Cragside

Cragside House

Cragside House

Whenever I visit Northumberland I am always drawn to visit Cragside, the home of industrialist Lord William Armstrong.

He initially built the house as a weekend retreat, but in due course went to live there permanently. Over the years the house was added to giving it an unusual appearance and leading to the building having the look of a baronial castle and to it sometimes being referred to as the “palace of a modern magician”. The house which is perched on a craggy hillside overlooking Debdon Burn, contains many of Armstrong’s innovations and inventions. Surrounding the house on three sides is Europe’s largest rock garden. He and Lady Armstrong also turned the craggy hillside into a mass of greenery by planting thousands of trees and mosses.

Cragside has many constituent parts. I always visit the formal garden first ensuring peace and quiet before the garden gets busy. It is a perfect example of a Victorian formal garden. Within it is a restored orchard house believed to have been built circa 1870. The fine structure, with its timber base and cast-iron glazing bars in the roof, is a quite distinctive landmark in the surrounding district. The orchard house was built to grow hardy and tender fruits protecting them from the Northumbrian climate.

Carpet Bedding and Clock Tower

Carpet Bedding and Clock Tower

Carpet bedding can be found next to the orchard house and in summer months it has diminutive foliage planed in geometric patterns. The plants are clipped fortnightly using sheep shears to form a flat carpet-like surface. Each bed requires 10,000 plants which have been raised in the nursery at Cragside. My favourite time of year to visit the garden is September because the Dahlia walk is spectacular.

A clock tower is just outside the formal garden. It originates from the 1860s and was previously the estate’s timepiece (and pay office), chiming the start and finishing times for the estate’s workers.

View over holiday cottages towards Rothbury

View over holiday cottages towards Rothbury

The formal garden also provides an ideal viewing point over the market town of Rothbury. If you venture down into the town, you will see a pleasing mix of old stone and newer brick built properties either side of a wide main street. Rothbury has a number of small and interesting retail businesses including a very nice ladies clothes shop.

From the garden you can walk to the house by crossing the historic iron bridge which was designed especially to provide walking access between the house and the formal garden. In 2009 the bridge was restored and reopened for the first time in nearly 30 years.  The 19th century grade II listed bridge spans the Debdon Burn providing magnificent views of the house and rock garden along with views of the Debdon valley with its waterfalls.

From the iron bridge the house is approached through the rock gardens, which extend all around the house covering 4.5 acres. Most of the rock has been man-laid, using sandstone from the local area.

Within Cragside itself you can see several of Lord Armstrong’s engineering achievements including a hydraulic lift which lightened the load for the servants when carrying coal to the upstairs rooms.

Lord Armstrong was a collector of contemporary British art, furniture and natural history. Some of his collections are still displayed in the house, which was the first house in the world to be lit entirely by hydro-electricity. This was done by using water from Black Burn and Nelly’s Moss to provide a head of water to turn a turbine in the Power House. The National Trust has recently completed the installation of a new hydro-turbine, the Archimedes Screw, which will produce 12kw of electricity over the course of a year providing around 10% of electricity required to power Cragside. This will light the house for a year, continuing the aspiration of Lord Armstrong to illuminate his house by hydro-power.

Cragside has its own holiday cottages offering spectacular views of the garden and Rothbury. The cottage building was once known as the Cottage in the Park and was built around 1865 for the estate manager.  The cottage has many features in common with the original part of Cragside and is thought to be designed by the same ‘unknown’ architect.

Nelly's Moss

Nelly’s Moss

There is a delightful leisure drive around the estate. The highlights for me are the Nelly’s Moss lakes which are beautiful. Behind the lower lake a labyrinth has been cut among the rhododendron trees to entice children of all ages. The drive is most spectacular when the rhododendrons are in full bloom.

If ever you pass in that direction I can thoroughly recommend a visit, there is something for everyone and something for all seasons.

More information can be found via the following links:

An Extraordinary Man

An Extraordinary Man

Cragside is one of my favourite places to visit. It was the home of industrialist Lord William Armstrong. He initially built the house as a weekend retreat, but later went to live there permanently. He added to the house over the years giving it the look of a baronial castle leading it to sometimes be referred to as the palace of a modern magician. The house which is perched on a craggy hillside overlooking Debdon Burn contains many of his innovative inventions and It is surrounded on three sides by Europe’s largest rock garden. He also turned the barren hillside into a mass of greenery by planting trees and mosses.

Lord Armstrong was a collector of contemporary British art, furniture and natural history. Some of his collections are still displayed in the house, which was the first house in the world to be lit entirely by hydro-electricity. The estate at Cragside has many interesting features including man-made lakes, orchard house, pinetum and formal garden with three terraces.

As well as being a lover of nature and the arts, he was also a scientist and technical inventor from an early age who became one of the most successful industrialists of his generation. He had been interested in mechanics but due to his father’s wishes started his working career as a lawyer. He had success with his hydraulic crane invention which led to a change in career. He founded a new business which he named W.G. Armstrong and Company and set up a factory known as the Elswick works on the north bank of the Tyne between the river and a branch line of the Newcastle and Carlisle railway.

Eventually Armstrong diversified from building cranes into armaments, tank production and ship building. A separate company was set up to produce the Armstrong gun although this venture was short-lived due to opposition from the Army and rival arms manufacturers. Guns that were made at the Elswick works were fitted to warships built at the nearby Mitchell’s yard. To make this task easier he built the swing bridge in Newcastle so that after ships had been built and launched they could sail to the Elswick works to have their guns fitted. He was also responsible for the hydraulic lifting mechanism in another famous bridge, Tower Bridge in London. Eventually the two businesses merged and became Sir W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell and Co Ltd. The Elswick works expanded over the years featuring steel works as well as the engineering and gun making departments and eventually becoming one of Tyneside’s largest employers.

The company continued to expand and, after the WW1, the output at Elswick included locomotives. In 1927/28 the company merged with Vickers and became Vickers-Armstrong Ltd. After nationalisation of some of the operating groups, what was left of the company became Vickers plc (currently known as BAE Systems Land and Armaments) which went on to produce the Challenger 2 main battle tank that is currently in service with the British Army.

Due to a downturn in orders for armoured vehicles the factory is due to close at the end of 2013 ending over 165 years of engineering history at the site.

When Armstrong was no longer responsible for the day to day running of the company it was to Cragside he retreated. He was a philanthropist and benefactor, gifting many things to the people and community of Newcastle.