And, your tongue-twister for today – is pronounced ‘size-err’…which sounds a little West Country to me. But it is, in fact, bang in the North West of England, just outside Kendal and a few miles from the Lake District. I am told the name is derived from Old Norse ‘sigarith’, which apparently means ‘dairy-farm’.
However, there’s little of the dairy-farm about Sizergh Castle. On the other hand, it’s not really a castle either. It probably started out as a pele (or ‘peel’) tower – a defensive structure common in these once troubled border regions. What you see now is more of a medieval house, with a fine 16th – 18th century interior that includes some splendid furniture and portraits. Plus, it has rather lovely gardens. There’s a very unusual, and impressive, limestone rock garden that was laid out by Hayes of Ambleside in 1926 (the firm is still there, transformed into one of those huge garden centres that sells un-horticultural stuff like scented candles and decorations). Sizergh also has a fine kitchen garden – not something I’d normally get excited about before dinner, but it is downright impressive. There’s an orchard, a couple of lakes – and beehives (if you’re not worried about supporting bees, you should be). Plus – pleasant walks to be had through the grounds and beyond. So it’s a good place to go to.
Though the estate was given to the National Trust in 1951, Sizergh Castle is still lived in by descendents of the same family, the Stricklands, who acquired the place through marriage in 1239, when Henry III was on the throne of England. My American reader may like to know that an early Strickland, Joan, married a Robert de Wessington – direct ancestor of a chap called George Washington. Anyway - the Stricklands lived on the edge, when this part of the world was close to the frontier with Scotland. A Strickland carried the banner of St George at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. During the Wars of the Roses, they took the Yorkist side. They were Royalists during the Civil War of the 17th century – Sir Thomas Strickland fought at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, and was captured by the Parliamentarians. They were also related to and friendly with another local family, the Parrs – Catherine Parr married Henry VIII in 1543, the last of his six wives. But the Stricklands were Catholics – which isn’t a huge problem for most people in the UK today, but could be massively inconvenient during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Amazingly, the Stricklands managed to emerge from all of that unpleasantness relatively unscathed; that, I suggest, was quite an achievement.
It is at this point worth mentioning that the male Stricklands mostly seem to have been called Thomas or Walter, with the occasional Robert thrown in for good measure. But as you’re unlikely to be introduced, I don’t suppose it matters much.
You can see the Catholic connections in particular in the dining room at Sizergh where, as well as having the most amazingly ornate carved overmantle (nothing sinister about that – it’s just a wonderful piece of work), there are portraits of Charles II, his brother James II (looking like he has a very unpleasant smell on his upper lip) and the latter’s wife, Queen Mary of Modena. On the opposite wall is a portrait of James and Mary’s son, James (‘the Old Pretender’ – oh yes!), who would have become James III if his father hadn’t been swept off the throne in favour of the Protestant William and Mary. Over a doorway is a bust of Bonnie Prince Charlie, ‘the Young Pretender’.
When James II went into exile, Sir Thomas and Lady Winifred followed. Before going, they placed Sizergh in trust with two family servants so that it could not be seized by the government. These loyal employees kept the property safe until young Walter Strickland was able to return to England to reclaim his inheritance. Incidentally, Lady Winifred was extremely close to Queen Mary of Modena and was with her when she died, writing afterwards that she closed her queen’s eyes. Back at the ranch, the Stricklands took no part in the rebellions of 1715 or 1745, despite the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army marched close to Sizergh on the way south to Derby (see "The Last Battle" for more about this).
The ‘inlaid chamber’ at the top of the tower is worth a mention. This room is decorated with exquisite 16th century panelling. But in 1891 it was sold to the V&A Museum to raise necessary cash. It returned to the room it was designed for in 1999 on permanent loan, and was restored. Not necessarily something you’d get at IKEA, but stunning nevertheless.
My favourite room though, is the old banqueting hall in the tower, with its 17th century refectory table and pewter. On one wall is a huge 16th century broadsword. It’s wonderfully atmospheric – the sort of place you could imagine having a great meal with far too much ale.
And then there’s the ghost. It is said that a husband locked his wife in a room in the tower, to keep her safe from marauding Scots, whilst he went off to put an end to the danger. But he did not return. The poor woman starved to death and her wails can be heard when the wind is right…It’s all very unlikely isn’t it?
From junction 36 of the M6, take the A590 toward Kendal. Follow the A590 on the first exit off a roundabout signposted for the South Lakes. Turn immediately right off the dual carriageway to Sizergh Castle.
Visit the website for Sizergh Castle for more information.