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August 19, 2018

Brantwood, home to artist, critic, writer, plant scientist and social thinker John Ruskin. Noted as one of the most remarkable figures of the victorian era; his home and gardens are as intriguing as his life.


Ruskin was a pioneer and expert in many fields from geology to botany, from Gothic architecture to literature. An avid conservationist, he studied climate change and the impact of pollution on the natural environment, discovering the 'green-house effect' one hundred years before it became commonplace.


He was a social reformer advocating free schools and libraries, green belts and smokeless zones, his influence helped found the National Trust and Arts & Crafts Movement; he inspired William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones to become artists, he also championed the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and Turner and was even admired by the likes of Ghandi and french novelist Proust. His influence was far-reaching and he was idolised by many.


Ruskin's forward thinking is still completely relevant today. He wanted people to see the beauty in the natural landscape; to not be suppressed by poverty but to relish the free pleasures of life such as sunsets and scenery, shells on the beach, the colour of feathers and leaves, the intricate crystals in rock, the small details of the natural world that can so easily be missed. He is noted as being a visionary in bringing these ideas to the foreground.


'A stone when examined is a mountain in miniature.' John Ruskin.

He believed in the power of art to change lives. Although his private life was infamously doomed he was enthralled with the romance of the idea of being in love. The Pre-Raphaelite ideal.

Perched on the fell-side overlooking Coniston lake and across to The Old Man, Brantwood commands attention. 'Brant' is the norse word for 'steep' and Norse invaders were the first to discover the steep woodland in the ninth century.


The house interior boasts beautifully restored rooms which transport you straight back to Ruskin times. Each window is impossible to walk passed without pausing to admire the vista across the lake. Even on a murky rainy day the view was breathtaking and you can see why an artist set up home here. A natural source of inspiration and a garden that was to become his 'living laboratory.'


Upon arrival you are immediately confronted with the largest Rhododendron's I've ever seen. 130 year old Rhododendron 'Broughtonii' trees accompany equally statuesque Japanese Acer palmatum on Maple Walk. Deep red leaves contrast the vibrant green above a bed of tansy, persicaria and azalea.


I bumped into Brantwood gardener David Charles whilst he was working in the Lower Garden and he gave me an insight into the garden restoration and enormity of managing 250 acres of woodland garden and farmland. A small team doing great things.

Brantwood is split into eight unique gardens; living experiments continuing Ruskin's ideology. 


'The importance of the garden as an educational tool.' John Ruskin.


Over the years various gardeners have breathed life back into the magical oasis, much of which had been reclaimed by weeds.

Firstly John Ruskin himself had great vision during his time at Brantwood from 1872 to his death in 1900 and wanted to embrace the wild natural environment of the steep woodland and fells and continue where his predecessor, William James Linton, left off.


A tremendous contributor was his first cousin and châtelaine Joan Severn who lived at Brantwood and nursed Ruskin until his death; a kindness saving him from the possible fate of a mental asylum.


Her ideas were contrary to Ruskin's but he made allowances and condoned greenhouses to be built at the second kitchen garden (today the site of the car park). He disapproved of them as he did not believe in contrived gardening; Ruskin believed 'all machine made objects were "dishonest" and that craftsmanship and handmade work were dignified labour.'

Then in 1988, bringing her holistic gardening approach, Head Gardener and Estate Manager Sally Beamish brought Brantwood back-to-life. Her visionary garden restoration revealed what had been lost. Her energy and enthusiasm transformed Brantwood back to glory and following in Ruskin's footsteps she used the garden as an educational tool to pass knowledge to others.


Embracing organic and biodynamic gardening methods and land management she strived for Brantwood to be self-sustaining. Every element from soil, plants and human intervention to cooperatively work together. An ideology I wholeheartedly support myself.

It is with tremendous sadness I learn that she lost her fight with cancer in June. Her legacy will certainly live on at Brantwood.


Originally working at RHS Wisley and Cumbria County Council she spent thirty years at Brantwood reclaiming it from neglect; her life's work. She researched Ruskin's ideals in long-lost victorian archives to ensure the gardens were authentic, using traditional rural trades and then moving forward redesigned many areas, trailblazing horticultural experimental projects and promoting organic and biodiverse gardening practises. In 2017 she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by Cumbria Life. I dearly wish I had had the opportunity to meet her.