We have been up to Northumberland with its beautiful coastline, wide expanse of sandy beaches and high, blue, pellucid skies that were the delight of painters like Constable and the East Anglian school of painters, and most importantly wonderful places to visit.
Our hotel was ideal, Eshott Hall easy to find just off the A1 near Morpeth, but secluded by the surrounding trees and fields as they swept down to the sea. Here every comfort and delicious food fortified us for the strenuous business of house-visiting.
Chillingham Castle was definitely the most eccentric. The home of Sir Humphry Wakefield, this house has been restored, although not to a standard which English Heritage would recognise, by its determined owner. The restoration has resulted in a motley collection of objects being displayed throughout the house all lavishly draped with cob-webs and thick with dust. The silk walls of the drawing room were affixed with the aid of a staple gun. On from there to Cragside. This, the Victorian mansion of the tycoon William Armstrong is replete with every technical device that the wizard-brain of the inventor could come up with. Not least of these was the use of hydraulic power to generate electricity, which not only lit the house but turned the spits in the kitchen, and powered the lifts. The stygian gloom inside hampers the visitor’s appreciation of the plethora of Victorian clutter and the paintings which the National Trust has assembled to replace the collection of Armstrong which was sold by his great nephew. The house was replicated in the prosperous suburbs of many a Victorian city.
Our day beside the sea was spent visiting the two castles at Lindisfarne and Bamburgh. The weather was calm and gentle as we climbed up the cobbled slope (Queen Mary complained that they hurt her feet) to visit the first of these. Lindisfarne is an ancient bastion “modernised” by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the then owner of Country Life. It is a far cry from Imperial Delhi to the architectural intricacies of a northern fortress, but Lutyens executed the commission with his usual imagination and flair. Here played Mme Suggia, the great cellist and subject of Augustus John’s celebrated portrait. Nearby Bamburgh is a charming little town dominated by the immense red sandstone castle. Although the site has been defended since prehistoric times, this is no decayed and dilapidated ruin. Like Lindisfarne it was “done-up” in the late 19th century by none other than Lord Armstrong of Cragside fame. Lavishly equipped with a “medieval” Great Hall panelled in teak (off-cuts from his battleships perhaps?) and hung with portraits hinting at a spurious lineage, its presence is to say the least commanding. In the former Laundry building is the Armstrong Museum dedicated to the 1st Lord Armstrong, and his ingenuity.
But the high point in our visit must be the castle at Alnwick. Dominating the town this is the ancient stronghold of the Percy family, Dukes of Northumberland. A vast rambling monster of a place, this piece of our heritage would daunt many an heir.The present Duke and Duchess have grasped the nettle and transformed the potential incubus not only into a tourist destination but also home…albeit one of unsurpassing splendour. Here you will see not only Titians and Canalettos, pietre dure cabinets from Versailles, marble fireplaces like mausoleums, but also the Duchess’s collection of stuffed animals and neat rows of gin, whisky and tonic water. As if this were not enough the recreated gardens have a tree house, a poison garden and a cascade to rival Peterhof.
Northumberland was a joy to visit, blessed by sunlit autumn days and the changing colour of the trees.