Logo: TAE logo

Discoveries in Northumberland, April 2010

Image: Work in Progress banner

Image: Wallington Hall - Cabinet of Curiosities


Another National Trust property in Northumbria is Wallington Hall. This is a late 17th century house which was then enlarged and modified over two hundred years. It is not as extensive as Cragside and rather simpler in layout, being arranged on three floors around a central hall. Gardens, parkland and farms surround the house to make up the connected parts of the estate, but there were land holdings further afield as well.

My specific interest in Wallington was the Cabinet of Curiosities. This unusually-named room is quite large for Wallington, tucked away on the second floor which cannot be seen from the central hall and might be missed by the casual visitor. It is a museum. Several cases, built-in or free standing, are arranged around the room which itself is what is described as the ‘cabinet’. Other houses might have had just the one cabinet or case: Wallington is much more ambitious. The owners of houses collected all kinds of objects and works of art as well as the curiosities that are referred to in the name given to the ‘cabinet’. Cragside, described below, had its collections which are distributed throughout that house. Wallington places the majority of its objects into a special room. As with Cragside, these displays were for the entertainment and instruction of the owning family as well as being a way of impressing upon guests that the owners were cultured people.

This Cabinet of Curiosities was started by Dame Jane Wilson at Charlton House, Greenwich, who lived between 1749 and 1818. Her daughter Maria inherited the collection and upon marrying Sir John Trevelyan, who owned Wallington, in 1791, it was moved to Northumbria. They set it up in this room as a private museum. Originally there were many more artefacts here, but a number were given away to other museums and to universities. Yet this is still one of the most interesting collections of its kind and illustrates the wide spectrum of interests that its owners had. Lacking the mass media that we have, they would have concentrated their attention on books, magazines, paintings and objects. Their guests would have included scholars of various kinds and so the things kept in rooms like this would have represented important ways of studying the world of the times. There are stuffed animals and birds, minerals, fossils and rock samples, remains of fish (like the puffer fish seen in the photo above); tropical fruit, beetles and plants, models of buildings, drawing and surveying tools and many other items. It is a showcase within the enclosing showcase that is the building itself, and well worth studying now as a microcosm of the interests of 18th and 19th century collectors.



The National Trust has many magnificent houses. Some are classical edifices standing in formal parklands like Lyme Park in Cheshire. Others occupy spaces in more varied settings, perhaps with hills and valleys draped with woodland, brightened with shrubberies and semi-alpine planting. Cragside is an example.

Often the former were the houses belonging to the landed gentry. Their families might have ruled their estates for centuries. The latter were perhaps built by the wealth brought by manufacturing, often in the nineteenth century as the British Empire generated huge demands for iron and steel goods of all kinds. These houses were often built close to the cities, though some were placed where their wealthy owners could escape the industrial landscapes that they had helped to create.

Image: Cragside 1

William Armstrong started his career as a solicitor but developed a strong interest in engineering and electricity. An early application of his engineering skill was in the field of hydraulics. Armstrong set up an engineering company in Elswick, close to Newcastle-on-Tyne, and there built the water-powered cranes, lifts and bridges that brought his early wealth. These included the famous swing bridge over the River Tyne. When he bought a small hunting lodge outside Rothbury to develop as his home he equipped it with a hydraulically-powered lift to move kitchen goods up and down between floors. It can be seen today. The house was also lit by Armstrong’s hydroelectric plant using a local stream. It was the first use of electricity for domestic lighting in the world, in 1878, ahead of Thomas Edison in America by four years.

Image: Armstrong Gun at Fort Rinella - Malta

Armstrong found himself drawn in to the business of manufacturing first submarine mines and then heavy guns during the Crimean War. This was followed by the Civil War in the United States when he established the practice of supplying weapons to both sides, as he would do in subsequent wars involving Britain, Italy, Russia and Japan. The work led him into shipbuilding, with warships armed with heavy guns in armoured turrets. His artillery was designed using coils of wrought iron to bind the gun barrels tightly in order to withstand powerful explosive propellant. The photographs here of an Armstrong gun that can be seen in Fort Rinella in Malta where it forms part of an extensive set of demonstrations and displays.

Image: Cragside 2

The house is now the property of the National Trust. Thanks to a change this year in its rules it is now possible to photograph inside its properties. Here, above, are seen the Butler’s Pantry or Office and two views of the large kitchens that had to feed Lord and Lady Armstrong, their guests and their servants.

Image: Cragside 3

Questions of security and copyright surround the issue of photography. It is a brave and forward-thinking decision by the National Trust that has opened up these treasures to visitors wanting to have their own pictures to enjoy and to study later. It might have been thought likely to reduce sales of the official guide books with the Trust’s own photos, though guide books still have the detailed information that visitors will want. Perhaps the tide of mobile phones and tiny cameras has been unstoppable, too, bringing an unfair division between those who could take illicit snaps and those with better cameras who were easier to spot. I always think of the Louvre Museum where large signs forbid photography in galleries where even flash is constantly in use and no-one seems inclined to try to stop it.

Image: Cragside 4

As usual the quality of care by the National Trust for the building, its contents and the surrounding estate is very high. A small, permanent, staff augmented by a team of volunteers looks after the property. They also, of course, look after the visitors. Whether it is because they are from the NT, are particularly well trained and motivated, or are northerners (and indeed, Northumbrians!) is open to debate. On our visits – we made two in order to cover everything – they were very customer oriented. I can add, incidentally, that during our ten days in Northumberland everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Two pet hates that I look for are these. First, room attendants who feel they are not doing their duty if they fail to deliver an hour’s lecture on every last detail. Second, the attitude that I once heard in Cornwall at an NT property when some staff thought they were not being overheard and made disparaging comments about some visitors who had just left their shop – “they weren’t really our sort of people, were they?” – about two perfectly ordinary folk who were, I suspect, just a bit too ordinary for those two employees. When I went to Wallington (subject of the next posting) the service was, like that at Cragside, impeccable.

Image: Cragside 5

Cragside illustrates a number of historic themes including architecture, landscape design, and interior design in the late nineteenth century and technical innovations – electric light, the telephone and other domestic features. It also shows just how much a house of that time and at that level of society acted as a store-place for knowledge. It has a good library, a fine art collection with a fine gallery purpose-built to look after paintings, sculpture and artefacts. Amongst the latter are, distributed throughout the house, glass cases of butterflies, cabinets of sea shells, tables of fine china and rooms decorated with what was thought at the time to be the best wallpapers, painted designs or decorative tiles. The owner, his wife and their guests could enjoy all of these to the full. The servants would have been able to glimpse them if not actually examine them closely at their leisure.

In addition to having the collection the house is a good example of how it was displayed and actually used. The selection of items for each room tells us about the preconceptions of the owners. Seeing what was then on show and how it was shown – on a shelf, in a glass cabinet; carefully presented or left lying around – gives an indication of the values and motivations of Lord and Lady Armstrong and those who came after them. Things were in the house and in certain place for utilitarian reasons but also to communicate something about the priorities, status and tastes of the owners. It continues today. We can’t pretend that William Armstrong was just in a room using its contents, went out and left everything as he touched it. The modern curators have had to gather, choose and place thousands of things according to their availability, fragility and usefulness in illustrating the stories that those curators wanted to tell. In a very special way the house acts like a book of many chapters that have each been written and edited according to someone’s ideas on what should be communicated to modern visitors. Each environment – room, garden, landscape, whichever, is a kind of mass medium controlled by the modern authors and editors who are interpreting the meaning and significance of the place to their ‘readers’ – the visitors.

The story to be read at Cragside is undoubtedly one about prosperous people, cultured and interested in the quality of the life they were leading. It is the story, too, of what Cragside has contributed over the ages to the surrounding communities – the village, Rothbury, the county, Northumberland, and of course the national and world communities, too.

Yet something is missing. Something that Lord Armstrong was criticised for in his own time: the story of his weapons factories and the effects that those weapons had on the world. Was it a good effect or a bad one? Cragside was built out of the proceeds of engineering skills making cranes, lifts, locomotives and ships, according to the tales told here. Virtually nothing speaks of the wars and weapons which really paid for the richness on show. This is a fine house and an enjoyable day out.

But not all the story that should be told is being told.


Image: Lindisfarne Causeway


Off the Northumbrian Coast is the ‘Island’ of Lindisfarne – Holy Island. At low tide it is better described by the geographical term “tombolo” – spelt with a final ‘o’, and an island connected to the mainland by a sand bar or rocky stretch. Lindisfarne is one such.

There is a causeway onto Holy Island. It is covered by the sea for some time around high tide. It can be a dangerous place, of course, as warning posters at both ends announce. A shack on stilts has been placed in the middle of the danger area with a ladder that stranded travellers can use to reach safety.

The tidal flood has become a small tourist event as can be seen, as visitors gather to watch the road disappear. When we were there a car crossed with water sloshing around its wheels and two others stayed for a while to one side on a sand bar until the water rose further.



Image: Winter's Gibbet


In a remote part of Northumbria's National Park stands Winter's Gibbet. In 1791 William Winter was hanged from the wooden gibbet by the neck, and left to die. His body remained there until it rotted.

Winter had murdered a woman called Margaret Crozier.

At that time the road between Elsdon and Scot's Gap was busier. Cattle were driven from hill farms towards the markets of the cities further south. Near to this point, which is called Steng Cross, the cattle were shod by a blacksmith so that their hooves could stand the long journey.

This was therefore a relatively good place to leave an executed felon as a warning to others people.

The present 'gibbet' is a replacement, the head a wooden carving.



Image: Alnwick Gardens


..with thoughts on the importance of the public sector and of local politics for understanding tourism management


An April visit to a north of England garden after a long winter was not an ideal choice of time. Yet Alnwick Garden proved to be impressive and fun even though the trees were still without their leaves and the weather was cloudy-dull.

Our four-person party decided to stick to the Gardens and not visit the Castle that we had all seen many years ago – and two of us at least had glimpsed within a frame of CGI artistry in the Harry Potter movies. That boy must have had a magical effect on the visitor numbers to the great medieval castle. Now, some magic by the lady of the house and a number of skilled designers can cast a spell over a whole new set of visitors through what will be not one but a number of garden areas within the former walled gardens. Harry and Co were famous for lessons on the dark arts including the use of poisons: a Poison Garden is one of the eye-catching (and throat-clutching?) components of the attraction.

Alnwick Castle itself began to rise over the town around 1096. The first Lord Percy of Alnwick carried out restorations and extensions around 1300. In the late seventeenth century new repairs were needed. More enlargements were also made. Landscape designers like Capability Brown were employed – the consultants of their day. By now the owners were known as the first Duke and Duchess of Northumberland though still of the Percy family. The Castle grew. The style was changed from the Gothick of the eighteenth century to something favoured by Victorians fascinated by the medieval period. It was one of the first houses – perhaps the first castle? – to be equipped with hydro-electric power, in 1889, following its pioneering installation at Cragside, a little further north, in 1870.

Northumbria is often said to have the United Kingdom’s densest collection of castles, forts and defensive works including Hadrian’s Wall, a string of medieval fortresses and dozens of Pele towers and bastle houses – domestic-scale properties capable of sheltering families and livestock from raiders. The county also has an impressive set of present day reasons for having tourists visit. The coastline is often superb, the countryside remarkably beautiful and the towns – well, historic.

It is a theme of this web site that tourist attractions are showcases of one kind of another – part of their being attractions, but also part of their origins as creations or collections designed to impress and inform their owners and their guests. The places described on this particular page will all share that function. While castles and mansions were built to give security and working homes to families and employees they also all had another utilitarian function. This was to house knowledge in the form of little museums and libraries, art galleries, sometimes menageries and farm animal collections, and usually – gardens. It is a theme which will be expanded in a posting to come about Cragside, birthplace of home hydro-electricity and a prime example of the beginnings of the information society as contained in a house built at the dawn of the age of the mass media.

The third Duke of Northumberland was a great plant collector, importing seeds and plants to Alnwick’s gardens from round the world. The fourth Duke created an Italianate garden. During the last World War a ‘Dig for Victory’ effort transformed the whole thing into a food-production garden. Then post-war austerity cut into the staffing required to make it function and the walled garden was abandoned.

In 1995 the twelfth Duke of Northumberland and his wife the Duchess began a project that she had proposed to open up a very modern garden where previous centuries had made their marks. Jane Percy, the Duchess, developed the scheme in conjunction with the Belgian landscape designers Jacques and Peter Wirtz. A Trust was created and the Northumberlands donated the 14 acres needed for the work along with 9m. Grant aid was obtained. English Heritage was (apparently) placated as they wanted a period garden, but Jane Percy was determined to make the 21st century contribute something new – just as previous centuries had done. The total cost is quoted to be 42m so far. This raises an interesting snippet – 42m ... The Royal Armouries in Leeds cost 42m ... something about the answer to life, the universe and everything being – 42? The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was designed, of course, for tourists. A new magic number for the potters of Alnwick ...

Back on Earth. Alnwick Garden is over ten years old but still under development. It seems to owe a lot to the Eden Project, though perhaps only co-incidentally. Both have a strong visitor-focus. People enter through visitor centres in each to be faced with a clear and impressive view of their gardens. Eden spreads out from the biodomes, Alnwick from its architectural central feature of fountains and cascades. Each of them has a series of zones containing gardens, activity areas or spaces reserved for further developments.

The Alnwick cascades remind you that water is essential to growth but also that it can supply lots of fun and a few other things to be learnt. So every half hour a sequence of fountains begins to play, at one point shooting water over the heads of some visitors into a lower pool. To one side another group plays its set of jets and falls within little hedge-set spaces. Children can stand by tall columns that fill slowly with water, and are then ‘trapped’ by a ring of water jets that burst upwards around them for several minutes. Other water features show vortexes, meniscuses, turnbinity and other strange effects that should catch a child’s imagination at one level or another – certainly, at least, that they are beautiful and watchable. Close by, they can pedal toy tractors with bucket attachments to scoop up water and deposit it where they will.

More than a dozen gardens make up the total Alnwick Garden (Rose, Cherry, Serpent, Spiral etc as well as Poison are some of the subjects for them). More are planned. Out to one side is a short walk across a piece of parkland space to the Castle itself. It makes for a special pair of attractions, one of stone built in styles from the middle ages onwards and the other a gridshell of wood of the twenty-first century. To the four of us the new kid on the block, the Garden, justified the vision of Jane Percy and the architects in full, and will tempt us back during a summer period when the flowers and trees are showing at their very best – and without doubt a host of jacks’n’jills will be having fun exploring the new landscape.

The multi-million-pound developments attracted their fair share of controversy, rightly or wrongly. In 2002 the Duke of Northumberland announced that he proposed selling a painting by Raphael, known as ‘The Madonna of the Pinks’ to the J P Getty Museum in California, for 34m. It was at a time when the Duchess was reported to need 32m to complete the Garden project. There was something of an uproar. ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper, describing Jane Richards as the daughter of a stockbroker (another source has her dad managing a coalmine), said she was respected for her public-spirited attitude before the announcement, but was criticised as a “vanity gardener” and importer of Disneyland values afterwards. In the event sale of the painting was blocked by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (which also covers tourism by the way). A public appeal by the National Gallery raised the required amount. It got the painting, Northumberland got his money, and the Duchess spent the amount she needed. But, she claimed, that money was from other sources such as grant aid.

Other controversies have accompanied plans by the Duke to develop properties in Beadnell on the local coast and Prudhoe inland. Whatever the truth of the matters and the outcomes of them all, two things stand out. First, just about every big tourism project is controversial – and the gibe about “Disneyfication” is just about as brainless as those geeks who decided Daniel Craig would never make a good James Bond. The Garden is in no way similar to Disneyland except that it attracts tourists. Second, that understanding, and therefore teaching about, tourism management at higher levels desperately needs major inputs about politics and the public sector. A note to tourism students: if your course doesn’t include modules on these two subjects, you aren’t being trained properly.


Image: Alnwick slogans

Other pages:

This is the text-only version of this page. Click here to see this page with graphics.
Edit this page | Manage website
Make Your Own Website: 2-Minute-Website.com