One of the main reasons I was so pleased to have the opportunity to go on the Lady Anne’s Needlework retreat was that I got to see some of the pieces in the textile collection at Muncaster Castle.
Muncaster Castle, guarding the west coast of the English Lake District, has been the family home of the Pennington family for the past 800 years. Alan de Mulcastre was officially granted the lands of Mune and Ravenglass by King John, through Richard de Lucy, Lord of Egremont, on December 1st 1208.
Subsequent marriages with the wealthy Ramsden family from Yorkshire in the 17th and 18th Centuries at a time when furnishing with textiles was a high priority, combined with continuous ownership since then, helped to ensure that this large textile collection was kept its original setting. Phyllida Gordon-Duff-Pennington, the mother of the current chatelain Iona Frost-Pennington, was herself an expert and had a passion for textiles.
In addition to English and European textiles, Muncaster has an important collection of exuberant Balkan Textiles, collected by Phyllida’s grandfather at the turn of the last century, along with the colourful Suzanis collected along the East Mediterranean trade Silk Route.
The group was granted access to the castle in the morning, before the castle is open to visitors. We had time to wander inside the castle where and for as long as we wanted to which gave us plenty of time to examine the textiles that are always out on display as part of the rooms. It was a privilege to be trusted to walk alone through the rooms filled with historical artefacts but that reflects the outlook of the Pennington family towards their guests – ‘The ornaments of a house are the friends that frequent it’ .
The rooms were set up especially for us with the furniture moved and tables covered with white clothes to protect the textiles we would see. Then the trunks were opened and one after another things were brought for us to see. Below is a photo of Jacqui Hyman carefully unrolling a piece and behind her you can see the huge trunk where some of the collection is stored.
If you look very, very closely you can see a miniature jam jar lid just to the left of Jacqui in the photo. This lid is taped onto the trunk to prevent the lid from closing completely. Why? Because the key has been lost forever and once it is locked it would have to be damaged to open it again.
Jacqui Hyman shared with us pieces from the Blakan textile collection including explaining what they would have been used for and how they were produced. We were all given magnifies so we could see the stitching in detail. I’m sure you can imagine the sounds of “ooh” and “aah” and “look at this!” that filled the room. It was such a wonderful experience to share our enthusiasm for textiles with a group of people who feel exactly the same way!
Phillipa Turnbull showed us stunning examples of crewelwork while explaining the history and techniques used by the embroiderers. The piece in the photo above captured our attention because the blue colors are still so vibrant.
The crewelwork bed hangings and covers were my favourite – of course! I could have stood all day soaking up their beauty! As lunchtime approached it was time for the textiles to be packed away so the guests who come the by thousands every year could be welcomed to the castle.
As we walked out the door to go to lunch in the onsite cafe, we passed a large tree. Patrick Gordon-Duff Pennington was walking with us and he paused to tell us the story of “Tom Fool’s Tree”.
Muncaster’s most famous ghost is that of Tom Fool (Tomas Skelton) he was the court Jester reputedly the last in England. Tom was by all accounts a dark character responsible for a number of deaths during his time at Muncaster. Tom would often be found under the chestnut tree, just outside the doors of the castle, and when travellers came by and asked the way to Ravenglass, if he didn’t like the look of them, he would direct them down to the quick sands instead of over the ford. And, yes, this is where the expression “Tom Foolery” comes from!
We carried on down the path, walking past beautiful hydrangea bushes which had flowers of different colors all on one bush. I asked Patrick how that happened – what was his secret? No secret: both the lime (which turns the flowers pink) and aluminium sulphate (which turns them blue) had both been washed down through the soil due to all the rain. Because the minerals weren’t evenly distributed in the soil the bush produced flowers of different colors.
Just think of all the different things I learned on my day at Muncaster Castle – it was undoubtedly the very best day of the tour! And a HUGE thank you to the Pennington family and to Phillipa for organising such a special visit for all of us!