You’ll find Muncaster Castle where the hills run down to the coast, close to where the River Esk begins its final few slow meanders before emptying into the Irish Sea. It’s a beautiful building in a beautiful location surrounded by beautiful grounds. The nineteenth-century art critic and social theorist John Ruskin described the view of Eskdale from Muncaster’s terrace as “the gateway to Paradise”.
A lot of the imposing, pink granite house that exists today is the product of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although it was built around a fourteenth-century tower on the site of an earlier castle. The Penningtons have lived here since 1208 – if not earlier – and continue to do so, although they have opened a section of their home to the public. Visitors are greeted by dark wood panelling, impressive classical furniture and paintings by artists such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. One of the finest rooms is the octagonal library with its brass-railed gallery, home to several thousand books on two levels.
No house of this vintage is without its ghosts and legends… Muncaster’s most famous spirit is Tom Skelton, who was the jester here in the sixteenth century and whose escapades are said to be the source of the expression ‘tomfoolery’ to describe clownish behaviour. Among his more murderous japes during his lifetime was to ‘assist’ lost travellers by pointing them in the direction of the deadly quicksands in the estuary rather than the ford. Nowadays, he is said to be responsible for some of the more benign inexplicable mishaps that occur around the castle. The Pennington family recently reinstated the tradition of appointing a fool at Muncaster Castle. The lucky candidate, chosen during the annual Festival of Fools, receives a fool’s ‘wage’ consisting of a jester’s suit, some beer and a wooden trophy hat.
Muncaster’s 77 acres of gardens and woodland is criss-crossed by a network of signposted paths. Spring is probably the best time to visit, when the exotic rhododendrons and azaleas are in full bloom and the woodland floor is carpeted with bluebells. The grounds are also home to magnolias, camellias and colourful maples.
Entry to the Hawk and Owl Centre is included in the gardens ticket price. These powerful birds take part in flying displays twice daily during the main season and at weekends during the winter. Staff also feed the wild herons late in the afternoon, a spectacle that’s worth waiting around for.
Children will undoubtedly enjoy the adventure playground, the Enchanted Trail through Muncaster’s woodland and the Meadowvole Maze. And when you’ve walked as far as you can walk and seen everything that’s to be seen, the site has two cafés where you can sit back, refuel and relax.
The main Muncaster Castle car park is located on the north side of the A595, less than one mile east of Ravenglass.