Claife Viewing Station

View of snow covered hills, looking north from Claife Viewing Station, Cumbria

It’s hard to imagine today but people haven’t always flocked to the Lake Districts for holidays. Until the start of the Picturesque Movement in the 1700s, the Lake District was thought to be an unattractive wilderness — certainly not a place for tourists.

A new guide to the Lakes

Thomas West published a guide book to the Lakes in 1778 - this was the beginning of a new wave of tourism in Europe.

People were struggling to complete the ‘Grand Tour’ around the continent due to the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars, so following West’s guidebooks the Lakes became the fashionable destination for wealthy tourists.

They set out armed with their guidebook and sketch pad, to ‘view’ the landscape in a pre-determined way. The Viewing Stations were a key part of this experience.

Set in dramatic spots, the many trees and shrubs restricted the view as people walked up the path from the Courtyard, creating a grand reveal of the landscape when they reached the top.

The Viewing Station

Built in the 1790s and later expanded, the building had windows tinted with coloured glass, designed to recreate the landscape under different seasonal conditions. Yellow created a summer landscape, orange an autumn one, light green for spring, dark blue for moonlight and so on.

We’re hoping to re-create this today so you can imagine what these views might have been like, but the modern equivalent is using a filter on your camera or smart phone. Imagine the Instagram opportunities.

In the 1830s and 40s it was used by wealthy visitors for parties and dances. This quote from Mary Maria Higginson, who attended a dinner dance at Claife Viewing Station in the nineteenth century, paints a vivid picture of what it was like to come here:

“The very nicest dance that I can call to mind was given by a friend at a place called The Station. It was built on account of the beautiful view it commanded, both up and down Windermere . . . the winding walks around the Station lighted up with Chinese lanterns and coloured lamps made charming promenades.”

A monument

By the end of the 19th century Claife Viewing Station had fallen out of favour and fell into disrepair. Today, the building remains a rare example of a purpose–built public viewing station and is one of the earliest monuments to Lake District tourism.

We aren’t planning any dinner dances at the moment but as you explore the courtyards, paths, woods and buildings of Claife Viewing Station, let your imagination take you back to those very first visitors to the Lake District, hundreds of years ago.