Eller How is a handsome villa, high above the town of Ambleside. In 1863 it was bought by the Boyle family, and soon after they added this curious prospect tower. Known as the Tower of Beauty and Friendship, thanks to a unique element of the design, it stands on a mound in the gardens.
Henry Boyle (1839-1901) was born in Staffordshire, where his family had played a prominent role in the pottery industry. Henry married Eleanor Hocking in 1862, and their extended honeymoon took in a trip to the Lakes. Enchanted by the scenery they decided to settle there.
Their new home was Eller How, a fairly recently built house which had previously been run as a school by Anne Jemima Clough (1820-1892), the great promoter of higher education for women, and the first Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge.
Henry Boyle’s interest was the natural world, and having bought more land around the house he began to extend the garden. By 1869 he had added steam-powered heating to his new ponds, allowing him to grow ‘exotic aquatics’ which were the envy of professional gardeners (to be precise they were said to be in ‘ecstasies’).
He created a grotto with coloured glass windows that was home to rare ferns, and in 1898 caused a stir locally when he acquired ‘a real life specimen of the Egyptian crocodile’. The local paper was quick to snap up the story, and reported that the creature ‘was obtained from the banks of the Nile […] where the finest and most carniverous specimens of this reptile are found’. In its native habitat, the story continued, the crocodile liked to ‘bask in the sun’. Sunbathing is not a year-round pastime in the Lake District, so it was probably for the best all round when Boyle decided it had become too big, and it was quietly disposed of.
Amongst the newly-planted trees and shrubs there were rustic bridges and winding walks, which gave the ‘impression that the garden covers a much greater space than it actually occupies.’
The spoil from digging out the lakes and ponds, and sculpting the garden, is thought to have been used to create the mound, on which sits the unique and delightful tower. This was constructed by Henry Boyle himself, and just grew whenever Boyle found himself with some time on his hands.
Boyle commemorated his guests at Eller How in a unique fashion: their names and the year of their visit were inscribed into damp cement laid on the face of bricks, which were then incorporated into the fabric of the tower. The ‘Tower of Beauty and Friendship’, as it became known, mainly recorded female visitors, and there are around 40 women’s names visible today. The Boyle’s social circle included the local gentry such as Mildred le Fleming of Rydal Hall as well as the daughters of the Vicar of Ambleside and the local magistrates.
Boyle’s daughter-in-law recalled that some of the ladies later regretted this move, as the dated stones made it impossible to lie about their age. She was presumably referring in particular to the stone marking the visit of ‘Rotha Clay’, dated 1894. Rotha Mary Clay (1878-1961) was born locally, and would later make a name for herself as a writer and historian – her works include a book on Hermits and Anchorites, published in 1914. Alongside her neatly lettered name is inscribed ‘Birthday 16’, so she must have visited in August 1894 just as she was celebrating her 16th birthday.
Two of the few men whose names feature are William Wordsworth (not the poet, but his son, or possibly grandson), and the writer and Inspector of Schools, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) who was the son of Thomas, Headmaster of Rugby School. The writer Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was at Eller How in 1864, and a stone was later added to the tower to commemorate her visit.
The Boyles had one son, Harry (1863-1937), and on his birthday in 1869 he planted a maple sapling in the middle of the tower. As the structure continued to rise the tree grew within it until, eventually, it spread ‘its branches above the uppermost platform of the tower, thus forming a natural green roof over the seat where one can sit and dream, unobserved, like a bird in its nest.’ Red squirrels became quite tame in the garden, and would come to the foot of the tower to be fed.
Unfortunately the Boyle family’s fortunes waxed and waned, and the house was occasionally let whilst they lived elsewhere for reasons of economy. In 1886 the ‘charming detached Villa Residence’ was advertised as available to lease at a ‘moderate’ rent. The advertisement described the ‘tastefully laid out’ grounds and the ‘Observatory’ which gave a ‘magnificent view’ of the vast expanse of Windermere.
After the death of Henry and Eleanor Eller How passed to their son Harry and his wife Clara, née Asch. Harry continued to care for the grounds until his death in 1937, his wife despairing of his ancient patched clothes, which led to visitors mistaking him for the gardener. The Boyles had no children and the house was sold after Clara’s death in 1966.
The gardens at Eller How, which also feature a rustic summerhouse, were ‘rediscovered’ as part of the Channel 4 series Lost Gardens in 1999, when the then owners, Frances and Jim Philbrook, were restoring the gardens. The current owners keep the beautiful gardens and grounds in the best of order.
Eller How is a private residence but you can see the tower from Sweden Bridge Lane: it’s a bracing uphill walk from Ambleside, but you can then turn and appreciate the magnificent panorama of town and lake that Boyle and his guests would have enjoyed from the top of the tower.
Some of the information here is taken from Clara Boyle’s book about her husband’s life, A Servant of Empire: A Memoir of Harry Boyle, published in 1938. Clara deserves her own biography: she was a Jew from close to the Polish-German border who worked to bring refugees out of Germany in the 1930s. In Britain she was active in numerous local charities, and worked to ensure folk dance traditions did not die out. As well as writing a book about her husband’s life, she also wrote German Days […] by a Polish Girl, an account of the customs and traditions of her childhood, published in 1919, and she frequently corresponded with the Editor of the Manchester Guardian.
Finally, a brief detour back to Anne Jemima Clough (also commemorated on the tower) who lived at Eller How before the Boyles. This wonderful ceramic plaque marks her birthplace in Liverpool – a serendipitous find when flâneusing in that city.
Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), whose inscribed brick is dated in the 1890s (it is today partially obscured by ivy) was a pioneer in the field of home education whose methods are still practised today. Visit this exhibition at the lovely Armitt museum in Ambleside to learn more about her. It is on show until December 2023 https://www.armitt.com/learning-through-the-natural-world/
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