People run out of superlatives to describe Cragside. They vary form ‘a palace of the modern magician’ to Pevsners’ description of ‘The most dramatic Victorian mansion in the north of England’. Cragside was the most technologically advanced house of its time with every home comfort imaginable. It was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, making it a wonder of the Victorian age. Forty five lights were put in although there was only enough power to light nine at a time until a larger power house was built. Dinner guests were given cushions at dinner to smother flash fires caused by the electric filament lamps.
Many of rooms in the original part of the house were heated by a warm air ventilation system through a network of ducts. The air was heated in two basement rooms fitted with massive cast iron heating pipes. Most of the rooms are fitted with floor gratings arranged around the perimeter of the room. The later parts of the house were heated heated by a low pressure wet heating system, with massive heating pipes enclosed in decorative wood and mesh.
It had hot and cold running water and there was even a Turkish bath suite. There were telephones and fire alarms as well as a hydraulic passenger lift. The kitchens contained many mod cons with electric lights and bells as well as an electric gong to summon guests to meals. There was a dumb waiter and a meat spit worked by hydraulic power. Over the sink was a primitive dish washer used to rinse plates before they were washed thoroughly. It can be said that Cragside was the place where modern living began.
Cragside was the family home of Lord Armstrong, a successful Victorian industrialist and inventor as well as an important philanthropist. His scientific innovation and entrepreneurial skill was employed in the manufacture of hydraulic machines, heavy industry, armaments and ship building. By the end of the C19th, his factories on Tyneside employed 25,000 workers and were responsible for building the largest and most powerful battleships of the time, for customers across the world.
The house was built in 1862 on a bare rocky hillside near Rothbury, and was intended as a modest country retreat with eight or ten rooms and a stable for a pair of horses. The Northumberland Central Railway arrived in Rothbury in 1869 making travel from Newcastle easier and faster. Cragside gradually became the Armstrong’s main home.
It was expanded in 1869 by R. Norman Shaw who took 15 years and added wings and towers. It is a mix of architectural styles with Arts and Crafts half timber, stone work with Elizabethan style mullioned windows, battlements and clustered chimneys.
His wife was an enthusiastic and keen gardener and was pivotal in turning the bare rocky hillside into the gardens seen today, by planting over seven million trees and shrubs.
Five lakes were constructed to supply water to the house and to produce electricity.
Cragside was an important setting for Armstrong’s commercial activities and many foreign dignitaries visited him there, including the Prince and Princess of Wales , the Shah of Persia and the King of Siam. The visits were planned as relaxed country weekends with sporting pursuits for the men (angling and shooting) and walks in the pleasure gardens for the ladies.
It also acted as a showcase for Armstrong’s ever increasing art collection. Furniture and fittings were specially designed for Cragside by some of the most outstanding designers of the time, including names like William Morris, Byrne Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti.
When Armstrong died in 1900, the house was inherited by his great nephew William Watson-Armstrong. He lacked Armstrong’s commercial acumen and a series of poor financial investments led to the sale of much of the great art collection in 1910. In 1972, on the death of Watson-Armstrong’s heir, William John Montagu Watson-Armstrong, it passed to the Treasury in part settlement of death duties. It was acquired by the National Trust in 1977 as one of the most important Victorian houses to be preserved for the nation. The house opened to the public in 1979. The formal terraced gardens, glasshouses and parkland were acquired in 1991.
The house is reached by a carriage way from the B 6341. Be prepared to pay at the small ticket office as you drive onto the estate off the B6341. The Visitor Centre, tea room and shop are in the stable block of the Home Farm which overlooks Tumbleton Lake and is a few minutes walk from the house. The main car park is between the two. There is a separate, smaller car park for the Formal Garden. There is a free minibus service from the car park to the house and the formal gardens.
Allow a full day for the visit as there is so much to see and do. Each time I visit, I find all sorts of things I’ve missed in the past. This is a place you can visit many times and never get tired of. As well as the house, there are over 1,000 acres to “explore”:https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/maps/1431729756412-cragside.pdf with 40 miles of footpaths and “way marked walks.”:http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cragside/lists/stretch-your-legs There is also a six mile circular estate drive.
There are wheelchairs available from the shop or in the house and it is recommended these are booked in advance. There is a wheelchair accessible route around Tumbleton Lake but many of the footpaths around the estate are uneven and steep in places. They may not be suitable for wheelchairs or scooters.
There is access to eight rooms on the ground floor with a touch screen computer giving a virtual tour of the rest of the house. There is disabled access to the visitor centre, shop and cafe.
More information “here.”:https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/access-guide/1431729756412-cragside.pdf
Lighting in the house is poor to limit damage to fragile furnishings. This makes photography difficult and can lead to a slight colour cast on the pictures. There is a lot more information and pictures “here.”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/stately_homes_castles/england/north/cragside/index.html