Cragside, what a wonderful day out we had there. It’s a National Trust property now but didn’t start out that way. I think we’ll have a bit of History and edumacation before we have a look at some photos.
The History Bit
Let me first introduce you to William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong, for it is he who built Cragside as a family home. He was born on 26 November 1810 in Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of a corn merchant. Trained as a solicitor, he moved to London before he was twenty. Returning to Newcastle, in 1835 he met and married Margaret Ramshaw, the daughter of a builder. A keen amateur scientist, Armstrong began to conduct experiments in both hydraulics and electricity. In 1847, he abandoned the law for manufacturing and established W. G. Armstrong and Company at a site at Elswick, outside Newcastle. By the 1850s, with his design for the Armstrong Gun, Armstrong laid the foundations for an armaments firm that would, before the end of the century, see Krupp as its only world rival. He established himself as a figure of national standing: his work supplying artillery to the British Army was seen as an important response to the failures of Britain’s forces during the Crimean War. In 1859, he was knighted and made Engineer of Rifled Ordnance, becoming the principal supplier of armaments to both the Army and the Navy.
Armstrong had spent much of his childhood at Rothbury, escaping from industrial Newcastle for the benefit of his often poor health. He returned to the area in 1862, not having taken a holiday for over fifteen years. On a walk with friends, Armstrong was struck by the attractiveness of the site for a house. Returning to Newcastle, he bought a small parcel of land and decided to build a modest house on the side of a moorland crag. He intended a house of eight or ten rooms and a stable for a pair of horses. The house was completed in the mid-1860s by an unknown architect: a two-storey shooting box of little architectural distinction, it was nevertheless constructed and furnished to a high standard.
But he didn’t stop there. In 1869, he employed the architect Richard Norman Shaw to enlarge Cragside. In two phases of work between 1869 and 1882, they transformed the house into a northern Neuschwanstein. (That seems to be German for Bavarian Romanesque Castle. ) The result was described by the architect and writer Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel as “one of the most dramatic compositions in all architecture”. Armstrong filled the house with a significant art collection; he and his wife were patrons of many 19th-century British artists. And Shaw wrote that it was equipped with “wonderful hydraulic machines that do all sorts of things”. The lakes were used to generate hydro-electricity, and the house was the first in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity, using incandescent lamps provided by the inventor Joseph Swan. Swan had invented a filament electric lightbulb in 1850, and eventually joined forces with Thomas Edison and formed Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company. In the grounds, Armstrong built dams and created lakes to power a sawmill, a water-powered laundry, early versions of a dishwasher and a dumb waiter, a hydraulic lift and a hydroelectric rotisserie. He kept himself very busy.
He had a good inning, being 90yrs old when he shuffled off the mortal coil in 1900. After he died his heirs struggled to maintain the house and estate. In 1910, the best of Armstrong’s art collection was sold off, and by the 1970s, in an attempt to meet inheritance tax, plans were submitted for large-scale residential development of the estate. In 1971 the National Trust asked the architectural historian Mark Girouard to compile a gazetteer of the most important Victorian houses in Britain which the Trust should seek to save should they ever be sold. Girouard placed Cragside at the top of the list & in 1977, the house was acquired by the Trust with the aid of a grant from the National Land Fund. A Grade I listed building since 1953, Cragside has been open to the public since 1979.
It didn’t used to be open during the winter months, but this year they decided to let people in to the grounds and to the ground floor of the house. They had shut all the curtains and made it look like it would have done in the evenings, which was interesting as they’d taken some of the barriers down and you could get further into the rooms instead of just looking from one part. Of course that didn’t make photographing it very easy and I didn’t have a tripod with me, but I did my best.
We’ll have a look around the house before we go out into the grounds, but we were lucky to have a mist around the house as we arrived in the car park, so we shot the side of the house as we walked up to it.
It burnt off quite quickly though.
The first part we visited was the library, which didn’t seem to have many books!
but did have some interesting objects
There’s a dining room off the library, with an inglenook fireplace.
We’ll finish up in the kitchen, large by Victorian standards and forms a considerable apartment with the butler’s pantry. It displays Armstrong’s “technical ingenuity” to the full, having a dumb waiter and a spit both run on hydraulic power. An electric gong announced mealtimes. For the visit of King Edward and Queen Alexandra, Armstrong brought in the Royal caterers, Gunters, who used the kitchen to prepare an eight-course menu which included oysters, turtle soup, stuffed turbot, venison, grouse, peaches in maraschino jelly and brown bread ice cream. Yum!!
Let’s have a look at some of his inventions
That’s about it for the rooms we visited, but we’ll go back later in the year when the whole house is open, in daylight! There’s a lot more to see.
Stay tooned for a wander around the grounds next time.