Yesterday’s planned trip to Cragside, William Armstrong’s country house near Rothbury was postponed to today since the weather looked better. It’s only 15 miles from Alnmouth to Cragside, but getting there by public transport wasn’t particularly straightforward. There was a direct bus that left Alnmouth station (which is just around the corner from where we’re staying) at 08:40 – arriving at Cragsie at 09:15, but Cragside didn’t open until 11:00 – so there’d have been some waiting about! There were no more buses from Alnmouth until 18:10, by which time Cragside was closed! The next bus to Cragside that would arrive in good time left from Alnwick at 10:10 arriving at Cragside at 10:40. The only problem with this one was that we’d have to walk the 3 miles to Alnwick in order to catch it! It’s a lovely walk though, along quiet narrow lanes, by the river Aln and across fields – so that’s what we did.
As we crossed some fields two hares came racing towards us – they were incredibly fast. At first I though that they must be a couple of dogs because they were so big! It was an amazing sight. Thankfully, Zoly didn’t notice them before they saw us and turned tail. We were still tramping across the fields when I phone rang – it was my aunt Sheila who we’d messaged about making a visit. She and Uncle Malcolm were trying to FaceTime me – it was a bit halting without a Wi-Fi and slightly surreal to be doing a video call in the middle of a field, but we arranged to meet them tomorrow – we’ll go to Durham in the morning (exciting – I can see the part-constructed http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/visit/what-to-visit/durham-cathedral-lego-build), then meet up with Malcolm, Sheila and lovely cousin Catherine in the afternoon.
There was only one other passenger on the bus to Cragside – so it’s not surprising that they’re so infrequent. The provider seems to be under threat, too – lots of SOS (support our Spirit) signs pointing out that they have no funding or subsidy and inviting passengers to donate to ensure the services continue. Apart from the infrequency, there seems to be lots to like about Spirit buses – they welcome dogs and even bicycles on board and the buses can be hailed as they approach – not just at designated bus stops. Once on the bus to Cragside we had wonderful views into the Northumberland National Park and across to the Cheviot Hills – it made me think that we should come back here some more.
We arrived at Cragside and the parking attendant greeted us with the words: “That’s a Hungarian vizsla!” I was a pleased that she recognised Zoly – we’re often asked what sort of dog he is by admirers (of Zoly, not us). She told that she used to have a vizsla called Zeus and was delighted when I introduced her to Zoly. I don’t know whether it was seeing Zoly or our being brazen and walking in to Cragside a bit early or if it’s normal practice to allow people who’ve arrived by bus in for free – but whatever the reason, we weren’t asked for our £10.70 each admission and as we left our National Trust membership cards behind in Bristol, we were fully expecting to have to pay. So that was a good start to our visit!
On our way in we also saw some splendid carved owls. Our friend Ella back in Newcastle had told us that owls were her favourite animal – Ella showed me her owl rucksack and her owl keyring – so here’s a couple of pictures of the carved owls for Ella. There’s an extraordinary owl bedroom in the house – so that must have been the inspiration for these carvings.
Cragside was the country house of Lord Armstrong – a nineteenth century crane, bridge and later armaments manufacturer. Armstrong’s enormous munitions factories and warship construction yards hugged the banks of the Tyne in Elswick from Scotswood Bridge for almost a mile towards Newcastle. I remember as a child being thrilled at the sight of tanks on low loaders. The company was taken over by BAE and the factories were gradually run down then closed in 2013.
Armstrong became less involved in the day-to-day running of his company and in 1863 when he was in his fifties he bought some land in a steep-sided, narrow valley near Rothbury, had it cleared and supervised the building of a country house perched high on a ledge of rock overlooking a stream. He had a massive rock garden installed around the house, seven million trees planted and five artificial lakes were constructed, which were used to generate hydro-electricity. There are over 30 miles (50 km) of pathways to explore now zig-zagging up and down the steep valley sides, down on the valley floor and up on the flatter high moorland.
We had both been to Cragside as children – but we hardly remembered it and a lot had changed. The most startling new addition was the Archimedes screw, which from July 2014 has powered the lights in the house – effectively restoring hydroelectricity to the first house in the world ever to use it. It’s a massive device and carefully designed to allow fish to pass through unharmed. About 10% of the electricity that the estate needs comes from this one Archimedes screw – enough for all the lights and there are plans by the National Trust to use more renewable sources of energy.
We walked through the valley and up to the formal gardens with their beautiful glasshouses, rockeries and splendid views to Rothbury and the hills beyond.
We paused for lunch and a walk up to two of the high lakes and a detour to take in the recently restored flume, that fed water into the lakes. We wandered around the outside of the house and had our picnic lunch in the old stables’ courtyard.
We returned back to Alnwick – and yet again there was only one other person on the bus (a different person this time!) From Alnwick a pleasant walk back to the cottage in Alnmouth, dinner and another early night – we’re certainly sleeping long and well here in Northumberland.