High above Newby Bridge in Cumbria (formerly Lancashire) stands Finsthwaite Tower. When first built it was a prominent landmark on a bare hill, and commanded an extensive prospect of sea, lake and mountains. The tower was built by James King of Finsthwaite House as an ornament to the landscape, and as a monument to naval prowess. And to start 2022 with some really good news, after decades of decay the tower has a new owner, and a new lease of life.
The first mention of the tower is in November 1797, when the writer Joseph Budworth mentions it in his poem Windermere. Looking down the lake to Finsthwaite he could see the building site on Water Side Knott (later also known as Summer House Knott), knott being the local name for a hill. Budworth looked south:
To where that rising structure boldly stands
And all around a bird’s-eye view commands
In a footnote to the poem Budworth noted that the tower was to honour the three new naval victories gained by the Admirals Howe, St Vincent, and Duncan. These were respectively the celebrated defeats of the French on the ‘Glorious first of June’ 1794, the Franco-Spanish fleet at Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797, and the Dutch navy at Camperdown on 11 October 1797. As building work neared completion in November 1798 a further victory could be added to the list – the defeat of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile on 2 August, under the command of Admiral Nelson.
The architect is not recorded but was most likely Francis Webster of Kendal – the Webster workshop certainly provided masons. The team were about to start work on the inscribed plaque when news of victory at the Battle of the Nile arrived, and they requested ‘the pleasure of ingraving the name of Nelson along with the other Admirals who have done honor to the British Flag’. Inspired perhaps by exhortations in the national press to consider all four victories as ‘one great link of our national glory’, King eventually decided not to acknowledge named officers and individual battles, but to celebrate instead the massed ranks of sailors and their achievements. When completed in 1799 the tower carried this inscription:
To Honor the
Officers, Seamen and Marines,
whose matchlefs Conduct, and
irresistible Valour, decisively defeated
the Fleets of France, Spain, and Holland,
and preserved and protected
LIBERTY and COMMERCE.
The plaque, which survives, was originally surrounded by a ‘well designed ornament of naval trophies’; remnants of these carvings are visible on old postcards, not clear enough to define, but likely to include appurtenances of war such as flags, anchors, cannon-balls, coils of rope and prows of ships. The tower originally carried a flagpole, and a contemporary watercolour (private collection, not shown) shows it with a large pennant flying.
The postcards also show that the tower was originally of three storeys, and commanded ‘a prospect of great extent and beauty’. The view was panoramic, but the key vistas were north up Windermere and a sweeping southerly view with Morecambe Bay in the distance. Remnants of ornamental planting survive, suggesting that a small pleasure ground was created around the temple.
King (c.1755-1821) was a partner in the Low Wood Gunpowder Company, based close to Finsthwaite, and would have been very aware of the importance of the navy in protecting trade routes from the enemy and from privateers. Low Wood’s gunpowder was one of the main goods exported on the triangular trading route, also known as the slave trade. Gunpowder would leave Liverpool on ships bound for Africa where slaves would become the new cargo. The slaves would be transported to America and the West Indies, and the ships then returned to Liverpool with a cargo including luxury goods for the British upper classes including sugar, liquor and spices. The importance of these exotics to the local economy can be seen to this day with tourists seeking out Kendal Mint Cake, Cumberland Rum Butter, and Grasmere Gingerbread.
On a more personal level, King was aware of the perils and hardships of life at sea as his father was a naval surgeon who sailed on a number of voyages. Some early visitors believed the tower commemorated ‘Captain King’.
By the end of the eighteenth century the on-going war had been commemorated with numerous portraits and statues of patriotic heroes, but there were few large-scale monuments. The national papers published proposals in 1799 for a ‘Grand Naval Pillar […] to perpetuate the glorious victories of the British Navy’, although it was 1807 before the foundation stone was laid for the Nelson memorial column at Plymouth (and Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square would not be built until the 1840s). King’s tribute was complete before the appeal for a national monument even appeared, making it possibly the first major British monument to commemorate the naval victories of the French Revolutionary Wars.
After walking up to the tower in the middle of the nineteenth century one visitor noted that the tower commemorated more than just naval heroes – the ‘inside walls [were] written over with names and nameless rhymes’, by the many visitors. In the later nineteenth century the building was kept locked, and the key was held at the Swan Inn in Newby Bridge where the landlord could vet the applicants and discourage further graffiti. By the end of the century the tower was in need of repair and in 1897, after a prompt from the English Lake District Association, the then owner restored the tower, ‘thus saving an old and interesting landmark’. The ELDA was an association of hoteliers which promoted the Lake District as a tourist destination, and part of its remit was to encourage landowners to keep footpaths and attractions, built and natural, in perfect condition.
Sometime after 1931 the tower was again restored, losing the upper storey in the process (we know there were still three storeys at this date from newspaper reports of a tragic death by lightning strike at the tower). The popular writer and walker Alfred Wainwright sketched the truncated tower for one of his guides, published in 1974, and noted that it was ‘no longer kept in repair’. The tower was listed at grade II in 1970 as ‘Pennington Lodge Tower’ – the name which appears on the early 20th century Ordnance Survey map. This is rather curious, as the first edition OS maps call it ‘Summer House or Tower’, and old postcards and guidebooks call it ‘Finsthwaite Tower’, so the ‘Pennington’ alias remains a bit of a mystery.
It’s a steep clamber up to the tower on a public footpath from Newby Bridge, or a steady climb from Finsthwaite church (which route has the added bonus of information boards on the local bobbin making industry, and the Woodland Trust’s work to regenerate the area) but the lovely little tower is all the reward you need. Although perhaps a small reviving treat might be in order…
And now the very exciting news… In 2015 the then landowner, the Lake District National Park authority, sold the 41 acres of Summer House Knott woodland to a private owner, Tim Timmerman, who had always aspired to having his own woodland. Timmerman had ambitious plans for the tower and woodland. In 2018 planning permission was granted to open the blocked doorway and construct a steel staircase and viewing platform within the tower, and this work is now largely complete. Just by the tower three new memorial stones have been erected, each commemorating a great naval battle: Cape St Vincent (1797), Camperdown (1797) and the Nile (1798).
The beautiful stones, sourced from a local quarry, have carved inscriptions by William Todd, which remember not only the British navy, but also those with whom they engaged in battle: the Spanish, Dutch and French navies respectively. Timmerman feels strongly that the site should ‘honour ALL those whose valour has been lost in the midst of time’, and quotes the Polish-American poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004): ‘The living owe it to those who can no longer speak, to tell their story for them’.
Future plans include returning a flagpole to the tower, adding seats and interpretation boards at key viewpoints, the restoration of footpaths, and a programme of woodland management. Schools will be encouraged to use the tower, and although the tower will be kept locked to discourage vandalism, there will be managed public access. A website is under development so watch out for that in due course.
Timmerman wishes everyone to ‘enjoy the beauty of the Lake District to the maximum’. The Folly Flâneuse is hugely grateful to the saviour of Finsthwaite Tower and Water Side Knott. HUZZAH, as the sailors would have cheered.
UPDATE: Summer 2022. Storm Arwen, which hit Britain in November 2021, caused great damage to the woodland, although happily there was little damage in the immediate vicinity of the tower. Access was limited for some time and although forestry work continues, the path from Finsthwaite village has now re-opened. The quote from Milosz has now been added to the inscriptions:
Can you add anything to the history of the tower? If so, the Folly Flâneuse and Tim Timmerman would love to hear from you via the contact box below. Thank you for reading.