Henry Eliot visits the coastline which inspired Wilkie Collins and Dickens
To the sound of shrieking gulls, we picked our way around the burned-out, boarded-up shell of an 18th-century mansion, looking for a cottage in the former gardens. Below the exposed grassy ridge we could see the small town of Maryport and the dark waters of the Solway Firth, which stretches from the coast of Cumbria to the distant mountains of Galloway.
A century and a half earlier, the novelist Wilkie Collins visited the same coastline with his friend Charles Dickens. They stayed at the Ship Hotel in Allonby, where Collins spent the time resting a twisted ankle and Dickens strode around the countryside, reporting back on his various adventures.
The year was 1857 and in those days Ewanrigg Hall was much grander. It was a four-storey white-stone edifice, owned for generations by the Christian family of the Isle of Man. But it was falling into disrepair: Henry Christian, the last member of the family to live there, had retreated with his wife to a small set of rooms, abandoning most of the building, and the locals told stories about ghosts. Eighteen months later, in April 1859, Henry died and his wife went mad. She spent the rest of her life at Dunston Lodge Lunatic Asylum in Gateshead and for years the building was left unoccupied, ‘a deserted and decaying mansion’ where ‘no tenant could be found with enough temerity to take it’.
We don’t know for certain whether Collins or Dickens visited Ewanrigg Hall, or what tales they heard about the strange place. We do know that they were fascinated by ghost stories — they include two in the account of their trip, The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices — and we also know that when Collins began serialising his haunting masterpiece The Woman in White in November 1859, he set much of the action on the Cumbrian coast, at Limmeridge House, which is a dead ringer for Ewanrigg Hall.
In October 2019 I visited Cumbria with the actress Olivia Vinall, star of the 2018 BBC adaptation of The Woman in White. We were recording the first episode of a new podcast, On the Road with Penguin Classics, which explores literary landscapes and the books they have inspired. We were discussing Collins and his novel: we had stayed at the Ship Hotel and huddled among the wind-blown graves in the local churchyard; now we were visiting Ewanrigg Hall.
A series of fires, one as recent as 2015, have reduced the structure to a two-storey shell, but it is still possible to compare images of the former house and identify which walls are standing. After soaking up the eerie atmosphere and the dramatic views, we made our way around the back of the building to where a cottage has been built in the gardens, out of the rubble of the demolished hall.
This is the home of Doris Riley, whose great-grandparents once worked at Ewanrigg. Doris is the author of The Rise and Fall of Ewanrigg Hall, which charts the building’s tumultuous history. She invited us into her living room and, with the shadow of the flame-scarred mansion outside the window, she told us the story of why it is said to be haunted and a clue to the tragic identity of the original ‘woman in white’ . . .
Henry Eliot is the presenter of On the Road with Penguin Classics, a new literary podcast available now through Apple, Spotify, Google and Amazon.
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