Around 30 years ago, although it doesn’t seem like half that distance from memory, I took the newly acquired wife (still the current incumbent, how did that happen then), together with another recently married pair of friends to Cragside, National Trust jewel in the crown of their Northumberland estates.
The abiding memory of that visit is of being very impressed but also very light in the wallet afterwards.
And so last Thursday we ventured again to Rothbury for the second time in thirty years and trying very hard not to make any reference to The Raoul Moat Memorial Gardens and where they must surely be located down by the river by now (don’t ask the locals if you visit the place, its still a open wound, as was his face … ) anyway, enough idle chit-chat…
Its a pleasant enough village to wander around and we bought pies and other edible stuff from the butchers at the bottom of the hill and very good they were too yet surprisingly we didn’t go into a pub, must have been an oversight for its not like us at all.
I must also just mention the drive over the moors to Rothbury from Alnwick, get someone else to drive for you will surely spend most of the 20 minute journey staring everywhere else but on the road, its moorland scenery at its best, just gorgeous, I nearly took us off-road on several occasions, which would have been a tad unfortunate and possibly irreversible in a Peugeot 307.
Its not cheap to visit Cragside, £15 per adult, thank god our kinder are no longer kinder and don’t want to be seen holidaying with their parents these days for if they had been sat in the back of the car I would have been forced to hide them under coats, as it was getting Suzanne to hide under a coat in the front seat was quite a struggle I can tell you, especially when I’d told the lady on the gate that there was just one (me) to pay for and then realised that Suzanne had the wallet and I had to pretend that it was a ghostly apparition of a hand that passed me the money from under the coat in the footwell.
William George Armstrong was one of those people in the right place at the right time with the right contacts and a good idea, a solicitor in his early years he had an interest in mechanical engineering and particularly motive power and efficiency and his work in water power and hydraulics eventually brought him to the thing that would earn him his not inconsiderable fortune – weapons.
Anyone who lives in Leeds or Newcastle will have heard of the Vickers Armament factories, my grandmother worked in one of them during WW2 (I think, that might be folklore actually), unfortunately the Leeds (Barnbow) factory closed some years ago and still stands empty, not surprising given its hugeness, you need a particularly huge production line to build tanks and other armoured vehicles from scratch, its twin, the original factory on the banks of the Tyne at Elswick, Newcastle is due to close this summer, seems like we don’t need to make weapons any more.
Anyway, what became Vickers was once called Armstrong-Vickers and thats where the link comes from – Lord Armstrong invented weapons systems, guns and stuff and ways to make them work better, and then he owned two factories to make them, a huge government contract to supply and eventually international trade too – his factories supplied weapons to both sides of the American Civil War for instance, thats the great thing about weapons manufacturers, they don’t really care who buys the stuff as long as the money is on the counter.
His designs on hydraulic lifting gear powered the Tyne swing bridge and Londons Tower Bridge (and still do today), he predicted the demise of coal at a time when everything was powered by coal and constantly lobbied for wind and water power, he employed 25,000 people in Newcastle, his businesses manufactured warships on the Tyne at Elswick and then equipped them with guns from his other factories, Japan was a major customer of Elswicks ships and the friendships he made with Japanese politicians is reflected in certain rooms at Cragside, not the least obvious being the Japanese room.
So having made an absolute fortune, a Euro-Millions Lottery style fortune by making things that kill other people, he bought a plot of land way up into the Northern Pennines at Rothbury and set about having a house built that would become the first house in the country to be powered by hydro-electric light – his best mate Joseph Swan of Newcastle who had invented a lightbulb long before Thomas Edison patented his, had a hand in illuminating Cragside using electricity generated by a dynamo in the river that falls through Cragside’s steep sided land.
The private house that he had built at Cragside is not a “stately home” at all, its not on the grand scale like Harewood, Blenheim or Castle Howard, its a country house, a very wealthy Victorian gentlemans house and its fully intact with much of Armstrongs furnishings and fabrics in situ, its another one of those houses that make you feel as though you’ve just strolled in the back door while all the family are stood out the front waiting for a parcel delivery, or something.
Wander around Cragside and you get an idea of what it must have been like to have wealth beyond your wildest dreams, wealth that you couldn’t possibly spend in your entire lifetime – some minion of Queen Victoria’s family came to stay at one point and rather than just turn down a bed and make sure there were no breakfast crumbs under the quilt, Armstrong had a new wing built and in the minions room he included a private bathing area (unheard of in those days, possibly the first en-suite) and added a smaller connecting room to the main bedroom for the royals servant.
Armstrong was an avid art collector, particularly of Henry Hetherington Emmerson so what better thing to do with more of your money than add another extension to the property consisting of a roof-lit wide gallery connecting the house to a music room – its the sort of house that you’d design for yourself with unlimited money, the sort of house where you grow bored of the wallpaper in your bedroom and you’ve never really liked the wardrobes in there either – so you get someone to build you another one at the other end of the house rather than redecorate.
And the grounds, we haven’t mentioned the grounds yet, like other wealthy Victorians Armstrong had a fascination with the plants that were arriving from the rapidly expanding British Empire and his Cragside estate was a perfect site for the new craze of Azalea and Rhododendron bushes that were arriving from the Himalayas, so he planted thousands of them and you now take a drive around six miles of estate roads to admire them.
He also bought Bambrough Castle after hsi wife died with an idea to convert it to a convalescence home but instead it became another private house but by the sea for holidays, so that was nice, his family still live there.
And he gave away a lot of money, both he and his heir, his great-nephew William Watson-Armstrong, his house in the Jesmond area of Newcastle together with all of the wooded land around it was donated to the city and is now known as Jesmond Dene, The University of Newcastle was founded by the first Lord Armstrong as a college of science, he donated half a million pounds (in todays money) to the creation of The Hancock Natural History Museum in Newcastle (also worth a visit when in the area) and the second Lord donated the equivalent in todays money of over £8 million to establish the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.
You don’t find that sort of philanthropy much in evidence these days and yet despite accusations of workforce exploitation and a lack of safety provisions for employees you find a common theme among the Victorian mega-rich for redistributing their accumulated wealth for the benefit of the poor towards the end of their lives, call it religious guilt or buying their way into heaven but we could probably do with a little of it right now…