Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Buy Walpole’s Brackenburn – but read his books too

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Odd coincidence. I was just writing a chapter on Hugh Walpole, the Lakeland novelist, for the forthcoming third volume of Keswick Characters, edited by Patricia Howell and Brian Wilkinson, and I clicked on Google to find an image of Walpole’s house, Brackenburn, above Derwentwater. What came up was an estate agent’s picture: the house has just gone on the market.

Brackenburn, Hugh Walpole’s house, 1923-41: looking over the garden towards Derwentwater and Skiddaw

Built in 1909 of local stone and perched on the fellside near the south end of the lake, Brackenburn is a beautiful place, even if its design (like Walpole himself) has a slight touch of suburbia about it. Walpole moved there in 1923, and wrote his famous family saga, the Herries Chronicle, there – in between frquent trips to London to enjoy theatre and parties.

He enlarged the house and developed its fabulous gardens, which have been well cared for by the present owners, who I gather have had the house for 22 years.

Walpole’s reputation has flagged since his death in 1941, but his Herries novels are still worth reading. They have big faults, certainly: there is virtually no plot: the passage of generations of farmers, merchants and landowners with their accompanying feuds, obsessions and antagonisms generate a semblance of motivation, and that suffices. Historical accuracy is flouted: Walpole lacked the patience for research, consoling himself during the writing of Rogue Herries that ‘no one knows very much about the eighteenth century really, or only a few do. I can be venturous.’ But Walpole is a dab hand at fantasy, the horrific, the bizarre. In this realm his imagination is of splendid fertility, and he has a masterful gift for the visually grotesque.

One of his finest opassages is the horribly convincing crowd-scene in Rogue Herries, where Mrs Wilson, a mentally-confused and infirm old woman servant from Herries’s household, tries to visit a dying friend in a nearby village and is taken for a witch.

‘Men and women, close together as though for protection, were gathered together at the end of the cobbled path. They stood, huddled together, not speaking, staring at her. Although she could not see well and was so deeply frightened that it was though her heart were beating in her eyes, yet certain faces were very distinct to her.’

She is stripped, stoned and thrown into a river, where she dies. The episode is seen from the victim’s point of view and is cinematic in its constant restless movement and shaky, off-balance shifts of vision. Walpole was a natural screen-writer, enjoying a successful stint in Hollywood scripting David Copperfield and Little Lord Fauntleroy for David O. Selznick.

He demonstrates it repeatedly in the Herries novels, in both crowded set-pieces (feasts, fights, markets, travelling-theatre shows) and episodes of fast-moving, claustrophobic horror like the burning of Fell House in Vanessa, where Adam Paris, confused by smoke, searches on the wrong floor for his daughter’s room until the fire traps him.

Perhaps the finest scene in the Herries tetralogy is also the grimmest. It occurs in the third novel, The Fortress, where John and Uhland Herries, cousins who have cherished a lifelong loathing, make their separate ways through dense mist to meet at Skiddaw House, a desolate shepherd’s bothy on the north slope of the mountain. Uhland is lame, John crippled by an obsession with his own cowardice, which he overcomes to confront Uhland. Uhland shoots John, then turns the gun on himself. Walpole heightens the scene to a painful vividness by the use of banal detail – the dusty wax fruit on the windowsill of the neglected room, the child’s drawing on the back of the crumpled scrap of paper which is all Uhland can find for his suicide note. The result is a scene worthy of Conrad or Hardy.

Walpole still deserves to be read. And if you have £1,750,000 to spare you might like to buy his wonderful house and garden too. It really is quite a special place.

9 comments to “Buy Walpole’s Brackenburn – but read his books too”

  • Dee MacLean



    I was looking through google to try to find views of Brackenburn that I could paint for my Mum’s birthday next month, and found your article. My Mum stayed at Brackenburn briefly at the end of Hugh Walpole’s life.

    She was a refugee from Wallsend and her Aunt and Uncle were housekeeper / handyman for HW. Mum used to walk HW’s dog Ranter up Catbells and along the shore of Derwentwater. She had to return home when HW died in 1941.

    My Mum has a number of dedicated books given to her by HW, a silver teapot which his sister bequeated to Mum’s aunt,and one or two other items reminding her of her time there. She also recognised some of the characters from the Herries Chronicles, which I have read, in some of the locals who lived in and around the Grange / Borrowdale area.

    Anyway, just thought you might be interested!

    Best wishes

    Dee MacLean

  • Grevel


    This is fascinating: thank you so much for these interesting recollections, Dee. How nice to have a link with Walpole! I hope you’ll be coming to the dramatisation of Rogue Herries at the Lakeside Theatre in Keswick next spring!

  • Tim Cheevers


    I am just reading Hugh Walpole’s biography by Rupert Hart-Davis.
    I confess that I have never read any of his novels, but was interested to discover that he wrote an official account of the first Russian Revolution, for the government, from first hand experience.
    On my father’s death in 2002 I discovered several letters from HW and other items.

    My grandfather Harold, was his chauffeur, and from things I have read is rumoured to have been more, which, from my memory of my grandfather, I find hard to believe.

  • John Lawrence


    Walpole is virtually unread today, and those who are reading him
    don’t seem fully to grasp what it is they are reading. To Dee McLean I say hold on to any copies you have signed by this great writer – and if they are first editions too then keep them pristine as possible: one day they will be lIke having a signed Dickens, Hardy, or Austen.

  • Denise


    My mother introduced me to Hugh Walpole’s Herries chronicles when I was a teenager. I have loved them ever since and still read them from time to time. Faults or not, it does not matter to me, because his writing is so beautiful, that in itself is a treat. I think it is a great shame that this wonderful author is not widely read any more.

  • Grevel


    I quite agree! I do my best to recommend his work whenever I can. He may be out of fashion but he’s an author who gives great pleasure and I don’t think he will be forgotten.

  • Peter


    I just came across this webpage and wondering if anyone knew anything about William Zimmerman who owned my house (High Ground, Manesty) which is just above Brackenburn (it’s not the big house than stands out, that’s Fellside). He had the house built in 1910 and died in 1955. I’ve really struggled to find out much about him as my house was built as his holiday home, he lived in Loughton in Essex but a very keen mountaineer and loved the place.
    I’m sure he must have known Hugh Walpole.

  • Grevel


    Very interesting! Yes, he would certainly have known Walpole. I hadn’t heard of Zimmerman, I admit. Possibly the staff at Keswick Museum might know something of him? Or a local historian? A pity Alan Hankinson’s no longer alive; he would certainly have known Zimmerman if he was a mountaineer. Your best chance might be simply to chat with elderly local residents. Someone must remember him! Please let me know how you get on.

  • peter


    Hi, thanks for getting back to me regarding Hugh Walpole and William Zimmerman. I’ve contacted local people, unfortunately those who would have known him seem to have passed away now. I might try Keswick Museum again but last time I asked try didn’t have anything on him. I did find house drawings in Cumbria Archives and a bit about his sister Minnie who was a suffragette. Meanwhile I’ll keep looking! Many thanks, Peter

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