We visited Cragside during a happy trip to Northumberland last year, its a jewel in the National Trust crown and the former Victorian home of Lord and Lady Armstrong. He was a focused and driven industrialist, civil engineer and inventor, she was a talented botanist and socialite. Armstrong amassed his huge fortune through hydraulic inventions and as an arms manufacturer. At 53, he decided to build a country home in Northumberland and appointed the architect Richard Norman Shaw to design the house, he had the land cleared and using dynamite created a crag on which to build.
Armstrong was also said to be a landscape genius and following the purchase of the barren Northumberland land destined to become Cragside, he designed, constructed and together with Lady Armstrong directed the planting of 7 million trees and shrubs in under 40 years. Initially employing 150 gardeners to assist them which tailed to 70 maintenance gardeners when the planting was completed.
Tumbling down from the house, with a view of Debdon Burn is the largest man made rock garden in Europe, 3.5 acres in size. We scrambled down through the rocks towards the Burn. We were told had we visited in May or June the display of Rhododendrons and Azaleas on the Rock Garden is fantastic. The views along the Burn made up for it.
Cragside stretches over 1,000 acres and has 40 miles of footpaths winding through woodland planted with native and exotic conifers – Noble Firs, Douglas Firs, Wellingtonias, Monkey Puzzle, Spanish Fir, Greek Fir and many more broadleaf trees. There are four artificial lakes, which were used in Armstrong’s time to generate hydro-electricity. The house was the first in the world to be lit by this method, using incandescent lamps first invented by the Sunderland born inventor Joseph Swan and by coincidence at the same time that Eddison was working on his invention too. (Later in 1883 the Eddison & Swan United Electric Light Company was formed in Newcastle).
In 2014 Hydroelectricity was brought back to Cragside with the introduction of an Archimedes screw, the green energy project continues the work of Lord Armstrong. This modern hydro system will produce enough energy to light all 350 light bulbs in the house and will produce 12kw of electricity a year, providing Cragside with around 10 per cent of its electricity.
Our visit coincided with the Lux exhibition, seven contemporary art installations looking a little out of place and met with mixed reactions but a really exciting dimension within this historic house. This exhibit was designed by Imogen Cloet, the 54 bulbs refer to the original domestic installation of Joseph Swan’s incandescent light bulbs at Cragside that were also lit by Hydropower.
Cragside also has a formal garden, reached through an optimistically signed gate. We walked across the famous Iron bridge, through the Autumn Colour walk, green of course when we visited in July and into the Formal Garden, the Temperate Fernery and Orchard Glass House.
Cragside was recently featured on the television programme Glorious gardens presented by Christine Walkenden, the very short clip saved here shows the formal garden off beautifully with an overhead shot of the whole area, including their traditional carpet bedding display which takes 6 weeks for the gardeners to complete. A lovely blog written by Holly, a National trust trainee gardener covering the last year at Cragside, is a wonderful behind the scenes insight, if you would like to discover more.
Closing the gate, we headed off in the car across the rugged Northumbrian countryside to the Keilder Observatory to watch stars in the UK’s largest area of least light pollution. Nightime drizzle and low cloud put paid to that plan and not a star was seen but we shall try again on our next visit to Northumbria.