Brantwood was the home of the Victorian writer, artist, critic, social reformer and conservationist John Ruskin from 1872 until his death aged 80 in 1900. The house contains memorabilia, art and exhibitions and hosts an events programme including classical concerts. The estate comprises 250 acres of gardens, pastures and woodland stretching from lakeside to open fell. There are eight different gardens, which continue Ruskin’s own experiments in horticulture and land management. Close to the zig-zag path are two apple trees which date from Ruskin’s time; a Galloway Pippin and a Bramley’s Seedling, both of which, despite being around 120 years old, have been rejuvenated by hard pruning. Closer to the house, in the Professor’s Garden, is a row of cordons planted on M26 in 1992 using Victorian varieties that are typical of what would have been grown in Ruskin’s day.
The orchard, planted in 1989, is lower down on the lake side of the road. Although it comprises only nine trees, it is full of interest, utilising an innovative orchard management system based on biodynamic principles. These ideas originated from Rudolf Steiner in 1924, who integrated the principles of organic farming with “natural preparations” and the astrocalendar to advocate a holistic approach to agriculture. A descending lunar rhythm is believed to make sap flow less active, accordingly winter pruning is carried out during such periods. The trees originated from nurseries as diverse as Deacons on the Isle of Wight and Tweedies of Dumfries, some arriving by boat! The Court Pendu Plat had suffered from canker. , but under the biodynamic regime it has recovered; the scars are still visible but no longer sporulating. However, early signs of canker have now appeared on the Keswick Codlin and Beauty of Bath, so although a battle has been won, the war is not yet over. The orchard is grassed down and mown; despite this the trees are vigorous and set too much fruit which then needs to be hand thinned: on the Keswick Codlin in particular this amounts to a barrowful of surplus fruitlets. The fruit, when harvested, is all made use of; the best quality sold fresh, the next grade used for cooking in “Jumping Jenny Café”, and the surplus juiced and sold in the bottle so nothing is wasted. The zig-zaggy has two espaliered pears, a heavy-cropping Black Worcester and a rather shy Jargonelle, whilst against the south-facing wall of the house is a fig, fruiting happily within a confined rootspace. The late Sally Beamish was Head Gardener at Brantwood for over twenty years, during which time she led considerable restoration of the garden and initiated new ideas not least the biodynamic project in the lakeside meadows and adjoining orchard. Her work is now being continued by Ruth Charles.
The views over Coniston Water and beyond to the Coniston Old Man range are magnificent, yet it is off the beaten track, and surprisingly tranquil compared to most Lake District “beauty spots”. So if you fancy a spot of volunteer work in a peaceful location with unrivalled views and/or if you’re interested to learn more about biodynamic apple growing – this, probably the only biodynamic orchard in Cumbria, is the place.
Winter openings (mid-Nov to mid-March) are Wednesday – Sunday 10.30am – 4.00pm. Summer open daily mid-March to early-Nov 10.30am – 5.00pm, gardens admission £5.50. Location 2½ miles from Coniston on the east side of Coniston Water. The best way to travel is by boat across the lake from Coniston, either on the National Trust’s steam yacht “Gondola” or Coniston Cruise’s solar-electric launch, both of which arrive at Brantwood’s own jetty at the foot of the orchard. Postcode for Satnav: LA21 8AD Tel 015394 41396