Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Cragside house and gardens are a great day out @ntcragside

We were debating whether to make our 'cultural visit' to historic Alnwick
William Morris window at Cragside 
Castle or to the National Trust home and gardens at Cragside. Guidance from our campsite owner, Mr Vickers, who strongly recommended Cragside and a quick glance at each attraction's website decided us in favour of this former home of the Victorian engineer and inventor, Lord William Armstrong. (Alnwick Castle's insistence on promoting their Harry Potter connection and highlighting their broomstick flying lessons put us off. I know there must be loads of history too, but the castle was just made to look too tacky!)

Lord William Armstrong was the first person to have all the lights in his
Archimedes screw at Cragside 
house powered by eco-friendly hydro-electricity. He had the ingenuity and resources to imagine Cragside with its streams dammed and a new lake providing the impetus for a giant Archimedes screw. His friendship with Joseph Swan gave him the chance to try out the then revolutionary technology of electric lightbulbs, and his income from building bridges, ships, and supplying the armaments industry financed the building of a surprisingly modest house set in amazingly landscaped gardens. The Archimedes Screw has been replaced with a modern replica which runs pretty much all the time and still provides enough electricity for all the lights in the house. The National Trust are understandably very proud of this achievement. They do admit that it is not enough energy for all the computers and other gadgetry they need onsite though. Maybe one day?

We chose to visit on a Tuesday, assuming that weekends would be
Cragside house with its famous
Iron Bridge in the foreground 
busiest. However, chatting to one of the guides whilst queuing to get in the house, we learned that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are actually the busiest days. Having taken on a dilapidated wreck, the National Trust have restored the whole site to great splendour in a fantastic ongoing effort and this is now being rewarded with dramatically increased visitor numbers. There is plenty of room for hundreds of visitors around the grounds - there are forty miles of footpaths and we saw lots of people dressed for a day's hiking there! The house is a different matter though and numbers have to be controlled by a click counter at the door. I wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of booking system implemented in the future. It was often quite a squeeze yesterday! We arrived midmorning in time to have a good look around outside at the pump house, walk over the Iron Bridge - built by one of Armstrong's businesses - and explore both the incredible Rock Garden and the beautiful Formal Gardens. The grounds open at 10am and the house at 1pm. We learned that this is to accommodate school groups in the house in the mornings.

This carved tree was grown from an acorn and planted out by Winifreda
Owl tree 
Lady Armstrong to commemorate the birth of her son in in 1892. A plaque records this information but doesn't say why it was later carved into an owl or who the sculptor was. There is a huge greenhouse structure which is now a listed buildings and contains large pots growing apricots and figs amongst other delights. The rhododendron beds were disappointing, having already flowered and faded, but the rose garden was a true 'riot of colour' and smelled delicious. We spent a good half hour in the wildlife hide from which we actually saw a good number of birds. This is mainly because several feeders have been set up right in front of it, but we didn't mind that basic cheating at all! Our favourite birds were the brightly coloured bullfinches (a far rarer bird than they used to be), and we also saw great tits, coal tits, chaffinches, possibly a dunnock but we weren't sure, rooks, pigeons and a blackbird. According to the board in the hide red squirrels have been seen here, but we failed again on that count.

Cragside does encourage younger visitors to get involved. There are push-button machines illustrating hydro-electricity and a hidden bug trail throughout the house. The best we saw though was a sign stating that climbing a tree was one essential feat to be tried at least once BEFORE the age of 11 3/4.

The rarely spotted Dave bird 
The National Trust suggested an hour was an appropriate amount of
Mary Young clock 
time to tour the house. As it turned out, we spent a good two hours there because there is just so much to see, mostly not ingenious inventions as advertised but fascinating nonetheless. We had fuelled up with lunch in the onsite cafe - not too pricey and I can highly recommend the Hummous And Beetroot sandwich. Dave had the homemade Vegetable Soup with a hunk of excellent fresh bread. Mostly decorated and furnished in Victorian style, we toured the kitchen and scullery, obediently marvelling at the meat spit which is turned by the same hydro-electricity as lights the lights. I loved the dozens of shiny copper jelly moulds. There is a beautiful blue tiled sunken plunge pool in the sauna area, and several ornate day rooms. My eye was particularly taken with two rooms' William Morris window panes. The first photo of this post shows Spring and Summer from the Four Seasons and another room's windows told the story of St George. The longcase clock pictured here was made in Newcastle in about 1850 by a female clockmaker named Mary Young. Other sights included a massive ten ton Italian marble fireplace and lots of intricately carved wooden panelling. We were also lucky to just catch a duo in the Billiard Room who were entertaining visitors by playing Northumbrian pipes. We listened for a couple of tunes and I asked about how the pipes actually worked. Apparently getting the hang of the drone is the tricky bit, then playing a complicated melody line is the easy bit!

We paid £15 each for a house and grounds ticket which we thought was
Tunnel view in the Fern Garden 
expensive before we got there, but seemed good value by the time we eventually left not long before closing. Cragside does the 'ticket valid for a year' thing too which is, of course, irritatingly useless for us but is the current bandwagon chant at all these places. Do watch out if you're not a UK taxpayer. The guy on the gate automatically asked us for the higher Gift Aid price which includes an additional 10% donation. A bit cheeky we thought! There are dedicated parking spaces for motor homes and for campervans. Unsurprisingly not for caravans and I don't think I could have made one particular corner into the car park with Bailey on tow anyway. Dogs are welcomed in the grounds.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Due to increased spam, I've turned on comment moderation for the time being. Genuine comments will appear after I've checked them!