Claife Viewing Station
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: The last Lake District viewing station
On the quiet western shore of Lake Windermere stands a unique historic building; a late 18th-century viewing station near Hawkshead, built to allow early tourists to the Lake District to enjoy scenic views across the lake. Claife Viewing Station is a castellated building on an outcrop of rock near the Windermere ferry, built in the 1790s as a local clergyman's summer house.
In a roundabout way Claife Viewing Station owes its existence to Napoleon. Until the late 18th century the Lake District was regarded by most Britons as an isolated wilderness. The very idea that someone would intentionally visit the region to enjoy the scenery would have been a foreign concept to Georgians.
The general attitude towards the Lake District is best summed up in this passage from the journal of Celia Fiennes in 1698, 'I was walled in on both sides by those inaccessible high rocky barren hills which hang over ones head and appear very terrible'.
That attitude began to change in the closing decades of the 18th century due to the influence of the Picturesque movement, which encouraged people to experience natural landscapes the way they would enjoy a painting, appreciating the beauty of the natural world.
The Picturesque philosophy laid down strict guidelines for what made a beautiful scene, incorporating ideals of composition, perspective, texture, and viewpoints.
At the same time as the Picturesque movement began to gather steam, England entered into a protracted war with France, culminating in the Napoleonic Wars. During this long period of conflict, Europe was inaccessible to English travellers so they turned their attention inwards, exploring the British Isles and creating what was, in effect, the Napoleonic equivalent of a 'staycation'.
One of the most popular areas for travellers was the Lake District, where people could experience the rugged grandeur of the landscape as a broad canvas, a piece of art on a huge scale.
Visitors flocked to the Lakes in search of idyllic landscapes. They sketched, painted, wrote poems and eulogised the natural beauty of the Lakes. Romantic poets like William Wordsworth, a native of Cockermouth, helped popularise the region further.
One of the most fascinating outcomes of this new popularity of the Lake District was the invention of 'viewing stations', carefully placed vantage points where visitors could experience the most striking vistas. Claife Viewing Station was one of these viewing stations, a purpose-built Gothic tower arranged to give wonderful views over Lake Windermere.
A View to Swoon Over?
The spectacular views from Claife Viewing Station were considered so beautiful that visitors might faint from shock. To counter this possibility the Station had Claude glasses available. These were essentially portable mirrors, with a surface designed to soften the view. Visitors would turn their backs to the window and hold up a Claude glass so they would see only the reflection.
The Viewing Station is a two-storey building looking rather like a medieval tower, linked to a short section of a castellated wall pierced by an archway. The tower has several small chambers at ground level with angled window openings to create views in different directions.
A staircase rises to the first floor where there are very large windows on three sides, giving views up and down the lake and across towards Windermere village.
The first-floor windows are framed with large sections of stained glass. This is a reminder of the original viewing station design, where windows were fitted with tinted glass so that viewers could experience seasonal variations in the landscape. For example, yellow glass recreated the scene in summer, orange brought alive autumn colours, light green recreated early spring, and light blue made it look like the landscape was seen by moonlight.
The heyday of Claife Viewing Station was the early Victorian period. The Station was used to hold dances and host parties during the 1830s and 40s.
But fashions change and the popularity of viewing stations waned. Other stations around the Lake District were torn down and lost forever. Claife was left to decay, but somehow survived the passage of time. The National Trust undertook a two-year restoration and brought the Viewing Station back to life.
Claife Viewing Station is not well signposted but it is very easy to reach. It is within easy walking distance of the Windermere ferry dock so it can be part of a car-free day out on the west shore of the lake. You can extend your walk to include Wray Castle, 4 miles up the shore.
If you come by car the best place to park is the National Trust's Ash Landing car park. Approaching from Far Sawrey, simply follow the signs for the ferry, but go past the ferry entrance and you will come to the car park on your left. From there it is a short (1/4 mile) but fairly steep climb to the viewing station. There is a cafe at The Stables, below the viewing station, but there are no toilets or other visitor facilities.
About Claife Viewing Station
Address: Windermere Ferry, Hawkshead, Cumbria, England
Attraction Type: Historic Building
Location: Just north of the Windermere ferry landing on the west shore of Lake Windermere. The nearest postcode is LA22 0LP.
Website: Claife Viewing Station
National Trust - see also: National Trust memberships (official website link)
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
Blackwell, the Arts and Crafts House - 1 miles (Historic Building)
Hill Top - 1.1 miles (Historic Building)
Hawkshead Grammar School - 2.7 miles (Historic Building)
Beatrix Potter Gallery - 2.8 miles (Museum)
Graythwaite Hall Garden - 2.8 miles (Garden)
Hawkshead Old Courthouse - 3.2 miles (Historic Building)
Brockhole Gardens - 3.2 miles (Garden)
Grizedale Forest Park - 3.4 miles (Countryside)
Nearest Accommodation to Claife Viewing Station: