I wonder what George would have made of the children picnicking or playing football on his lawn? He’d probably be more concerned that both his house and orangery lie in ruins and wonder how his wonderful estate came to such a sorry state.
That was my first thought on my second ever visit to Gibside – the first was about 40 years ago when I was almost the only person there, and very little was accessible or even visible of what is one of just a handful of grand – indeed outstanding – 18th-century designed landscapes in Britain. This time it was teeming with people. What had happened?
The photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledgedI suppose the first question to answer is “who was George?”. He was George Bowes, who lived from 1701-1760 and is a direct ancestor of the late Queen Mother. George was a coal baron, who inherited the estate aged just 21 and the following year married the 14 yr old heiress, Eleanor Verney of Compton Verney, who died just a few weeks later [according to Walpole because “of the violence of the Bridegroom’s embraces” ].
George was heartbroken and threw himself into making even more money and improving the Gibside estate.
George seems to have fashioned Gibside with two things in mind: spectacular views and ‘wow’ moments – and they are both still there although perhaps nowadays appreciated in a different way. The story of the house and its landscape is one of riches to rags but, thanks to the National Trust, this is slowly being reversed and while its unlikely the mansion will ever have its roof put back, let alone be made habitable, the estate is finding a new, less elite but much more secure future firmly rooted in the local community.
Gibside first appears in the records in the 13thc as another of the many properties of the Prince Bishop of Durham. The Derwent river in the steep valley below, despite its peaceful rural feel today, has had an industrial past. There was a fulling mill in the mediaeval period and later forges, mills and iron and steel works making use of the water. In the 16thc the estate was owned by the Blakiston family who made their money from iron and coal and Gibside Hall, the grand Jacobean mansion bears the date 1620 alongside the arms and initials of its builders William and Jane Blakiston. It passed to the Bowes family by marriage in 1693.
In the mid-1720s George was a co-founder of the Grand Alliance of coal owners, a cartel set up to fix prices and maximise profits from the London coal trade. To get their coal to the river Tyne more easily they built the Causey Arch -at 31m or 102ft then the longest single spanned bridge in the world – over the river on the Gibside to carry an early wagon-way. It was used by up to 900 wagons a day but the poor architect who designed it, Ralph Wood, was so afraid that his arch would collapse that he committed suicide in 1727.
Next, in 1727, George entered Parliament as a Whig member for County Durham and remained an MP until his death in 1760.
And then he started on the gardens. He began by seeking advice from William Etty (c 1675-1734) the Yorkshire-based architect who was paid 10 guineas in 1727 for drawing up a set of plans. Although Etty had previously worked at Seaton Delaval and Castle Howard amongst other places he is not well-known for any garden or estate layouts, but, as no further payments were made, perhaps his ideas were not considered good enough.
Next on the scene was Stephen Switzer, one of the “greats” of the early 18thc landscaping profession. He drew up plans in both 1731 and 1732 and supplied trees for the estate. Unfortunately the plans have not survived so there’s no way of knowing if what was carried out were his suggestions, although the National Trust seem sure it was. There are, however, no payments for overseeing the work so it’s possible that Bowes had a hand in the final designs himself. The work was carried out by his own workforce under his head gardener William Joyce.
Switzer worked in the transition between geometric formality and the “natural” informality of the later landscape movement and that can be seen in the mix of design features that make up Gibside. Switzer believed in “mixing the useful and profitable Parts of Gardening with the pleasurable” in what he called an “Extensive Way” arguing that “the eye should not be imprisoned” . What this meant in practice was “borrowing the landscape”: the opening of vistas out from the more formal parts of the garden to the agricultural land or open countryside beyond, to make them look as if they were actually just another part of the whole even if they belonged to someone else. To keep livestock out he suggested a ha-ha which, unlike fencing, did not block the view.
So the wider Gibside estate has rides and winding paths through it offering glimpses out but the parts nearest the house are much more formal and would not have been out of place many decades earlier.
The 1.5 ha [3.5 acre] walled garden was begun in 1734 replacing a smaller Jacobean one. The bricks for its enclosure were made on the estate and cost six shillings and sixpence a thousand. It provided not only the usual vegetables, fruit and flowers but also fish from a large pond. There is a surviving gardener’s house, and there were probably several glasshouses too although there is now little trace. An orchid house was added in the 19thc.
There is little obvious clue to the layout or what was grown but the National Trust having acquired ownership in 1993 conducted some archaeology which revealed some of the 18thc planting pattern. The garden has now been divided into several areas including one for children, and others for volunteers to grown crops of various kinds including for the cafe. Landscape Architecture students from Northumbria University were invited in 2o16 to research and design a temporary structure for exhibitions but longer term plans for the site are still under consideration.
If you’re interested in garden tools – a large number mainly 19thc I’d guess – have been found at Gibside and and can be seen in the National Trusts on-line collection
The most prominent planted feature is the Avenue which was begun in 1746. The sheer physical effort that must have gone into levelling the ground for about half a mile is eye-watering, especially since its has a ha-ha, with a ditch and brick retaining wall, running along most of its length.
At one end stands the chapel designed by James Paine. Work on this started just before George’s death in 1760 and continued right through until 1769.
At the other end, George, like his fellow Whigs at Stowe, commissioned a potent political symbol: a column to Liberty. At 43m [140 feet] it was second only to Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire of London in height. The female figure was once gilded and could be seen for miles. She is holding a Cap of Liberty on a staff. Even Pevsner was impressed writing in the Durham volume of Buildings of England that “it might well stand in the most ambitious of London squares.”
As you might be able to see from the photo above, the Trust are reverting to traditional methods of maintenance where it is feasible. The vista to the monument was being scythed as were other areas of grass.
Other more formal areas and features commissioned by Bowes have long been lost, however these are recorded on an estate map of 1767 by James Stephenson, which unfortunately does not appear to have been digitised.They include the remains of a 3 roomed bath house dating from 1734 – only remains because most of it has tumbled into the river. An ice house was built in the late 1740s and is still there tucked away in the woods.
There is also a lovely 1740s Gothick Banqueting House very much in the style of Batty Langley but designed by Daniel Garrett. This is now a Landmark Trust property and stands on a rise looking down a wide vista to what was once a formal octagonal pool, which once had neat edges and was surrounded by a ring of statues.
Also in the woodland nearby is an elegant stable block from the last years of George Bowes life – it looks more like a house than a working building and was perhaps so grand because it was to house his racehorses. It later became a farmhouse and was only incorporated back into estate by the NT in 2000.
George remarried in 1743, nearly 20 years after the death of Eleanor. His new wife was Mary Gilbert, another wealthy heiress, of St Paul’s Waldenbury another wonderful early Georgian house and landscape in Hertfordshire, still in the hands of the Bowes-Lyons family. They had one daughter, Mary Eleanor Bowes, born 24 February 1748 who achieved great fame and even greater misfortune in her life. She had excellent taste in hobbies – she was a great amateur botanist and plant collector but dreadful taste in husbands and became known as the Unhappy Countess. Sadly there is no time or space to tell her whole story here especially as others have done it better, although she has cropped up in a previous post.
Suffice it to say her first husband was the Earl of Strathmore who she later said was “imprudent in marrying”. He gave her a hard time and five children before dying. Her second husband, the fraudster Andrew Robinson Stoney, better known as “Stoney Bowes”, was even worse and treated her “with the utmost indignity”.
With the total power allowed to husbands over their wife’s property he began the destruction of her estate. Stanley House in Chelsea, her London base and her collections were sold. Building work and maintenance at Gibside were stopped, workmen unpaid, tenants evicted and even the timber sold off. This probably included the formally planted trees along either side of the avenue. Although she eventually obtained a divorce – extremely difficult in the 18thc despite his violence and other appalling behaviour – she abandoned Gibside for a quiet life on the south coast, before dying in 1800.
Her plant collecting was serious. Apart from growing exotics both at Gibside and Stanley House she commissioned Scottish botanist William Paterson to collect exotic plants during his expedition to the Cape of Good Hope and she had a special cabinet for the specimens he brought back
There are two remarkable features about the cabinet. First, it only opens at the side making long drawers for dried botanical specimens on paper. Secondly, its broad legs are hollow and each contains a long lead tube with a tap, presumably to release liquid onto a shelf. The cabinet is now in the Bowes Museum [see below].
Her legacy on the site is the ruined orangery built in 1773. Normally the term ruin implies something gloomy and sad. Mary Eleanor’s is the exact opposite. Light, cheerful and even now a roofless wreck it is just a lovely place to sit. Originally called the Green House it housed her collection of exotics. Like most other greenhouses of its time it had a solid roof but huge windows all round when it was built. A glass roof replaced the slate one in the late 19thc. The remains of the heating system’s boiler can still be seen. It was one of the casualties of later neglect, and there were even plans to sell it for conversion into a private a house in the 1980s. There’s no doubt it would have made a lovely dwelling but now planted with brightly coloured plants, it is an outstanding romantic ruin.
In 2018 a giant Wardian Case [anachronistic but understandable] was built and filled with colourful exotic looking artificial plants by Fiona Curran as part of a commission –Undisciplined Women – by the Trust .
Her blog has more details and photos and explains more about Mary Eleanor’s botanic interests.
From the Orangery a path leads through the replanted Victorian shrubbery back to the hall. Strangely Gibside hall itself is almost out of place. It doesn’t line up with any of the principal axes of the estate and isn’t even a focal point on any major vista. It’s also surprising that Bowes didn’t rebuild it. The argument advanced by Gemma Hall who wrote the guidebook for the NT is that this wasn’t always the case. The current approach to the mansion is from the opposite direction to that in the past. Then the approach road would have meandered through the woods, in a Reptonian or Brownian way, offering the occasional glimpse of the house through the trees and by the time visitors had arrived it would have been a fitting climax to their journey. I’m not sure how convincing that is – maybe he just liked the old house? Gutted in the 1920s and deroofed in the 1950s it has been stabilised awaiting a longer-term decision as to its future. Given that the Trust consulted widely in 2014 about possibilities but the site is still completely fenced off I’d suggest you don’t hold your breath!
Mary Eleanor’s eldest son, the 10th earl of Strathmore tried to reverse the damage caused by his step-father. He repaired the mansion and remodelled it, completed the chapel that had been begun by his grandfather and undertook a replanting programme, with the accounts for 1790 showing that over 20,000 trees had been planted that year alone. When he died in 1820 aged only 51 he left just an illegitimate son, John, who couldn’t inherit the titles but could have the land.
Despite the fact that he spent most of his life in France and married a French wife he did continue the re-planting of the estates trees, including it is thought those of the avenue. Unfortunately in 1874 he also auctioned off everything portable: “household furniture, oil paintings, horses, cattle, poultry, chariot carts, harnesses, plants, implements etc”.
John and his wife were great collectors and as they had no children left everything to the Bowes Museum which they built at Barnard Castle.
Gibside reverted to the earls of Strathmore whose main seat was at Glamis. Gibside was tenanted but in 1920 many of the fixtures and fittings were removed and taken to Glamis, including the urns from the orangery. Then, from the 1940s, the designed landscape was sold off or leased piecemeal. The estate was gradually broken up and sold off. Buildings were demolished or allowed to fall into ruin and a part of the house was blown up. The woodland was leased to the Forestry Commission who replaced most of what was left of the 18thc planting with conifers.
Yet at the same time the importance of the estate was recognised, and many of its buildings were listed in 1950. That did not stop the farmland being divided up and auctioned off piece meal. The National Trust took the courageous decision to begin to acquire and reunite the designed landscape, and they now own the core of the Georgian estate.
A conservation management plan has been produced by Simpson and Brown which makes it clear that “the scale, intact nature and original quality of Gibside puts it on a par with other well-known survivors including Stowe, Stourhead, Studley Royal, Painshill, Claremont, Chiswick House, Prior, Houghton, and others. These examples are all in an advanced state of restoration compared to Gibside.” What is good about the Trust’s position is that under their overall management there is an intention to restore and conserve Gibside as a major heritage asset, an area of nature conservation, and a beautiful open space close to the centre of the Tyneside conurbation. However top down doesn’t always work that well and as at Seaton Delavel, Tredegar and Dyffryn the Trust are hoping to achieve a high degree of local community and volunteer involvement.
The downside of all this is that Gibside is one of the fastest growing National Trust properties in terms of visitor numbers, and it’s one of the biggest attractions near Tyneside. While high visitor numbers are positive, indicating public involvement, interest, and regard for Gibside, even with the best intentions the sheer volume causes damage to the designed and natural elements of the estate and needs extra-careful management. From discussions with NT head gardeners and site managers elsewhere this is not an easy task… and as at Saltram and Scotney both of which I’ve written about it is easy to get things wrong. I just hope that doesn’t happen at Gibside.