architecture, belvedere, country house, Cumbria, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, landscape, sham castle, Summerhouse

The Old Castle, Conishead Priory, Cumbria

On a knoll in the former park of Conishead Priory, near Ulverston in Cumbria, (formerly Lancashire) stands this solitary tower. It was once part of a much larger folly, known as the Old Castle, which many took for a genuine ancient monument. Thomas Braddyll (1730-1776) erected it as an ornament to be seen from his seat at Conishead Priory.

Sadly, no early images of the folly are known to survive, but it was extant by 1770 when a visitor admired the folly and described it in a poem:

That ruin has an aspect richly grand!
The Gothic battlements assume the air
Of antient castles’

In 1777 it was taken for ‘an old castle’, but a visitor in 1817 was more astute, and recognised it as a ‘modern ruin on a beautiful knowl [sic] above the house’.

Extract of a map drawn by William Smith (1769-1839) for Thomas Richmond Bradyll in 1822. Photo courtesy of Greenlane Archaeology, Ulverston.

The earliest pictorial evidence is a map of 1822, which suggests that the folly took the form of two pairs of towers, all linked by walls or arches. In that same year the Lonsdale Magazine wrote of the Conishead Priory landscape:

‘The Priory is surrounded by a Park, laid out in the most tasteful manner, bordering the sands for some miles, and sweetly diversified by swelling hills and luxuriant vales. Every improvement which the most cultivated taste could suggest has been adopted: but none has so striking an effect, as the fort on a hill above the house…’

Bradyll’s descendant Thomas Richmond Braddyll (1776-1862) was forced to sell the Consihead estate after making bad investments, and having spent heavily on the lavish gothic house that stands today. The 1848 sales particulars noted the ‘remains of a castle and a circular tower embosomed in ivy’, as shown in this photograph from later in the century.

Photograph c. 1894 courtesy of Carlisle Library, Cumbria Image Bank.

Three towers are shown, but not named, on the first edition Ordnance Survey map published in 1850, but by the time the map was revised in the 1890s they are recorded as ‘Towers (Remains of)’. Their role as a garden ornament has been forgotten, and the word ‘Towers’ is in gothic script: evidently the surveyors believed that it was an ancient monument. A report in the local newspaper in 1900 described the remnants as ‘the ruins of an ancient castle […] apparently of great age’, but a Field Investigator inspecting the castle in 1958 was not fooled, finding ‘no traces of antiquity’.

Publicity shot promoting Conishead Priory when a hotel on ‘the restful riviera of the north-west’, early 20th century. The remains of the towers can be seen at the top. Courtesy of a private collection.

The Conishead estate has changed hands a number of times since the 1848 sale, and has operated as a hotel and then a Miners’ convalescent home. It was last sold in 1972 when the portion of the park containing the ruins was separated from the rest of the estate. It is now known as the Great Head House Estate. The owners restored the remaining tower as a summerhouse and eye-catcher a few years later, but following recent storm damage it is awaiting repairs.

The grade II listed tower stands on private land, but can be seen from the A5087, close to the entrance to Conishead Priory, and from within the priory grounds.

Conishead Priory and Morecambe Bay as seen from the tower on a rather dull afternoon.

Since 1972 Conishead Priory has been home to the Manjushri Kadampa Buddhist Centre, and visitors can enjoy the gardens and walks to the beach, as well as the magnificent modern temple. There’s also a great cafe

The Folly Flâneuse visited the tower in the company of members of the Folly Fellowship. If you would like the opportunity to see follies, both public and private, in convivial company you should become a member

Susan Benson, Archivist, Barrow Archive Centre, and Dan Elsworth of Greenlane Archaeology, Ulverston are thanked for their help with this post. Most of this research was completed back in the lonely days of lockdown, and their enthusiastic assistance was greatly appreciated.

See the links below for two more landscape features on the former Conishead Priory Estate.

Thank you for reading. If you would like to share any thoughts please scroll down to the comments section at the very bottom of the page.




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4 thoughts on “The Old Castle, Conishead Priory, Cumbria”

  1. Stuart Page says:

    Have you described Hadlow Tower in Kent?
    Our practice undertook the recording and stabilisation, with Thomas Ford and partners completing the project
    Lots of photos and drawings
    Brilliant restoration by TFP
    Stuart Page

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Stuart. I haven’t featured Hadlow Tower … yet. I’m planning a Kent visit in the next few months and it will certainly be on my list as I haven’t seen it since the restoration. I will be in touch.

      1. John Davies says:

        You put me to shame! In my own backyard and I didn’t know about it…… I shall head that way at the first opportunity. Glad to read that you met Dan, who helped me greatly several times back in the days of work. Fascinating post as always, thank you.

        1. Editor says:

          Morning John. Delighted to have suggested something new for you to explore. Thanks for the kind words.

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