Celebrating over 40 years of the National Trust at Cragside

An old photograph of the visitor centre (formerly the stable block) before restoration

In 1971, architectural historian Mark Girouard was asked by the National Trust to compile a list of the most important Victorian houses the charity should save should they become available. He placed Cragside at the top of that list, and in 1977, Cragside was acquired.

The National Trust was met with a house with a leaky roof and extensive dry rot, and a surrounding landscape which had taken on a jungle life all its own. As Girouard wrote “Cragside was a crazy site on which to build a large house.”

Lord and Lady Armstrong possessed the wealth to make what seemed the impossible a reality. The King of Siam was informed on his visit in 1897 that “Lord Armstrong has spent £12,000 (£1.5 million today) every year for 20 years in moving soil and making paths and lakes, about a million (£128 million today) of money has been spent on the grounds altogether,” and that does not include the building of the house itself.

Additions since the original acquisitions

Not all of what the National Trust looks after today came to us in 1977, with the visitor centre (formerly the stable block) and 16 acres of the Tumbleton area purchased in 1980. In addition to improving access, this saved the area from a planned executive housing development. All the buildings had become run down and in some cases derelict. However, it did give the National Trust the opportunity to develop the visitor offer even further.

The formal garden was up for sale around the same time as the visitor centre. The National Trust couldn't afford both at the same time, so chose the visitor centre as it was at the most risk. The formal garden passed into private ownership until it was put up for sale again in 1991. This time the Trust was in a position to purchase this area of the grounds, surrounded by a wonderful piece of open parkland, with amazing views across to the Simonside Hills. Like the rest of Cragside it has some brilliant buildings and features that make it very special and worth conserving.  

Some other highlights

Dry rot and a leaking roof at the house were a defining moment in its history. Without addressing both when Cragside was first purchased, the house would not be as well preserved as it is today.

In 1984 the Pump House and Power House were conserved, including the 19th century machinery. The Hydraulic Engine and Hydroelectric machinery are stunning examples, unique to Cragside, and vital to telling our engineering and water story. The British Engineerium carried out an excellent restoration, ensuring good conservation can be maintained into the future. These treasures also link the outdoors with the indoors to explain how, on a grand scale, Cragside was the house where modern living began.

After being inaccessible for 30 years, the Iron Bridge was reopened after work began in 2007
Scaffolding covers the Iron Bridge during its restoration
After being inaccessible for 30 years, the Iron Bridge was reopened after work began in 2007

The Iron Bridge was briefly opened in 1979 but closed very quickly to prevent any further damage and keep visitors safe. A £10,000 appeal was launched and the funds were quickly secured. However even after the expenditure of £11,000 the bridge could not be opened. Sufficient repairs were carried out to ensure it remained a feature in the landscape, thereby preserving the iconic view from the valley of water, iron bridge, house and Northumberland sky framed by the cathedral of towering trees.

Restoration planning recommenced in 2007 and archaeological recording was undertaken to capture the history of this little understood structure, busting a lot of myths about its past. An entry in the diary of Thomas Sopwith (a great friend of the Armstrongs), records that it was under construction in 1866, giving us a firm date for the structure. The materials used, and where they came from, are now much better understood and the project became a great journey into the past. Work began in 2008 after much detailed planning and the necessary consents had been obtained. On completion it was opened by the children from Harbottle School assisted by John Grundy. Fully restored and accessible after 30 years of closure, it is proof that some things are worth waiting for; it is amazing to think it has now been open a decade.     

Papers and minutes of meetings show that the reintroduction of hydroelectricity was being discussed in the early years of the 1980’s and was always on the Cragside agenda from then on. Robin Wright, Cragside’s Engineer, saw one of these new-fangled Archimedes Screw hydroelectric generators at a meeting of the British Hydroelectric Association in 2009 and the idea to have one at Cragside was conceived. In 2011 concept drawings were drawn up to place it on the Tumbleton dam, where everyone could see it as they started their visitor journey. Exploratory investigations began a year later, and ground works followed in 2013. Installing the Archimedes Screw in 2014 returned hydroelectricity to the place where it all began. It may have taken 30 years to achieve and 5 years to plan and install, however it was the right solution at the right time – again the wait was worth it. It is a modern, reversible intervention, which conserves the spirit of our place and its creators. It links the present with the past in a tangible way and makes hydroelectricity meaningful at Cragside once more.

It is astounding what has been achieved at Cragside in the first four decades it has been looked after by the National Trust, and the future of Cragside is looking just as bright as Joseph Swan’s incandescent lightbulbs.

The Archimedes' screw was installed in 2014
A photograph of the Archimedes' screw being lifted into position by a crane
The Archimedes' screw was installed in 2014