Cragside – Home to Seven Million Trees and Shrubs

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.

In the grounds, water plays a vital part

Debdon Burn

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.

Nelly Moss South Lake at Cragside

Man made Nelly Moss South Lake at Cragside

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.

Illumine by Imogen Cloet part of the Lux exhibition

Illumine by Imogen Cloet part of the Lux exhibition

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.

Temperate Fernery

Temperate Fernery

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.

Optomistic sign

Polite notice and optimistic sign

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.

Alnwick Garden Northumberland – An Inclusive Garden

We visited Alnwick Gardens, the Duchess of Northumberland’s visionary garden in late June, a floral dip time for many. We were in Northumberland primarily for a walking holiday, staying in Alnmouth on the coast. The beach is incredibly beautiful, just a few miles from the town and home of Alnwick garden and castle.

Alnmouth Beach

Saturday morning and Alnmouth Beach, blue skies and soft sand

On to contemporary Alnwick on Sunday, where dogs are not allowed, a whistle stop tour, whilst Archie was cared for by my daughter and treated to another Northumberland walk – he did not complain. I had read a little before we visited and had watched a documentary some years ago on the building of the Grand Cascade, so felt excited to visit.


Grand Cascade

Jacques and his son Peter Wirtz, garden designers from Belgium are creating the garden, Flanked by clipped Hornbeam tunnels, the Grand Cascade is the central show stopper. Every half hour fountains erupt and dance down the cascade culminating in a last hurrah in the pool at the bottom, all of this lasting 10 minutes then all is calm again. People picnic on the lawn in front, or eat in the vast pavilion which looks across and up the cascade, children play on enormous tractors, it looked fun. We drank coffee sitting in the pavilion watching and wishing our children were small again.


Perennial border adjacent to the Pavilion

View down the cascade towards the pavilion

View down the Grand Cascade towards the pavilion

Across the lawns and onto the Poison Garden tour, behind locked gates and a fundraiser by donation to the Alnwick Garden Trust drug awareness work, school parties are also invited and from there the aim is discussion on the dangers of drugs.

The Poison Garden

The Poison Garden

Bees were happy to forage in the Poison garden

Inside the Poison Garden, Hemlock and Foxgloves, amongst many others, although Bees were happy to forage.

A walk to the top of the Grand Cascade revealed the large formal garden. Pleached crab apples and iron uprights provided the balance to borders of Delphiniums and Roses. Along the surrounding walls more borders of perennials, no dip time here and more roses looking fabulous.

Formal gardens

Formal gardens

We moved onto the Rose Garden abundant with well yes Roses. Everywhere Roses of all shapes sizes and colours. Don’t get me wrong I love Roses, but was a tad overwhelmed and really wanted all of the other people to go away so I could enjoy them on my own.

Rose Garden

Rose Garden

We walked onto the Cherry Orchard, where a gentle path winds up through the Cherry trees. Too late in the year to enjoy the blossom of 350 Great White Cherrys, underplanted with 50,000 Purple Sensation Alliums and thousands of ‘Pink Mistress’ Tulips. Late April and May is the time to go.

350 Great White Cherrys in the Cherry Orchard. Timing is everything!

Winding path through 350 Great White Cherrys in the Cherry Orchard. Timing is everything!

50,000 Alium 'Purple Sensation'

Remnants of the  50,000 Allium ‘Purple Sensation’

Alnwick have appointed a man from Disney into the marketing team, his influence was clear, thats not a criticism, I get it, running these large gardens cost a great deal of money and positively encouraging and including children is a good move. A glance at their website reveals his influence, water pistol days throughout the summer holidays for one. But also a balance, lots of music and art. I have started to volunteer with a horticultural therapy project and was really interested to learn Alnwick have several similar projects running in the garden. Alnwick castle, next door and a separate entrance fee to the gardens is also known as the Hogwarts castle as it was used as a location for a couple of the Harry Potter films. There is a wonderful albeit disneyfied tree house restaurant with children firmly in mind. Alnwick has enjoyed some controversy, mainly over its build cost and not everyone likes it but its a garden for all ages and if you love Roses, its certainly worth a visit.


Rosa ‘Souvenir d’Orchidee’

From the many rose photographs I could not choose a favourite, so decided to add just one. The Garden is open all year round and I can recommend the coffee!

Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island, Northumberland and the Garden designed by Gertrude Jeykll

In the grounds of Lindisfarne Castle is a small walled garden, designed by Gertrude Jeykll.

The View of Lindisfarne Castle from the garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll

The View of Lindisfarne Castle from the garrison garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll

Lindisfarne Castle was originally built in 1570 as an Elizabethan fort. Following an uneventful 300 years and the removal of guns and soldiers in 1893 it lay empty and neglected. Edward Hudson the founder of Country Life magazine, by good fortune took his holiday in Northumberland, discovered the castle and the spectacular location and views, took out a lease and enlisted Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll to transform it into a holiday retreat. In 1906 Gertrude travelled to Northumberland by train with her good friend Edward Lutyens, they were transported by rowing boat across 3 miles of North Sea to Holy Island and the neglected castle.


View from Castle and Gertrude’s route in a rowing boat. The rain came in quickly on the day we visited.

Hudson had wanted a water garden, incorporating the boggy area in the sweeping field behind the castle, a tennis court and croquet lawn. Funds did not stretch that far, so Gertrude was to focus on the old garrison vegetable plot across the field from the castle. Hudson planned the holiday retreat to be used mainly in the summer, so plants were chosen to be in flower during July and August.


The view from the reading room of the old garrison garden designed by Gertrude Jeykll

In order to plant the crag on which the castle stands, Gertrude supposedly fired seeds at the rock face from a large fowling gun and lowered a small island boy, 7 year old Harry Walker, in a basket from the Upper Battery to access the difficult ledges. I am not sure what remains here of her original gun shot plants and Harrys hair-raising planting, but now its mainly some very pretty Centranthus.

Crag planting under the castle

Crag planting under the castle

Looking back from Gertrude’s garden are 3 upturned Herring boats, cut in half and used as storage sheds. Edward Hudson had these installed and of the three the one on the left is an original, the other two being renewed by the national trust.


A project was set up in 2002 to restore Gertude’s planting plan, originally first implemented in 1911, 5 years after her initial visit.


Stachys byzantina of course!

The garden is really charming and an unexpected discovery along the wild and romantic Northumberland coast.

We visited Lindisfarne Castle and Northumberland in late June, whilst on our first holiday up north, the lake district was the furthest north we had previously ventured. We are southerners, usually holidays at home are on the east, west or south coasts. We should of gone before, Northumberland is absolutely beautiful, spectacular coastlines, lots of wildlife, fabulous gardens, incredible scenery, excellent walks, hardly any people and despite my fears and a car full of wet weather gear it was very warm and the only rain on the day we visited here. Lindisfarne Castle is managed by the National Trust. Gertude’s garden was a bonus, the castle and island are fascinating and rich in atmospheric delights. To reach the castle, which is situated on Holy Island its vital to check tide times before crossing the causeway link road as access is at low tide only, upto 3 miles of the causeway is covered by the rising tide, so timing is everything. I can’t wait to go back.