Belsay is an extraordinary match made in heaven, or rather in the green rolling hills of Northumberland. The estate is most famous for its stunning but stark Grecian revival mansion finished just 200 years ago in 1817, but tucked away in the grounds there is also a once important but now semi-ruined mediaeval castle that was enlarged and ‘domesticated’ in the early 17th century.
But best of all the two buildings are linked by an extraordinary garden created in the 19th within the the quarry from which the stone for the new hall was cut.
Belsay was owned by the same family – the Middletons – from the 13thc up until ownership passed to English Heritage in 1984. Although its buildings are now empty and echoing Belsay still maintains the same special quality that led Christopher Hussey, the architectural and garden writer, to describe it in 1940 as “a self-contained Eden”. It is definitely one of the architectural and horticultural highlights of not just North East England but the whole country.
So first a history of the estate and then a quick tour of the main parts of the grounds.
Standing in the borderlands with Scotland, the pele tower at Belsay was built by the Middletons around 1370, and is one of the best surviving examples of such defensive arrangements. It’s hard to believe now that it was not always so isolated, but until the 18thc, it was very close to the main road from Newcastle to Jedburgh and surrounded by an estate village.
With the accession of James I cross-border tensions lessened sufficiently for Thomas Middleton to add a domestic wing to the castle in 1614 making it into a more comfortable gentleman’s home, and one of the earliest unfortified residences in the region.
The family’s status rose when a baronetcy was conferred on William Middleton, the then head of the family in 1662 while the early 18thc saw further additions and alterations, notably a grand domestic wing in 1711, probably by the 3rd baronet, another Sir William, who succeeded in 1717.
He also took the grounds in hand, extending the deer park, planting ornamental woodland and laying out gardens to the south of the house. These can be seen in the 1728 engraving by the Buck brothers. Although long since swept away there are some surviving earthworks to indicate their layout. Further away a little ferme ornee known later as Bantam Folly was constructed around 1757. Its central arch still has a castellated dovecote tower which once boasted a tall church-like spire although this was taken down in the early 19th century.
Yet another Sir William – the 5th baronet – inherited in 1769, and he undertook further major changes , notably, like many others landowners, doing a bit of enclosure and “tidying up”. It was he who created the sense of isolation by moving the main road well away from the house, and then constructing a serpentine drive so it could not be easily seen.
This Sir William married Jane Monck the future heiress of Caenby in Lincolnshire. They had 3 sons but the elder two died young so at the age of 10 the youngest, Charles, became the heir to Belsay. When Sir William died in 1795 Jane returned to Caenby taking Charles with her. He was sent to Rugby school where he fell in love with the classics. His maternal grandfather had made Charles his heir on condition that he took his mother’s family name, and in 1799 at the age of 20 young Charles inherited Caenby too.
By 1801 Sir Charles Monck, as he now was, was back in Northumberland a very wealthy young man, and 3 years later married his cousin Louisa Cooke. Despite the fact that the Napoleonic Wars were raging they honeymooned in Europe. Luckily he kept a diary so we know the couple began in Berlin before going to Dresden, Prague, Vienna and then Venice before finally reaching Athens where they stayed for a year and their son Charles Atticus was born. This lengthy stay enabled Charles to study classical Greek architecture in situ, as well as begin a plant collection. They finally sailed back to Britain in 1806.
Greece obviously had a profound effect on him. Within a year, in August 1807, he noted “the foundations of the new house was begun to be dug”. The new Belsay Hall was probably built to his own designs although he may have had some input from the young John Dobson, from Newcastle, who was to become a significant architect in later decades. Built of stone quarried from the site and with a very low-pitched slate roof, the mansion is a perfect 100ft square, only interrupted on the north side by the kitchen and service wings. Finished in 1815, it is, according to English Heritage, “the first house the design of which was based on the domestic architecture of the ancients”.
Sir Charles was inspired by early ‘picturesque’ theory and following the principles set down by Humphry Repton, he designed the landscape around the Hall and castle to incorporate not only the famous quarry garden but a series of lakes, dells, ponds and a cascade. He also built a Neoclassical stable block and entrance lodges and demolished the village adjacent to the castle rebuilding it well outside the main part of the estate. Only one vestige survived: the village cross, although it too was moved to a more picturesque spot. Meanwhile the ‘domesticated’ castle, now bereft of its setting, was made central to Monck’s overall picturesque dream. The Georgian wing was knocked down so that the medieval fortification could take centre stage again as a romantic eye-catcher across the park.
Sir Charles was an early member of the Horticultural Society [later the RHS] founded in 1804, and a friend of Sir William Hooker, the first director of Kew. He wrote letters to the Gardeners’ Magazine and A plan of transplanting large Forest Trees a paper given to the Horticultural Society. His meticulous records show this was based his own experience in planting at Belsay. There were exotic conifers mixed with Scots Pine and native hardwoods as well as newly introduced monkey puzzles (Araucaria aurocana), while the quarry was initially planted with a mixture of native plants interspersed with other new exotics such as the Chusan Palm (Trachycarpus fortunei). In 1830 Monck travelled to Sicily and saw the ancient quarries at Syracuse which inspired a rethinking of the quarry garden.
Charles Atticus, Louisa and Charles’s only child, had died in 1856 and so when Sir Charles Monck died in 1867 aged 88, it was his grandson Arthur who inherited. In 1876 he revoked the changed of surname and reverted to being Arthur Middleton. He was quite reclusive but, like his grandfather, very interested in plants, and he continued collecting new introductions, and developing the gardens. In particular he extended the quarry garden by adding rhododendrons and more ‘exotic’ shrubs and trees, taking advantage of the micro-climate there to experiment with the range of what could be grown. He also took up William Robinson’s ideas for the wild garden naturalizing perennials in the approach to the quarry. Sir Arthur was in charge until his death in 1933: well over 60 years.
The hall figured in no less than 3 articles by Christopher Hussey in Country Life in October 1940 but was then requisitioned by the army and after the war there wasn’t the money to keep the estate up to the same standard.
The mansion was finally abandoned in 1962 when Sir Stephen Middleton moved to a smaller property on the estate. After standing empty for over 20 years, the hall and gardens were eventually taken into guardianship by the government in 1984.
English Heritage then began an extensive conservation and restoration programme, with all the buildings minutely examined and photographed [they make shocking viewing] and the gardens surveyed, with detailed plans of the extant planting drawn up. All these images -nearly 700 of them- are online at the Historic England Archive.
The Hall is now kept in what English Heritage call “a state of suspended animation” ie unfurnished and with just enough maintenance to keep it at the point of “gentle decay”. Sounds a bit weird but in fact it works very well. The house is not treated so preciously as if it were a museum but instead provides elegant and atmospheric spaces for art installations and exhibitions.
And now for the quick tour
To the immediate south of the hall are the terrace gardens, originally designed and planted by Sir Charles, and very much in the spirit of Repton. They sit on a wide platform atop an elaborate arcaded ha-ha known as the ‘deer shelter’. Stone edged flower beds contained a series of planting areas laid out in a geometric design. In Sir Charles’ day these would have been full of colourful bedding plants, but the glasshouses which provided them were taken down in the 19thc and Sir Arthur turned them over to shrubs and perennials. Stephen Anderton, then the head gardener, oversaw their restoration in the 1980s, following decades of neglect. [The Garden, Oct 1987].
To the south, beyond the terraces, Sir Charles laid out a rhododendron garden around 1860 in the valley and on the rise up to the woodland on the neighbouring hill. Both he and Sir Arthur continued to add new hybrids, including introductions by Joseph Hooker and Frank Kingdon Ward. They also added sporadic specimen of yew, cypress, birch and laburnum. Again restoration work, and identification, began in the mid-1980s. It was much needed!
Further along, through a stand of Scots pines and magnolias, the terraces were broken up by Sir Arthur who created a winter garden with lots of heather and tree heaths, out of sight of the hall itself as part of a labour saving programme. In 1987 Stephen Anderton said it had ” a more refreshingly vulgar atmosphere”.
A small door at the end of that area leads to a meadow garden surrounded by a range of specimen trees. This is surprisingly successful because of the underlying impoverished and rocky ground.
But it’s the quarry garden, entered between two large beech trees planted by Sir Charles, that is the star of the show. It is a complete contrast to the classical symettry and uniformity of the house, but equally carefully planned. Although it would have been much easier to cut the stone in a straightforward semicircular crater-like pattern Monck thought through what could and should happen afterwards. He had the stone cut to form a picturesque ravine which ‘meanders’ [if that’s possible] in an-L-shaped route that varies from 8 to 70 feet in width.
After his return from Sicily he created a great rock arch, “the grotto”and dug lower in places to allow for a bog garden. The ravine’s immense height was then emphasised by adding a yew hedge along the top.
When English Heritage took over, half a century of neglect had left the whole quarry dark and heavily overgrown, although much of the orignal planting survived underneath.
Even after 3 decades of slow patient restoration work this overgrowing remains a constant problem as two interviews with the current head gardener Jo Harrigan show. Rather than me paraphrase what she says why not go and read them in full. The first is in Living North and the other on the English Heritage blog. I’m sure that Sir Charles and Sir Arthur will be applauding her efforts while you’ll be rushing off to plan your trip to Belsay to see for yourself!