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 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.
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.
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.
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