For centuries the Lake District has attracted wealthy visitors who want to purchase a piece of the landscape for themselves. Joseph Pocklington came from Newark with his share of a banking fortune burning a hole in his pocket. At a time when incomers marked their arrival with grand designs and foolish follies Pocklington distinguished himself with the scale of his ambition and the paucity of his appreciation of what nature had already provided.
A lot of young men who inherit a lot of money find ways of spending it fast. Joseph was no exception. He established his place in the world with a coat of arms, then bought a post-chaise - his era's equivalent of a fast car, built a coach house for a garage and then his own mansion house in Nottinghamshire. Then he turned his sights further afield.
Travelling home from a trip to Scotland he made a detour into Cumberland and was stunned by the county's natural beauty. Returning in 1778 he splashed out £300 to buy Vicar's island on Derwentwater. He relished the fact that it was in full view of the Keswick shore and set about making 'improvements'. As a squire in the Midlands he had to show some signs of conforming to society's expectations but when he came North he could indulge his vulgar fantasies.
Excitedly Joseph started to make plans for his paradise island, carefully sketching out his dreams in a green, leather-bound sketch book.
At first the people of Keswick seemed excited about Joseph’s arrival. The Cumberland Chronicle reported that Joseph Pocklington had bought the island ‘to build and plan’ on its shores. The bells at Crosthwaite Church were rung to celebrate his arrival. With typical modesty Joseph Pocklington changed the name of his new kingdom to Pocklington’s Island. Soon he insisted on being called ‘Joseph Pocklington of Pocklington’s Island.’
Joseph’s green sketchbook was starting to fill up with ideas for the improvements he would soon start to make. In his mind, a man with true imagination could always improve on nature's plan. He busied himself directing work to erect naval forts, grottos, a boathouse shaped like a chapel, batteries with canons and a conspicuous white house. When excavations revealed a huge boulder like an obelisk Joseph was inspired to create a druidic temple. His own sketchbook remarks that it was ‘the compleatest and greatest Curiosity of its Kind in Europe,’ discovered, of course, by that great Antiquarian Joseph Pocklington.
Wordsworth and Coleridge looked on Joseph's endeavours as 'puerilities' but the growing stream of tourists making their way to the district seemed to like them. Romantic poetry and paintings of mountain scenes contributed to the Lake District's intriguing appeal. The vogue for the 'Picturesque' drew visitors intent on drawing the landscape.
Although this must have seemed strange to the people of Keswick, they quickly realised that these tourists needed somewhere to sleep, eat and drink; things to do; and things to see. This birthed the town we know today as local people opened hotels and improved their inns, established museums and hired out boats. Anyone with a smattering of local knowledge could act as a guide for the eager arrivals, all the better if they re-learnt (and embellished) some tales to entertain them.
One of the oddest visitor experiences involved taking a boat out on Derwentwater to fire cannon and blow French horns in order to generate echoing responses as the sounds bounced back from the mountainous slopes that surrounded the lake.
Once Joseph's island fort and temple were built, people would stroll down to the lakeshore to study them across the water. Joseph enjoyed the attention that his improvements were attracting but had a vision for bigger and better entertainment. With local museum owner Peter Crosthwaite, he organised the Keswick regattas, the first of which was held in 1781. Pocklington’s island buildings played a central part in the regatta’s main event, the mock battle. Crosthwaite would lead a fleet of boats in an attack against Fort Joseph, the fort repelling its attackers with mock cannon fire.
Peter and Joseph enlisted many people in the make-believe battles, dressing them in costume to crew the decorated boats. Peter’s experience of being an Admiral at sea was useful for keeping a fleet of ships in order. Coloured flags transmitted orders from his flagship as he orchestrated complicated naval manoeuvres as if fighting a real battle.
Year after year Joseph and Peter's ambition grew and the spectacle expanded accordingly. Earls and Dukes, Lords and Ladies from all over the country attended. The cannon and musket fire on the Lake was matched by fireworks in the evening when Joseph wined and dined the visiting dignatories in Keswick at a fancy ball.
Even this entertainment couldn't satisfy Joseph. Just off the rough road to Borrowdale he bought a piece a land containing the Bowder Stone – claimed to be the largest single piece of rock in the Lake District. Weighing in at around one thousand, two hundred and fifty tons it was even more remarkable for being balanced upon its sharpest corner like a boat resting on its keel.
Joseph recorded the stone's measurements in his green sketchbook before he started to make ‘improvements’ to it. These included a 'crazy ladder' raised against one side of the rock to enable the more adventurous to climb to the top. Nearby he had a little hovel built in which he set up an old woman to show off the rock's charms to travellers. He also cleared a space underneath the stone for them to shake hands with the old woman.
Some 18 years after buying his island Joseph sold it on for more than six times the price he had paid. General William Peachy of Shoddesdon and South Park, Hampshire became the new owner and before too long it had been renamed again, this time with its current title Derwent Isle. On certain days of the year you can visit the island and Pocky's house which are now the property of the National Trust.
Joseph, perhaps not keen on making regular boat trips to the island in inclement weather, had by then built another house with views down the lake. Barrow Cascade House, now an independent hostel, is set back from the eastern shore, just a mile or two away, and remained in the family for years after his death in 1817.