliest classic villa landscapes of the Lake District. The now highly desirable residence for a gentleman’s family was sold by the Dixons in 1813 to Francis Dukinfield Astley Esq (1781-1825) of Dukinfield Lodge, near Manchester. Known as Squire Astley, he had profited greatly from industrial coal mining at Dukinfield, and brought to Fell Foot not only a fortune but a significant interest in forestry – publishing The Planter’s Guide in 1814. He was also famous as a huntsman with his own pack of harriers, and even had literary pretensions as a romantic poet. By 1825 it was already being said of Fell Foot that it ‘unites the advantages of most exquisite romantic beauty with perfect facility of access,’ and when Astley’s son eventually sold the estate in 1859, the villa landscape was well established with north and south drives, woodland walks, open paddocks, two boathouses, and designed views of the magnificent Lakeland setting extending up the lake.

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Colonel Ridehalgh and Hounds at Fell Foot

The new owner in 1859 was Colonel George John Miller Ridehalgh (1835-92), lord of the manor of Urmston, near Manchester. Like Astley he was a keen sportsman who kept a pack of foxhounds – the Windermere Harriers – and he had a passion for sailing, which he indulged on a grand scale. His elegant steam yacht Britannia of 1879 was 96ft long and cost him £12,000.
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The steam yacht

The most enduring element of the improvements he made to the estate is the small harbour complex of three piers and five Gothic boathouses – complete with crenelated turrets, arrow loops, portcullis doorways and rustic limestone decoration – all designed to be viewed from the lake.
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The Victorian boathouses

The boathouses relate architecturally to others on Windermere, particularly the earlier and larger example at Wray Castle, but the extent of the complex at Fell Foot (now listed Grade II) would appear to be unparalleled in the Lake District. The largest boathouse, with its solid floor, fireplace and gasoliers is understood to have been used on occasions as a ballroom – having an amenity value in Ridehalgh’s day which far exceeded its use a boat store, and which its present use as a café reflects.

History and significance of Fell Foot Park: Part II next week!