Fell Foot's former glory
Fell Foot was once the dramatic setting for a prestigious Lake District villa and has been significant as a recreational estate for over two centuries. A succession of wealthy owners from northern towns developed the site to pursue their interests in sailing and hunting in picturesque surroundings, and while the elegant Georgian villa has since been demolished, much of the basic form of the landscape survives, and an attractive collection of Victorian Gothic boathouses remains as the focus of a highly popular lakeside resort for today’s visitors.
Fell Foot in ancient times was the one fording point at the south end of Windermere for the track from Kendal to the Furness Abbey lands, and by the early 18th century the site had become a prosperous farm. Around 1784 it was sold by the Robinsons, a family of yeoman farmers, to Jeremiah Dixon, a Leeds merchant, and his wife Mary, daughter of the Leeds engineer John Smeaton, of Eddystone lighthouse fame. The Dixons enlarged the farmhouse into a substantial villa overlooking the lake, and laid out a pleasure ground, moving the public road in about 1810 from the lakeside to the landward side of the house. In so doing, they were creating one of the earliest classic villa landscapes of the Lake District.
The now highly desirable residence for a gentleman’s family was sold by the Dixons in 1813 to Francis Dukinfield Astley Esq (1781-1825) of Dukinfield Lodge, near Manchester. Known as Squire Astley, he had profited greatly from industrial coal mining at Dukinfield, and brought to Fell Foot not only a fortune but a significant interest in forestry – publishing The Planter’s Guide in 1814. He was also famous as a huntsman with his own pack of harriers, and even had literary pretensions as a romantic poet.
The Ridehalgh Era
The new owner in 1859 was Colonel George John Miller Ridehalgh (1835-92), lord of the manor of Urmston, near Manchester. Like Astley he was a keen sportsman who kept a pack of foxhounds – the Windermere Harriers – and he had a passion for sailing, which he indulged on a grand scale.
The estate reached the peak of its development under Ridehalgh, who planted an arboretum of specimen deciduous trees and exotic conifers, as well as laying out shrubberies of species rhododendrons within the open lawns of the paddocks, to optimise views both from the house and from the lake. He also extended the walled kitchen garden behind the house and completed stables and kennels over the road, in addition to reworking the interior of the house (see the photo below – possibly a trophy room?), and lighting the entire estate with coal gas generated on site.
Oswald Hedley era and donation to the National Trust
The end of the Ridehalgh era came in 1907, when the Colonel’s cousin George died and the estate was sold to Oswald Hedley (1884-1945). Hedley demolished the house and started to build a neo-Jacobean mansion – which had risen no higher than the cellars before his wife did in 1909 and he virtually abandoned Fell Foot for the rest of his life.
His widow – his third wife, Mrs E.L. Hedley – gave the 18 acres between the road and the lake to the National Trust in 1948, in her husband’s memory. The intensive recreational use of Fell Foot enjoyed by thousands of visitors today began at this point, initially with a 21-year lease to Mr P.L. Rhodes to run the site for camping and caravans, and from 1969 under Trust management as a Country Park. It was the first in the Lake District to be so designated under the Countryside Act of 1968, which provided government grant-aid to set up the necessary facilities for outdoor recreation.
The Country Park which opened in 1972 with 19 holiday chalets in the woodland, facilities for touring caravans in the former walled garden, and a car park on the site of the house, has since been largely dismantled, certainly in respect of overnight stays. We know that a photo exists of the ’70s chalets, but we are yet to find it!
Fell Foot will always have considerable importance as a public amenity on Windermere, being one of the very few lakeside venues accessible to the public south of Bowness, and there remains the potential to restore the historic landscape to the splendour of its Victorian heyday.