Mysterious Merzbarn

This weekend it was the Heritage Open Days event, when all sorts of places that aren’t normally open to the public fling wide their doors and invite all and sundry in.  Last year we missed it.  This year we were determined to get to some of the fascinating, unusual or just plain weird venues on the list, and on Sunday afternoon we drove into the central Lake District and succeeded.

First on the list was German-born artist Kurt Schwitters’ studio barn on the outskirts of Elterwater in Langdale.  Schwitters fled the Nazis just before World War II and after a brief sojourn in an internment camp on the Isle of Man, set up home in the Lake District.  He chose the Cylinders estate in Langdale as his new base to try to reproduce a ‘Merzbau’ artwork in Norway threatened by the fighting, and the Merz Barn was the result.

This is a strange combination of studio and artwork, where the studio itself became the artwork in the shape of a large relief sculpture built against and incorporated into one wall.  Sadly the artwork is no longer in situ, having been removed to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle for ‘safekeeping’, where it remains to this day.  Recently, however, the  Littoral Arts Trust have begun the painstaking task of clearing the Merz Barn out from under half a century of undergrowth and renovating it and the rest of this fascinating site.  It’s still very much a work in progress, but the barn itself has been stabilised and you can see a reproduction of the Merz artwork against the wall where it used to live.  There are also frequent information boards about the features on the site, both archaeological and artistic, and an art exhibition in the former shippen.  All in all it’s a tranquil, fascinating and slightly surreal experience and one that was well worth sharing.

After that, we headed for the equally bizarre High Close youth hostel, perched at the top of Red Bank, a somewhat alarming single-track road between Langdale and Grasmere.  The hostel started life as a seventeeth-century farmhouse, was extended in Georgian times and again in the 19th century with a vast Victorian ‘pile’ bolted on, only partly successfully, to one side.  This led to the creation of a rambling house full of long corridors, a rabbit-warren of rooms, and no proper front door.  The staff were busy clearing up after a particularly colourful morning-after-the-night-before, but it was still intriguing to follow the guide book around the nooks and crannies, before settling in the old lounge with a cuppa and some home made cake.

Surprisingly, there were only a handful of other visitors at the Merz Barn, and one other family at the youth hostel.  Perhaps the Heritage Open Days aren’t being well enough advertised, which is a shame because it’s a chance to see some amazing ‘forgotten corners’ around the country.

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