In Memoriam: Rigg Beck House (1881-2008)

I lived here once, in the “Purple House.” From 1985 to 1988 I rented a room, with a view across the Newlands Valley to Cat Bells and Maiden Moor. Keswick was a 5 mile bus ride away on the Mountain Goat from Buttermere in summer, and over an hour’s walk in winter. Summer and winter when the bus service was canceled. This is me, 25 years younger and a lot fitter, standing outside Rigg Beck.

I learned only today that on June 30, 2008, Rigg Beck burned down. It was a shock so deep I can’t stop thinking about it. It feels like a bereavement, as if a part of my life has died. And it has.

I can’t talk about Rigg Beck without talking about Varya Vergauwen, who later changed her name to Varya Vee. She was our landlady. Since she bought the house (formerly a hotel) in 1956, and raised 10 children there, it’s been a rooming house. Varya energetically trawled for artistic types (she was a daughter of the Bloomsbury Group after all). Actors from the Century Theatre in Keswick were her bread and butter during the summer repertory season, including Bob Hoskins and Victoria Wood. Ted Hughes came in 1962, after Sylvia Plath‘s suicide, with Assia Wevill who was the woman he left her for. Varya made him write a poem in her guest book. I’ve read it – not his best but he must have been under stress, and it was impossible to refuse her.

In the meantime, Rigg Beck was becoming dilapidated, and Varya hated spending money. By the time I was lured from London in 1985, the house was on its last legs. When you opened the front door, the smell of cabbage and dry rot wafted out. We few, we happy few, were unemployed, underemployed, fully employed, but above all poor, and the last of the hippies. It was a good time to be high in the hills in that strange house, and I have never again felt so free from the cares of the world.

I moved out in 1988, and emigrated to Seattle the following year. I was bored. It’s as simple and incomprehensible as that. Since then, boredom has been conspicuous by its absence and peace of mind a whill o’ the whisp. America does that to its immigrants.

I returned in 1991 with Martha, my housemate in Seattle, for a holiday. Only Varya was there, Rigg Beck was filthy, and there were mouse droppings in our room. We couldn’t stay. Varya is now, I think, in a nursing home in Kendal. I find it almost impossible to imagine her separated from Rigg Beck.

If you are curious, here is a gallery of photos taken by Jane Wright inside the house after it became derelict. The Mountain View room was mine. Friends of Rigg Beck made a valiant effort to save it, but to no avail.

This is the house being built to replace Rigg Beck. No contest. No chutzpah. Please see an update to this post here.

23 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Rigg Beck House (1881-2008)

    • Nope, none of that is true, as the grandchild of Varya, I can confirm no person (That I know) has died in the house

  1. No, but one of her children, Leonie Vergauwen, was convicted of murdering her son, Daniel Vergauwen when he was 5. The family changed its name and information is very hard to find apart from newspaper articles.

    • I’m the grandson of the owner of original house. None of the children died in the house, and as far as I’m aware, no one has ever died in the house. Leonie was not convicted of that crime, nor did she commit it. That would be her boyfriend at the time that did such a horrid thing.

      • From my memory they were both convicted but the boyfriend went to prison and Leonie received a suspended sentence. It was shocking and poor Varya suffered terribly, from local people being dreadful to her about what had happened to Danny, even though he lived in the South with his mother and her boyfriend.

  2. I stayed in Rigg Beck in July 1964 for 2 superb weeks. I was there with my girl friend, (we were an anglo/french couple, she was 16 and me 20). We arrived at night and there was no proper electricity: just a smelly and noisy petrol generator working only a few hours at night, various candles, and petrol lamps. In the dark, the house looked like a haunted house. Entering the house, a strong smell of damp mahogany was the first thing to notice; then a stuffed fox under a glass box stared at us in the entrance on the right when we came in, and we had shivers in the spine, with the feeling of playing for real in an Hitchcok film!
    One could see it has been a proper hotel; everything was there, but dusty, damp, and shabby. I remember well the landlady, with her red hair; she was most strange, and we could not make out who she really was. She had there, a daughter about 25, and may be a son and a husband; there was a charming little girl about 6 or 7 then, with red hair; I have forgotten her name, she liked to talk and stay with us… In a small sitting room next to the hall entrance, there was an harmonium, on which my girl friend used to play Bach suites at slow speel making an appalling noise, most proper for “The vampires Ball”. That was great fun, and after a first difficult night, we enjoyed the place immensely, and we keep talking about it from time to time…and Rigg Beck memories has been a sort of cement for a relationship which has lasted for over 48 years, despite the fact we don’t live together…
    My bedroom was the one above the bowwindow, and I have a photo of me in bed there! I have a few other photos, but they are mostly black and white.
    We were very sad to hear about the fire, and it’s a pity the restoration has not been possible. We are planning to visit the place next june for the firts time since 1964….
    Good old Rigg Beck!
    Gilles, from France

    • Hi Gilles,

      Thanks for replying to the blog post. I always imagined that Rigg Beck would have been in better condition in the 1960s – apparently not. When I moved there in 1985, I had the same reaction, the smell of damp and dry rot when you opened the front door and that stuffed fox in the hallway. At least in my time there was electricity, although you had to feed a meter. Ruinously expensive. I know very little about Varya’s family – they had all left by 1985 – but it must have been an extraordinary experience growing up in Rigg Beck. There was a huge, stone-flagged kitchen downstairs with an Aga and a long wooden table with benches on each side for the 10 kids. If the sitting room with the harmonium was to the right of the front door, then it was occupied in my time by Simon, a musician. Wish I could have been there for the Bach suites! I was 14 in 1964, and loved the Addams Family.

      I’m curious to know if there was anyone else staying there, and what your impressions were of Varya. (And of Varya’s husband. Legend has it that he was a Dutch seaman). When I met her you couldn’t get a word in edge ways. I bet she made you and your girlfriend write in the visitor’s book. Would you be prepared to share the photos? I’ve been thinking of making a Rigg Beck page with photos, memories of visitors and whatever historical background I can dig up. You can email me at poetmcgonagall@gmail.com.

      Again, thanks for replying, you made my day!

      • Mr. Vergauwen was a potter at Ambleside pottery and was innovative in developing new glazes and techniques. There is a photograph of him to be found if you search Ambleside pottery. Does anyone have any info about what happened to Leonie?

  3. I stayed at Rigg Beck with my family in the 1980s. I was only a child at the time and remember very little apart from the house itself – I was very impressed to be staying in a Purple house! I have maintained an interest ever since and have watched in horror at the house’s deterioration. I made enquiries about buying the house about 8 years ago but couldn’t raise the funds at the time. I was taking photographs at the house the day before the fire which destroyed it. I have been trying to get information together for some kind of book, to preserve the house’s history and memory, and have had information from various people including Tom Courtenay and Victoria Wood. If anyone could send me any information/photos I would be very interested.
    Gavin.

  4. Am looking for information from anyone who may have stayed at Rigg Beck, who have memories of the internal decoration for the period of late1950s to late 1960s, any photos descriptions would be appreciated. Thanks

  5. Hello, my name’s Liam Merlyn, grandson of Varya Vergauwen. I just wanted to say thank you for making this blog and keeping the house alive.

    • Hello Liam,

      Thanks for replying. It’s good to hear from a grandson of Varya’s. I have very fond memories of Rigg Beck and a big part of them is your grandmother, talking incessantly, and offering a unique view on life. I’ve never met anyone else like her, and was sorry to read about her death. I hope your family still has the guestbooks Varya made everyone write/draw/paint in. There’s an original Ted Hughes poem in one, and a brilliant story about a piece if string going into a bar that I still remember.

      Would you like to write something for the blog on your memories of Varya and Rigg Beck? I’d be honoured. It would also be interesting to post some pictures of the house in its heyday, if you have any.

      Thanks again for replying.

      Regards,
      Paul

      • Yes, she truly was a unique person, and one of the most interesting people I’ll ever meet, although, sadly I was a little young to really understand her when she lived there (I think I was around 13 last time my father took me up there to see her.

        Until now I hadn’t known of these guest books but am interested to find out if they still exist, I fear that they may have been lost in the fire though.
        I’d be glad to write up some words about the house, that I remember and maybe see if I can ask my sisters to help out and I believe I have quite a few photos of the house although I think most of them are from the outside.

    • Hi, I wrote on this site 2 years ago asking for information/photos of Rigg Beck purple house. Since then I have started putting a book together about the history and cultural importance of Rigg Beck house. I am again asking anyone for information/recollections/photos that I might be able to use for the book. Even now after the house has gone, its memory is still very important to me and I want to preserve its memory in any way that I can. I enjoyed Liam’s entries and would be happy to hear from anyone with information that I could use. If you can help please let me know. Thanks.

  6. Hi,

    I too was devastated (if not entirely surprised) to find out out that the Purple house was no more. When I revisited the place in the late 1990′s it was getting very dilapidated.

    I lived there from August 1986 until January 1987, and If I am right, I remember you from that time. I seem to remember your ‘Chanting’ whilst meditating. Please don’t take this as any sort of affront or ‘Mickey taking’ but the whole house would vibrate – it was amazing. I was a trainee under-gardener at Lingholm gardens (now also sadly closed to the public) and I simply loved my time in Newlands Valley. That walk up the hill in the morning to get fresh milk from the dairy; never since equalled!

    I took a walk up the valley with my two children in August 2011 to see the new house. It is nice, but sadly is not (nor ever could be) the same without that sudden looming purple presence among the trees. When my friends used to visit, it often staggered them that such a pace existed. A defining moment was when two friends drove to see me one moonlit night and were standing outside looking terrified when I met them. With the moonlight shining on the place they claimed it looked like the ‘house on the hill’ in Psycho! From my own point of view though, I saw an amazing vision of the house, part silhouetted and seemingly more black than purple; bathed in glistening moonlight with the milky way wtit large across the sky.

    Greatly missed but don’t worry, as the place lives on, painted in bright maroon-purple in my memories and will untill I too pass on.

    Mick Lavelle

    • Hi Mick,

      Good to hear from you – the first of Varya’s lodgers I remember. Were you with Alison, or am I thinking of someone else? Sorry about the chanting. I was a bit gung-ho about it at the time. Some time in the 1990s I dumped the whole supernatural crew.

      The way you describe it brings back the walk home from Keswick after work. Catbells and Maiden Moor would start to look like Cornish pasties because I was so hungry, then the bridge and the house through the trees. I was so fit with all that walking (alas not now). Haven’t seen the new house except in pictures, but it strikes me as too well-mannered, not transgressive enough to be a worthy successor to Varya’s domain. Both she and the house were one-offs, and the world seems to be running out of eccentricity.

      I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived at Rigg Beck, and to have those purple memories.

      Paul

      • Hi Paul,

        No, I was single at the time. I think it was a guy called Jeff (a local carpenter with a van) and a small Child that were with Alison. They had the front room opposite Simon. I had the ground floor room at the rear (LH side if looking in from front door) overlooking the stream.

        And Hey, no worries about the chanting!

        It was good to stumble across this thread and revive some surprisingly vivid and entirely welcome long-lost memories about the place.

        All the best for now,

        Mick

        P.S. If the new house were anywhere else, it would (likely) be much more welcome in our memories. As you say, not nearly enough character … but hiow could the place ever be replaced?

  7. I went to school in Keswick with some of the Vergauwen children. Varya may well have been a fascinating person. I never met her but I do know that her children were not a very happy group and that life at the purple house was far from idyllic for them. Katie was a lovely girl and a talented musician, who I think went to Israel in the seventies. The story of Leonie and and of her son and her brother Danny is very sad. We all should have done more for them

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