Saturday 17 September 2016


"A lunatic site for a house" is how one architectural expert described Cragside near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Having now seen the place, I wouldn't disagree with him.


I've seen NT houses built from the landscape before - Stoneywell in Leicestershire is an example - but Cragside is IMMENSE. It's a huge house built on rock that was blasted away with dynamite, and then surrounded by what must be one of the largest rock gardens in the world:

Cragside from the rock

You might already have guessed that Cragside wasn't built by an ordinary person. William Armstrong was an industrialist and scientist who invented hydraulic cranes, breech-loading cannons, iron-clad warships, and a lot more besides. He believed anything was possible, which means he is about as diametrically opposed to me on the great human characteristic chart as it possible to be. 

I read William Armstrong: Magician of the North before I went to Cragside and I can recommend it. Here is a very, very short summary of his life and times:

  • William Armstrong was born in Newcastle in 1810
  • His grandfather had been a tenant farmer - William's dad had worked his way up in a corn merchant business and wanted William to be a lawyer
  • William did as he was told, but his heart lay in science - he did law and science concurrently for many years until he found a way to make money from his inventions
  • His first major commercial success was in hydraulic cranes that were soon being used in shipyards all around the world
  • He then moved into gun-making - he invented a light-weight, breech-loading cannon to replace the front-loading cannons that tended to kill the operator as well as the enemy
  • He had huge success as an arms manufacturers, exporting weapons all around the world - this led him to start building warships on the Tyne
  • At the end of the 19th century he employed 25,000 workers  
  • In 1863 he visited Rothbury, where he had spent time recuperating from illness as a child, and decided to buy some land there for a holiday home
  • Cragside, as it was known, was initially a small holiday villa but it grew in scope and scale until it became the main home for William and his wife
  • It was the first house to be powered by electricity from water power
  • It had central heating, hot and cold running water, and the servants had lifts for getting coal to bedrooms and other helpful devices
  • His wife Margaret saw to it that Cragside had one of the finest gardens in Victorian times 
  • The planting program apparently included more than 7 million trees and shrubs - it is believed that it changed the climate in the area, raising the average temperature by 1 degree and making it wetter in winter. Amazing.
  • Cragside hosted the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1884
  • The estate passed to the NT in 1977
The most astounding room is the Drawing Room. This was the final room that was added - it was finished in 1884 just in time for the royal visit. The chimney is astonishing, especially when you consider that it was largely decorative, as the room was heated by its own boiler and pipe system from below:  

Cragside Drawing Room

The study only gets 8 short lines in the guide book but I LOVED it - it's the studiest study I've ever seen, with a massive desk and a lovely portrait of our chum William aged 21.

Cragside study

William also added some very impressive-looking Turkish Baths. A visitor in front of me said "Is this the spa?" and she was spot-on - they look incredibly modern considering they were built in 1870:

I am also clearly aligning with the NT. I saw this picture in the Gallery, of a dead shepherd being licked lovingly by two sad dogs, and I could NOT believe that anybody would want to either paint or own something so depressing. I later found out that the writer of the guide book totally agreed with me - they call it "laden with sentimentality, gloom, and death" - but that's what the Victorians liked. It was also based on a true story, apparently. It's still awful:

Dead shepherd and dogs

The gardens are beautiful. The iron bridge just down from the house was constructed in 1869. It was closed for years but reopened in 2009 and hurray for that, because it offers really stunning views of the house. This is a not very good picture of the bridge and house:

Cragside iron bridge

The Cragside scone

But let's move on to the scone. It looked a little bit dry but it was actually very tasty indeed and I thoroughly enjoyed it:

Cragside scone

In the spirit of William Armstrong, I also decided to be all inventive and try a local baked foodstuff as well as my usual scone. This is a Singing Hinny - like a Welsh cake, it looks like a scone that got run over. But it was very tasty.

Singing Hinnie Cragside

The only thing I wasn't keen on was that we ended up eating our scones in the tea-room, when we could have been sitting out in the picnic area with this magnificent view. But I'm sure the staff wouldn't have stopped us taking our tray out here, so it's my own fault.

Cragside lake view

I'll be honest with you: I had never heard of William Armstrong before I decided to visit Cragside. So I'm going to finish by talking about why he is not remembered today in the same way as his near contemporaries, Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. 

The book sets out a number of possible reasons, including:
  • William was an arms manufacturer, and making things that kill people was never an admirable line of work, even in Victorian times
  • He ran into trouble with his workers in 1871 when they went on strike for a shorter working day - he didn't handle it very well and public opinion turned against him
  • Scientists were not as popular in his day - they HAD been extremely popular; Robert Stephenson was mourned nationally after his death in 1859. But the outrage caused by the publication of The Origin of the Species caused people to question whether scientists were actually doing more harm than good.
  • He was from the North-East and was therefore not a show-off 
Anyway. You'll have to go a long way to find an NT property that is as unusual and as impressive as Cragside and I highly, highly recommend it.

Cragside: 5 out of 5
Scone: 4.5 out of 5
Cheerfulness of pictures: 0 out of 5

1 comment:

  1. Love Cragside, but haven't been since the bridge was reopened... Armstrong was a great Brit!