High on the fell above the town of Penrith stands a square stone turret which marks the site of the town’s ancient beacon. For centuries the beacon network provided an early warning system: fires burning on high ground announced the approach of the enemy. In less troubled times the little tower became a summerhouse, eye-catcher, and belvedere for the Lonsdale family of nearby Lowther Castle. Today it is a popular destination for walkers, and a symbol of the town.
The building seen today is said to have been built in 1719. The early history is a little vague, but the Beacon was certainly in its present form by the middle of the 18th century when the tower with its pyramidal roof is shown on maps. The land came into the ownership of the Lonsdale family early in the 19th century, and soon after they planted the bare fell and began to manage the hillside as a forest.
The 1st Earl and Countess of Lonsdale (2nd creation) built an ornamental cottage at the foot of the hill. This served as the residence of the estate wood-warden, whose role included managing access to the beacon on public open days. It was also a place where the family could take refreshments when visiting the Beacon, and was named Caroline Cottage in honour of Lord and Lady Lonsdale’s youngest daughter. In the 1820s the Countess added an ‘elegant tea and ball-room’ to the cottage; this she made available to the people of Penrith, and great parties and picnics were held there in the following decades.
In 1841 a local poet ‘The Muse’, contributed sonnets on local themes to the Westmorland Gazette. His lines on Caroline Cottage begin:
Lone cottage! clasped around with ivies green,
Snugly thou stand’st beneath the “Beacon Hill,”
A mute spectator – of lake, stream, and rill,
And mountains far in the encircling scene!
The Beacon is a landmark for miles around, and will be familiar to motorists heading to and from Scotland on the M6. From the little tower there are views to Lowther Castle, Blencathra and Ullswater, as well as into Scotland. Those views were best appreciated when the hillside was bare of trees, as it was in 1918 when an article in the local paper bemoaned the wholesale clearing of the trees by the Lowther estate.
The fell was however replanted, and a century later people began to complain of the opposite problem: the slope was again covered in trees but those on the summit were blocking views of the hilltop eye-catcher. Early in 2018 Lowther Estates organised the clearance of the trees around the beacon, and reopened key vistas. The work was funded by Eden District Council and a number of local charitable organisations.
In recent years the Beacon (the word is used locally to refer to both the turret and the hill) has been threatened with development. The Friends of Penrith Beacon is a community group that was formed in 2018 to protect the site, and you can read about their campaigns here http://www.friendsofpenrithbeacon.co.uk
You can catch a glimpse of Caroline Cottage on Beacon Edge, before following the nearby public footpath uphill to the turret. It is a steep climb, but as a guidebook noted in 1826 the view ‘compensates by its extent and variety of prospect for the labour in ascending to procure it.’
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