It’s not surprising that the recent popularity of the forest school* has its educational roots in the Lake District. And now, 100 years after her death, the work of a pioneering teacher and educationist who believed passionately in the importance of the outdoors in learning is being celebrated in Ambleside, the heart of the Lakes.
Learning Through the Natural World, at the town’s Armitt Library and Museum, is an exhibition on the life and legacy of Charlotte Mason. It is just a stone’s throw from the building where Mason established her school – now a university campus.
Charlotte Mason, who died in 1923, was an iconic figure who set up the Lakes’ House of Education and today has an 11-million-strong global teaching movement in her name. She was part of a group of powerful and influential women whose legacy shaped the cultural life of the Lake District, but whose contributions and achievements to date have been often overlooked by Romantic Poets.
The Ambleside women
It’s a happy juxtaposition of circumstances and memories. The Armitt, established in 1912, was set up by another of the Ambleside women, Mary Louisa Armitt and her sisters, Sophia and Annie Maria, who were friends and colleagues of Mason. Among its notable permanent collections is the art of one Beatrix Potter, an eminent mycologist as well as the author of Peter Rabbit.
“Charlotte Mason was an educator of enduring significance, and our exhibition recognises the life and legacy of her increasingly globally renowned reputation. Scholars and educators are looking at how current research informs today’s practice of Mason’s approach to education. We want to share her life’s work and demonstrate how her philosophies are as relevant now as they ever were.”Faye Morrissey (manager and curator of The Armitt)
Teachers and parents
Starting her work initially in Bradford, Charlotte moved to Ambleside in 1892. She formed the Parents’ National Education Union, a training method for home education for teachers and parents, and opened her House of Education which had at its heart the importance of the outdoors in learning, and how children benefit from this. Not just in art or geography, but through all subjects: science, literature, history and so on. Originally based in a house on Rydal Road at the north end of the town, Mason moved her college – and her home – across the road to Scale How, a striking building which today lies at the heart of the Ambleside campus of the University of Cumbria.
“Countless children have benefitted from her philosophies and curriculum, notably including nature and lessons outdoors”Faye Morrissey
Ambleside in the 1800s and early 1900s was the centre of a remarkable intellectual, cultural movement in which many of the key players were independent women such as Mason and the Armitt sisters. They also included Harriet Martineau, a journalist and writer, the first female sociologist and populariser of political economy, though her career spanned many other aspects of Victorian literary culture. And there was Anne Clough, a suffragist (akin to a suffragette but earlier and non-violent) and, like Martineau, a promoter of higher education for women, becoming the first principal of Newnham College, Cambridge University.
“They were collectively a powerhouse of polymaths”Faye Morrissey
The Charlotte Mason College of Education thrived during the 20th Century as a popular location for teacher training. After briefly being part of St Martin’s College and the University of Lancaster, the site was absorbed into the University of Cumbria where it offers degrees today in outdoor education and environmental studies, geography, and conservation. There’s also a Master’s degree in Literature, Romanticism and the English Lake District, which works closely with The Armitt, the Wordsworth Trust at Grasmere, and William Wordsworth’s home at Rydal Mount. It’s all rather beautifully organic.
The Armitt is a hidden gem in Ambleside with a library for scholars as well as collections fascinating to a wide range of visitors. The books, records, photographs, artwork and other materials are displayed and interpreted to reflect the social history of the neighbourhood in the wider context of the development of the Lake District as a centre of culture and tourism.
The original Armitt library was founded in 1912 as a subscription reference library, and some ten years later, a significant collection of early works about the Lake District was bequeathed.
Then in 1943, following the death of Beatrix Potter, the acquisition of her scientific watercolours of fungi and other materials enhanced its reputation. These featured in a historic re-enactment at London’s Linnean Society in 2012 when Beatrix’s ground-breaking paper on the germination of fungal spores was finally presented – by a woman. Her own work had first been presented by a man; female scientists were barred back then.
Recreating Beatrix Potter
This time young female mycologist, Ali Murfitt, presented a synopsis of the scientific paper that Potter wrote in 1897, and which was presented to the Linnean Society on her behalf. The paper, On the germination of the spores of Agaricineae, was returned to Potter, with some feedback from the Linnean Society; it was well received but it was considered to need more work, and it subsequently disappeared. However, its essence was collated by Professor Roy Watling of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, and read as part of The Armitt centenary celebrations.
Beatrix Potter eventually abandoned a scientific career when it became apparent that she would be able to earn a living from writing and illustrating The Tale of Peter Rabbit and subsequent books for children.
“Beatrix Potter was one of the most iconic and influential figures of the Lake District and an early member of The Armitt. She was a major benefactor, and on her death in 1943 she bequeathed to the organisation her exquisite botanical drawings and watercolours, together with her personal first edition copies of her ‘little’ books.”Faye Morrissey.
The museum’s founder, Mary Louisa, along with sisters Sophia and Annie Maria Armitt, were seriously gifted individuals originally from Salford. Each had her own area of expertise and talent: botany, music, English literature. Fortunately, Mary Louisa ignored the advice of John Ruskin to keep to “women’s activities”, of which museums were not considered a part.
In recent years, a major collection has been built up at The Armitt of the works of Kurt Schwitters, the avant-garde émigré artist who spent the last four years of his life living in Ambleside. In addition, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District (FRCC) has placed its library of mountaineering literature in The Armitt and is available for public reference. They have also added to The Armitt’s very large photographic collection.
Now, with the exhibition dedicated to Charlotte Mason due to run until the end of the year, Faye Morrissey says: “It’s wonderful that the legacies of these women are being drawn together. Charlotte Mason was a truly remarkable woman. She had a huge influence on education in the UK and is also an iconic figure in the States, Australasia, Canada, Japan and India, where millions of pupils are home-schooled. It’s so good to see all this brought together close to her home.”
*Forest School is a long-term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rather than a one-off visit.
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