William George Armstrong, Lord Armstrong of Cragside the Victorian scientist and engineer made his fortune from hydraulic engineering, ship building and armaments. When he retired he made his home by developing what was once a hunting lodge into a house where comfort and innovation was far ahead of its time.
Brian Spencer visited Cragside, high above the Northumbrian village of Rothbury and now owned and run by the National Trust.
In his early childhood Armstrong was a sickly youngster frequently suffering from bad chests and had been sent from his home in smoky Newcastle to the clean air of Rothbury, a small market town in the foothills of the Cheviots. His affection for the area never left him and when he looked for somewhere to live in his later years he bought the small hunting lodge on the moors high above the town.
Very little remains of the original lodge, but what replaced it was a pioneering house that looks slightly Germanic, sitting comfortably within the shelter of thousands of trees planted on Armstrong’s behalf. As interesting as the outside might be, Cragside’s interior is a marvel of its age, far in advance of anything known at the time. Everything within its opulent interior speaks of comfortable living, both for the owner and also his employees. For servants who had been used to the drudgery of tending coal fires, or carrying food for what sometimes seemed miles, Cragside became the last word in the ideal place to work. It is no wonder that staff tended to stay.
Everything from furnishings to fittings was far ahead of its time and many of the things we accept as everyday living had its origins in Armstrong’s dream home. Electricity replaced candles for lighting and hot water came through pipes rather than carried up flights of stairs; central heating kept the place warm and food travelled from kitchen to dining room by way of hydraulically operated lifts.
The electricity was made by water power, the first hydro-electricity and by modern standards, the last word in environmentally friendly power. Armstrong was a friend of Sir Joseph Swan, the inventor of filament light bulbs, and it was he who installed the lighting that made life so much easier for everyone. Not only was electricity used to light the house, but it eased many routine tasks; electric gongs summoned guests to the dining room where the food was delivered by hydraulic lifts from a kitchen where meat turned on electrically operated spits; there was even an internal telephone system. It was small wonder that guests, often royalty including King Edward VII, gazed in amazement at these wonders far ahead of the technology of the time. Small wonder that one visitor called Cragside ‘the Palace of a Modern Magician’.
Buying Cragside, Lord Armstrong along with his wife Lady Margaret, set about building their dream home. The then up and coming London architect Norman Shaw was employed to design the house; a far from easy task in view of the need to incorporate Armstrong’s innovations, but the two seem to have worked amicably in view of the need for modernity. The resulting ‘fairy tale’ structure was influenced by the then fashion for mixing wood and stone in an ‘Arts and Crafts’ design. The work seems to have kept Shaw employed for around fifteen year, as extensions and alterations to the original design were made to all except the western elevations. Despite all the chopping and changing, the result was a modern version of an English manor house of some standing.
Being a member of Armstrong’s staff whether they were kitchen staff, chamber maid, or butler was entirely different to their fellow servants in other grand houses. Not only was there a hydraulically operated lift – sort of dumb waiter, to take food up to the dining room and a mechanical spit, but there was even a primitive washing-up machine. Controlling all this was the butler whose office was strategically placed between the family rooms and the servants section. From his domain he could supervise the arrival and departure of guests. The next lower in rank were the housekeeper and cook, the latter being provided with supplies grown on the Cragside estate. Staff were well looked after in many ways, not the least being payment for their services. The butler earned £50 a year plus all his food and lodging, as was the lowliest kitchen maid who earned £14; all well paid workers by the standards of the time. As a result staff mostly stayed at Cragside for all their working lives, anything up to 35 years loyal service was not unusual.
For such a grand house, life above stairs was more in keeping to what we expect today. All the rooms with the exception of the gallery were designed for warmth and comfort, with fireside inglenooks, where guests could take their ease without having to comply with some outdated protocol. Light streamed in from wide bay windows, making life as pleasant as possible. The dining room, while still able to entertain a king, was as informal as it could be and Armstrong was able to work at his desk in front of another bay. Collectors of works of art, the Armstrongs filled the walls with both old masters and many local scenes painted by rising artists of the day.
Bedrooms were ideal, a delightful way to wake to the sound of bird song or the view over the valley. Many of them were decorated with William Morris wallpapers and most had a special theme; there is even a Japanese room, evoking the Victorian fashion for basing designs on art and architecture coming from this hitherto mysterious country. Bathing was a luxury to enjoy, as no longer did the bather have to hurriedly bathe in rapidly cooling water poured from a jug, but at Cragside there was hot and cold running water coming out of taps and also a Turkish Bath.
Water, especially the hydraulic power it provides, was one of Armstrong’s main interests. Turning his hand from designing hydraulically operated cranes, or the swing bridge over the Tyne at Newcastle, or the machinery to operate the Tower Bridge, he combined the need to create reservoirs to power his turbines with enhancing the beauty of the valleys and moors surrounding his house. Today we are benefitting from the imaginations of Lord and Lady Armstrong. They planted trees and laid out the grounds 150 years ago in what was effectively open moorland and a rocky valley. Today those trees are fully matured and we can follow woodland rides and trails that in their time were across open countryside. Part of Cragside House is built on the site of a quarry that provided much of the stone to build the house. As a result the house now sits above a naturalised rock garden surrounded by rhododendrons and azaleas that blaze with colour in late spring. At the time of their planting these Himalayan shrubs were becoming popular, following the plant hunting expeditions of intrepid mountain wanderers. Along with the thousands of fir trees planted across the hillside and moors, a pinetum was established closer to the house. Developing a pinetum or arboretum, depending on the kind of tree planted within it, was very much a status symbol of those with sufficient wealth to have such a thing. The pinetum at Cragside is mostly devoted to conifers of the then British Empire, especially those from North America. Because the soil in the upper reaches of the Coquet Valley around which the estate was developed, it was necessary to import richer soil from the valley bottom. This was brought up by the bucket load for which Lady Armstrong paid one penny.
The best views of the house and garden are from the Valley Gardens directly below Cragside. In 1875 the steep sides of this garden were crossed by a graceful arched iron bridge saving a steep climb between the rock garden and the formal garden on the far side. Another innovation for its day, the bridge was probably built at Armstrong’s Elswick Works on the Tyne.
At the far end of the gorge-like section of the valley above the bridge, the river has been dammed to create Tumbleton Lake, one of the major lakes which were created on the estate. Tumbleton had a dual purpose, driving hydraulic machinery, it has now been restored to show how Armstrong’s ingenuity managed to move water uphill and also how he made electricity to both power and light his house. Inside the Pump House below the dam, an ingenious set of still working, opposite-displacement plunger pumps lift water up to the house. In honour of the engineering genius a modern Archimedes screw nearby provides hydro-electricity for the house and estate.
Cragside is a National Trust property. The house, gardens and woodland are open each day from mid-February to the end of October every day.
Dogs on leads are welcome on the estate.
Wheelchair access on many of the paths and trails (check on site).