Cragside has long been my favourite English house. It’s the sort of place Baron Frankenstein would have lived in if he’d had the great good fortune to win, as Cecil Rhodes so eloquently put it, first prize in life’s lottery and been born English. I can just imagine it at midnight with lightning streaking across the sky and generators roaring behind the leaded casements.
Cragside is famous for being home to the first Lord Armstrong, Victorian inventor, innovator and all-round genius, who crammed his mansion full of gadgets and lit it up by hydroelectricity – the first house in the world to have it – as well as planting over four million trees and shrubs in the beautifully landscaped gardens.
The rock garden is the biggest of its kind in Europe and leads down to the famous Iron Bridge before the formal gardens spread out in all directions. There’s a network of magical tunnels and paths leading through the colourful rhododendron forest that kids love to get lost in during the summer and hope they never get found and dragged back to school.
Lord Armstrong had an enlightened view about education, encouraging the schooling of the poor at a time when child labour was rampant and spoilt cads like Flashman were running the empire. He apparently used to have the facility of slipping into a trance-like state, to the point where his friends thought he was dead, before snapping out of it with a brilliant new invention in mind and rushing off to make it. He still used to work all day and into the night well into his old age, and in Newcastle his memorial sums him up in one sentence: ‘He bestrode the Victorian era like a colossus’.
He was technically a proud Geordie and salt of the earth. Just like me, in fact.