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The history of Tarn Hows

View of a tarn at Holme Fell at Tarn Hows and Coniston, Cumbria
View of a tarn at Holme Fell at Tarn Hows and Coniston, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/Pete Tasker

Tarn Hows was originally three natural tarns (or lakes) but when the owner of the Monk Coniston estate, James Garth Marshall, bought it in the 1860s he started on a project to create a new body of water to feed his sawmill in Coniston surrounded by a bold, ornamental planting scheme.

Marshall’s original plan

Marshall’s vision for his designed landscape at Tarn Hows involved clumps of trees planted in a carefully considered way, highlighting rocky knolls and the dramatic Lakes landscape beyond. To protect his new planting of broadleaf trees such as sycamore, beach, alder, cherry and willow, he also planted ‘nurse’ crops of conifers including larch and spruce.

These caretaking ‘nurse’ conifers were intended to protect the young saplings from the harsh winter weather and would be removed once the young broadleaf trees were established.

Disruptions to the plan

However, Marshall died before his vision was realised and the nurse crops were never removed. The larch and spruce trees then grew to dominate the Tarn Hows panorama as we know it today.

Reflections in the lake Tarn hows, Cumbria
Reflections in the lake Tarn hows, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/Melvin Jefferson

Enter the National Trust

In 1930, thanks to fundraising and significant donations, the National Trust purchased and took management of a large part of the Monk Coniston estate from the Marshall family, as did Beatrix Potter and her husband William Heelis. Latterly Potter sold more of it to the National Trust and bequeathed the remainder in her will.

The Trust has been working to restore elements of the original designed landscape whilst protecting rare habitats and enhancing the mire systems, which in turn nurtures the species in the area.

Driven by benefits to nature and respecting its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (since 1965), the work will also give visitors a chance to enjoy as wide a range of natural experiences as possible.

The next chapter

The National Trust is continuing to monitor and plan what Tarn Hows will look like in the future – a plan which will preserve, but also enhance, the Tarn’s already high status as a habitat and the significant balance of both created and natural values that have existed at Tarn Hows for over 150 years.

Early morning view across a lake surrounded by trees, with pink-tinged mountain peaks in the distance

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