Northumberland Visit, July 2015

As part of our continuing 50th Wedding Anniversary celebrations, we took a three night trip to Northumberland in the extreme northeast of England with our friends Keith and Zena, who also celebrated their Golden Wedding in June. Our first stop, on the way to our resort hotel, was at the outdoor museum of Beamish.

Beamish is a reconstruction of a Victorian coal mining town and, although the main town is said to be set in 1913, there are a number of older buildings and settings. All the buildings have been re-located here from their original sites around the area and they are all staffed by people in period clothing. Many that we talked to were really into their “role” and provided not only some good historical data but also were very entertaining and amusing at times.


The colliery

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We took a tram from the entrance area to the main street of the town (about a one mile ride) and spent most of our time in the several shops and commercial buildings established there. We visited the Cooperative store, the bank, a couple of confectionery and clothing stores as well as spending a very entertaining 20 minutes listening to the local dentist and having him explain the tools of his trade circa 1900. There were also stables and coach houses and trams, buses and commercial vehicles of the early 20th century were continually passing through the town.

One somewhat alarming aspect was that many of the items in homes and stores were ones that we recognized from our childhood – although since the four of us were celebrating our 50th wedding anniversaries it is perhaps not too surprising that we had experienced some of the “artifacts” first hand.

Our final stop was at the houses and chapel near the colliery. Here we saw the miners’ cottages which were quite rudimentary to our minds but which were apparently relatively luxurious for the times. Each had a well-tended vegetable garden and there were pens for pigs and other animal housing. Each family worked specific crops or owned animals and the products were shared amongst all the families, as well as with the many single men that were recruited to work in the mine and who lodged in these same small homes.

About 5pm we left the museum and completed our journey to the Macdonald Linden Hotel and Country Club where we were booked in for the next three nights. We had a very good dinner and finished the evening and a very interesting day with a nightcap in the lounge.

On the next day 9 (Thursday July 9) we drove to the nearby town of Alnwick (pronounced “Annick”). Our destination here was the Barter Bookshop which is said to be one of the largest secondhand bookshops in Britain. The library is housed in the town’s railway station (which closed in 1968) and is now a huge facility. There are dozens of shelves crammed with books of every kind, as well as a coffee shop and café and it is common for visitors to simply go in for a coffee and sit reading at one of the several groupings of chairs and tables set up throughout. The shop was started by a couple less than twenty years ago and has grown not only in size but in fame and is now as much a tourist attraction as it is a bookshop. Needless to say, with Molly and Zena being avid readers, Barters’ gained some more trade today.

While in the town we also stopped for a short time at the small but interesting open air market where there was only one fruit and vegetable stall but several stalls selling handmade products. Again, the Alnwick economy was helped by our presence!

In the afternoon we drove a few miles to visit Cragside Estate. This is a large Victorian home in a very large estate (there is a six mile drive – which we took – around its perimeter) but its major claim to fame is that it was the first home in Britain to have electricity generated on site from its own water supply.




Inside Cragside


A relatively small (10 rooms) house had been built by William (later Lord) Armstrong in 1860 as a retreat from his main residence in the


Some of the installed electric lighting











Newcastle suburbs, some thirty miles away. It was built on barren, stony ground (hence Cragside) on a steep hillside with little or no vegetation or trees in sight. However, after about twenty years and with increased prosperity and industrial wealth, Lord Armstrong decided he needed something a little larger to entertain his friends and clients from around the world, so he built the new house around the old one and ultimately ended up with a 100 room mansion. Amongst his house guests were the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VIII), for whom he had built additional bedrooms and en suite facilities.

Lord Armstrong was by now (1860) a very successful industrial engineer (he had started life as a solicitor) and had major ship building, crane building and armaments factories in Gateshead and Newcastle. However, he was fascinated by water and its power and set out to use that resource in his much expanded home. His was one of the first homes to have running hot and cold water, flush toilets and central heating – and this in a very remote part of northern England. He achieved this through the use of a hydraulic pump engine, powered by the gravitational water flow from a huge man-made lake built on site that took clean spring water to a tank on the roof of the house (300 feet above the spring).

Not satisfied with this sophistication, he later used the same water power to generate electricity to provide lighting and other amenities in the home. Hence he had the first hydro-electric powered lighting in any home in Britain. Again, this wasn’t sufficient as the arc lighting (dim and erratic) of the time was soon replaced by the incandescent bulbs invented by his friend and Gateshead neighbor, Joseph Swan. Swan had come up with the carbon filament lightbulb at the same time as Edison did the same in America and, in fact, the two joined forces as the Edison-Swan Company.

So, in this remote hilly area of northeast England was a huge home with electric lighting and, largely thanks to the efforts of his wife, now set in a beautiful wooded area with lakes and formal gardens. It is said that 5 million trees were planted within the estate with native and other species from around the world. Lord Armstrong had enormous wealth and partnered with many other wealthy industrialists to form companies that existed well into the 20th century. He also gave much of his personal assets to philanthropic works in a number of areas; again, some still exist today.

He died at the age of 90 in 1900 and, with no children from his long marriage, the estate and title passed to his great nephew and thence to two additional Lord Armstrongs. Their stewardship was not as steadfast as his, however, and in the 1970s Cragside passed into the hands of the National Trust who manage it today.

One final 21st century addition to the estate now provides electricity to the house and would presumably have earned the praise of William Armstrong. An Archimedes Screw is now being used to generate electricity via water flow from the same lake that had been put in place by Armstrong in the mid-1800s so that, almost two hundred years on, Cragside is using hydro-electric power once again.


Archimedes Screw; a modern use of a very old concept



After 4 hours on the estate, which included a tour of the inside of the home with its advanced concepts and its obvious wealth and works of art, we returned to our hotel.

On Friday we spent most of the day in the nearby town of Alnwick. We made one stop on the way at an 11th century church where we spent an interesting 20 minutes inside and outside the beautiful building.


Once in Alnwick we purchased tickets for visits to the castle and to the gardens. The castle of course is ancient and is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Northumberland but the adjoining gardens are a relatively modern feature and major attraction of the town. They are owned and operated by the Northumberland estate and it is clear that a significant amount of money has been – and continues to be – put into these beautiful grounds.

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The central attraction is a very big water feature that includes many terraces in a perhaps fifty feet high waterfall and also includes a number of fountains and sprays that cycle through a pattern. It is a huge man-made structure but fits well into the natural hillside which contains a magnificent hedge, pathways and additional water features and gardens. Above the falls is a walled garden in which there are dozens of species of flowers, vegetables and other flora, all of which surround yet another central pond from which flow four streams.

We returned from the walled garden via a winding pathway through a cherry orchard and several wild flower gardens. It was a lovely walk on a warm and sunny day. Then we spent about 30 minutes on a guided tour of the Poison Garden. This is a small area but contains about one hundred species of plants that are poisonous in one aspect or another but are in many cases often found in English gardens or in the countryside. The guide made the tour very interesting and amusing – and, I suppose, a little unnerving as many of the plants were very familiar to most of us.

Finaly we walked through a beautiful rose garden and then proceeded to the castle. By this time it was after 3pm so we were advised to go directly to the state rooms as they would be closed at 4:30 and, in fact, we spent the rest of our time in the castle in those rooms.

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The 8th Duke of Northumberland and his family live in the castle at least part of the year and many of the rooms we visited were their living quarters containing magnificent works of art, statuary and beautiful furnishings – as well as the occasional modern photograph of a family member or grouping. These rooms, and in fact the whole of the castle that we saw were extremely well maintained and we were told that much had undergone major restoration over the past ten years (Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside). We have visited a number of stately homes and palaces throughout Europe (including those of St Petersburg just last year) and, although Alnwick is on a much smaller scale, we felt that it compared favorably with its more well-known and famous counterparts.

How much of this is a direct result of the money that has been generated from the use of the castle by the television and movie industry is difficult to say but the impact of setting two Harry Potter films here must have been significant, not only in direct revenues but in the increased tourism resulting. I was pleased that this aspect of the castle has not been overtly exploited and certainly did not detract from the inherent attractiveness of the castle and gardens.

A more recent claim to fame for the estate has been in the filming here of an episode of the very popular British TV series “Downton Abbey”. This is a series about aristocratic life in the early 20th century and apparently Alnwick castle provides a perfect setting for many of the indoor scenes. We learned that a second episode will be filmed here – starting tomorrow!

The Percy family (the lineage granted the Northumberland title) has been a major family in British life since Elizabethan times and has generated a great deal of wealth in a number of industries and seems to be doing things right to maintain that lifestyle. However, the fate of so many aristocratic families of Britain has forced many to not only open their homes to the public (as at Alnwick) but eventually to sell off large parts of the family’s assets to pay for upkeep and taxes (“Death Duties”). It is to be hoped that the entrepreneurial ideas of the Percy family will avoid a similar fate for the magnificent castle.

We had another nice meal in the hotel and had a picture taken of the four of us in the lounge.


On Saturday we checked out for the journey home. Rather than follow the same route back, we decided to head west towards Carlisle and then south to Kirkby Lonsdale and home. We followed some very scenic areas through the Borders, had some distant views of the hills of the Lake District and stopped a couple of times for a snack. One of these was in the tiny village of Haltwhistle, which claims to be the “Center of Britain, being equidistant from the north and south coasts as well as from the east and west.


At the center of Britain



It was another warm day and it was a beautiful drive and a perfect ending to a very pleasant four days with good friends.


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