Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens

Belsay Hall is one of Northumberland’s top tourist attractions comprising a medieval castle, a stately home and picturesque gardens linking the two.

The Belsay Estate was home to the Middleton family (not related to Kate Middleton) for 700 years from 1270 when Sir Richard Middleton was Lord Chancellor to King Henry II. The hall, castle and gardens were taken into the guardianship of the state in 1980 and are now managed by English Heritage.

The impressive fortified pele tower of Belsay Castle was built in the late 14th century to defend the occupants against frequent raids and unrest in this border region of England. After the conflict between Scotland and England died down the Middletons converted the castle into a more comfortable home by adding the elegant country house extension that we see here (now without a roof) which was built from 1603-1614.

The family abandoned the castle in 1817 and moved into the nearby newly-built Belsay Hall whose Greek Revival architectural style was inspired by the owner’s honeymoon trip to Greece. This owner, Sir Charles Monck, was also a Middleton but changed his name in order to inherit the substantial estates of his wealthy maternal grandfather.

Today the Hall is empty of furniture, which is a shame but it does enable visitors to appreciate the beauty of the Roman/Greek architecture. During our visit one room was being used for a ‘multi-sensory installation’ featuring words and music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

The Castle and Hall sit in 30 acres of grounds. Sir Charles made use of the excavations left behind when the stone for the hall was cut to create a quarry garden. With its sheer-sided canyon walls it has its own micro-climate out of the wind enabling exotic trees and rare plants to survive (although when we visited last October it was freezing)! There is also a Rhododendron Garden, which comes into flower in spring, and more formal gardens around the Hall.

For me, the majestic Yew trees and other conifers and hardwoods were the stars of the gardens.

The former stable block houses the tea room, shop, ticket office, toilets etc.

You can find details of opening hours and prices on their English Heritage’s website (indoor spaces are currently closed due to Covid restrictions).

How To Get to Belsay Hall

The hall is located about 15 miles north-west of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

The exact location is marked on this map:

You can find more Northumberland Attractions here.

Leptis Magna in Libya and Surrey

Earlier this month I was near Windsor and took the opportunity to visit Virginia Water, a large man-made lake in Windsor Great Park which has long been a royal hunting ground and spacious back yard for the monarchs staying at Windsor Castle.

Not far from the Visitor Centre stands a classical ruin which, on Google Maps, is marked as Leptis Magna Ruins. Since I had been to the real Leptis Magna in Libya back in 1976 I was curious to find out how ruins from Libya have ended up in Surrey.

The folly in Windsor Great Park.

In 1816 an English Consul in Tripoli called Colonel Hanmer Warrington, along with an artist friend, visited the ruined Roman city of Leptis Magna and thought some precious relics from there would make a great addition to the British Museum. He saw no problem with powerful Britain throwing its imperial weight around and regarding itself as the rightful heir to items left behind by those other great empire builders, the Romans. He persuaded the local Ottoman governor to let him take some of the structures back to Britain. Today that would probably be seen as a war crime under the Hague Convention but those days it was common practice. The Elgin Marbles had been removed from the Parthenon and shipped to Britain just a couple of years earlier and the French had removed 600 columns from Leptis Magna in the 17th century and incorporated them into Versailles, Rouen Cathedral and elsewhere.

Part of the Temple of Augustus looking at home in the Surrey countryside.

Some thirty seven marble and granite columns, together with pedestals, cornices and various other ancient stone slabs arrived in London in 1818 and were deposited in the courtyard of the British Museum which really did not know what to do with them since they were undergoing rebuilding at the time. After lying around for eight years it was decided that King George IV could have them to use as garden adornments at Virginia Water. The King’s architect Jeffrey Wyatville created a folly in the form of a ruined Roman temple using the looted Leptis Magna stones, together with some masonry reclaimed from the demolished Carlton House and some classical statues taken from a captured French ship. He called his creation the Temple of Augustus, perhaps in honour of King George whose middle name was Augustus.

The background of this coronation portrait of King George IV includes some Roman style columns like those at Virginia Water Lake.

By 2008 the ruins were in poor condition due to a combination of the English climate, root damage and vandalism but they were restored by the Crown Estate and reopened to the public in 2009.

The above 3 photos are of Leptis Magna, Libya in 1976 (or I might be mixing them up with Sabratha, another Roman ruined city in Libya, which I also visited around the same time).

As for the original Leptis Magna in Libya, at its height around 1800 years ago it had been the third most important city in Africa after Carthage and Alexandria. This was during the reign of Emperor Septimus Severus who was born in the city. It fell into decline after his reign and, over the centuries, was damaged by a tidal wave, sand encroachment and various invasions. Locals also used the site as a source of building materials. Despite all this, and even with the plundering of Warrington and Louis XIV, the ruins remain among the best preserved Roman sites in the Mediterranean and they are a world class tourist attraction, or at least would be, if Libya were not wracked by war. Hopefully Leptis Magna will emerge unscathed from this latest episode in its turbulent history but if it needs any replacement columns we know where there are some spares.

The Lowry Trail in Berwick

L S Lowry (1887-1976) is one of Britain’s best loved artists. His instantly recognisable paintings usually feature gritty northern industrial streets filled with ‘matchstick’ people, rows of terraced houses, mills, factories and smoking chimneys against a white or grey sky. His paintings have soared in value since his death but in his early years he struggled to get recognition as a serious artist, particularly from his domineering and demanding mother. (Watch Mrs Lowry & Son starring Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave if you haven’t already). Most of his painting was done near his home in Pendlebury, Salford and in Manchester but he liked to take holidays in Berwick-upon-Tweed from the mid 1930s right up until his death and a number of his works were created there.

The Lowry Trail was set up by The Berwick Preservation Trust and it allows walkers to follow in his footsteps and see 18 sites which inspired his paintings and drawings of the area or are otherwise associated with Lowry. It is a self-guided walk taking about 3 hours and you can find a map and brochure here. There are information boards at each of the 18 sites, mostly displaying Lowry’s painting or sketch of the scene along with explanatory notes.

I completed the trail recently and here is my account of it, following the same order shown on the map.

The trail begins in Dewar’s Lane, a narrow alley off Bridge Street in the heart of Berwick-upon-Tweed. When I first saw Lowry’s 1936 pencil drawing I assumed that the crooked buildings were just for artistic effect but as you can see this former granary really does lean backwards.

The building now houses a YHA hostel and bistro.

In this rapidly sketched pencil drawing of Palace Street he noted the colours of the buildings signalling an intention to paint this scene at a later date.

This photo was taken in roughly the same location.

On Pier Road Lowry sketched this pencil drawing in 1956 of Berwick’s pier and lighthouse which were built in the early 1800s.

The same scene today. The former maltings buildings have been converted into flats. The pier is currently closed off for repairs so I was unable to walk to the end.

One of Lowry’s more cheerful scenes is On The Sands painted in 1959 or earlier. The information board reads ‘”Poverty and gloom. Never a joyous picture of mine you’ll see. Always gloom. I never do a jolly picture.” Lowry’s sorrowful remark is denied by this painting of brightly clothed children playing around a shelter behind Berwick Pier.’

The shelter is looking more gloomy now, fenced off due to unsafe brickwork and bereft of playing children as Berwick tries to emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown.

Lowry was so enamoured with Berwick that he is thought to have seriously considered buying this property in 1947. The house, called The Lions, stands on top of the town’s Elizabethan Walls and looks out to sea but it was found to be rampant with damp and Lowry did not proceed with the purchase. By 1971 it was derelict and vandalised and threatened with demolition but it has since been saved and restored.

Continuing along the town walls the next spot is where Lowry sketched a Football Match taking place on ‘The Stanks’ where the moat around the town used to be. Football of course is still very popular in Berwick. The local team Berwick Rangers is unique for being the only English Club to play in the Scottish football league until their relegation in 2019. They now play in the fifth tier of Scottish football.

This is the spot where the game Lowry sketched was played.

This photo, from December last year, was taken where the town wall crosses Marygate, looking towards the Town Hall which Lowry liked to paint.

This painting of the Town Hall called Old Berwick (Strother’s Yard) 1958 is one of four paintings and drawings of the same scene.

At Bridge End we can find the spot where this scene was painted in 1938. As with many of his works the streets are full of his matchstick characters and pets.

The view has barely changed since his time.

A sign above the door of the grey building reads ‘the Original Berwick Cockle Shop’ which apparently has nothing to do with seafood since these cockles are peppermint-flavoured sweets. A few antique jars of these are displayed in the window of William Cowe and Sons opposite.

Nearby is Sally Port, another narrow alley with steps leading up to the Quay Walls while the archway passes under the town walls to the quayside. Lowry painted this in 1954.

A few buildings have been demolished since Lowry’s time bringing more light to the alley.

Next we cross the river to Tweedmouth via the old bridge, one of three fine bridges over the Tweed at Berwick (two road and one railway).

A collection of cottages seemed to have caught Lowry’s eye and he painted this busy scene called the Old Property in 1943. The solitary observer with hands clasped behind his back is thought by art historians to represent Lowry himself. (The Lowry Trail information board from which this photo was taken is badly stained hence the red blotches.)

The Old Property today. What would Lowry have done with the wheelie bins which appear everywhere these days? He probably would have included them in his paintings.

Moving along to Berwick Harbour, this is where Lowry would have stood to sketch this view of Berwick looking back over the river.

The information board is missing from its easel.

At the Lifeboat Station there is an information board showing a Self Portrait painted in 1925 when he was 38 years old.

The trail continues to the suburb of Spittal. Not the most attractive-sounding name but apparently it derives from hospital rather than anything to do with saliva. The beach here however is very attractive and Lowry liked to walk along the promenade and gather inspiration for his seascapes and paintings of boats. Next to Sandstell Road car park is an information board entitled Boats showing some of his maritime themed works. The main image is of Waiting For The Tide, South Shields, 1967.

Further along Spittal Promenade there is another trail marker featuring his 1964 painting Girl in a Red Hat on a Promenade.

The final stop on the Lowry Trail map is called Back Streets and is made up of two rows of brick built terraced houses called Falloden Terrace and Howick Terrace. These were included in the trail because, although they are not typical in Berwick, these are the sort of houses that Lowry would have seen all the time during his rounds as a rent collector in Manchester and the kind of scene that appeared in many of his paintings.

When Lowry took his holidays in Berwick he would stay at the Castle Hotel, located opposite the railway station. Looking at their website they do not seem to make any mention of the Lowry connection. They might be missing a trick here.

Oman In The Seventies

Some time ago I posted a blog about Ibri in Oman in 1979 and a reader has asked me if I have any other photos of Oman from that period.

I have been through a few of my old photo albums and found these snaps taken by me on a vintage Kodak Instamatic camera. Sorry for the poor photo quality (blame the photographer) but they give an idea of what the place was like at that time.

The old road linking Muttrah to Muscat via Riyam was the only way to get to Muscat until the corniche was completed. Photo taken around 1979.
The mobile post office at Medinat Qaboos in 1979/80.
Not 100% sure of the location but could have been Muttrah High Street in 1979.
One of the gates to the walled town of Muscat. The streets were decorated with British and Omani flags in honour of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Oman on 28 February 1979.
Muttrah Corniche on the same day in 1979.
Muttrah Corniche looking in the opposite direction. The grey American cars are the motorcade of Sultan Qaboos and Queen Elizabeth.
Salalah in 1976/77.
The British Bank of the Middle East’s Salalah Branch where I worked for two years from 1976-78. Many roads in Salalah were not tarmac at that time.
The main shopping street in Salalah. There was not much to buy so a good place to save money.

I may have some more photos somewhere which I’ll share if I find them.

The Lit & Phil – Newcastle’s Best Kept Secret

Last November I was wandering in the heart of Newcastle when I came across this building, the Literary & Philosophical Society or Lit & Phil as it now brands itself.

As you can see, there are a couple of blue plaques outside. The first tells us that Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, chemist, and physicist first demonstrated his invention of the incandescent light bulb here in 1879. Nearby Mosley Street was the first street in the world to be lit by such electric bulbs. When the Lit & Phil first started it was more a place for debate, lectures, discussion and experiments. The library grew later.

The second plaque marks the Robert Stephenson Bi-Centenary in 2003 and tells us that the Literary & Philosophical Society was established in 1793 and that this building, designed by John Green, opened in 1825. Robert Stephenson (railway engineer and son of George Stephenson, the ‘Father of Railways’) was President of the Society from 1855-59.

Since I had a spare half hour I took a look inside. The staircase in the impressive lobby displays some portraits and statues. The gentleman on the right was Earl Grey (1764-1845, a Northumberland man and Prime Minister in the 1830s during which time his government oversaw the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. And yes, the tea is named after him.

The statue in the middle is not of a Roman but of James Losh (1763-1833) a lawyer, reformer, abolitionist and businessman who was vice-president of the Lit & Phil in 1802. I wonder what sort of man would want to have a statue of himself made in a Roman toga but since he was dead when the statue was made we can forgive him.

The other portrait, the one one with the vain looking man revealing a bit of thigh, is of Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) who laid the foundation stone of the building in 1822. He was the favourite uncle of Queen Victoria and quite a colourful character. He married his first wife without telling his dad, King George III who later annulled the marriage. He had a mistress or two and when he married his second wife it was again in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act and she was never recognised with the title Duchess of Sussex.

The interior of the Lit & Phil is lovely. It has the air of a private members London club, like the Reform Club that Phileas Fogg belonged to in Around the World in Eighty Days. It is actually older than the Reform Club but unlike that august organisation it is open to anyone and you can read books on the premises free of charge.

If you want to borrow books you have to become a member for a fee of £133 per year (concessions available). That might seem expensive for what is basically a library especially when you can join Northumberland County Council’s network of libraries free of charge. But the Phil & Lit does have a certain cachet and it has a huge collection of 200,000 books and you are encouraged to browse and stay as long as you like with comfortable seating, tea, coffee and cake and a quiet atmosphere for students and book lovers.

Their music library is the biggest in the North of England and the Lit & Phil is a popular venue for musical events.

I would recommend a visit if you are ever in Newcastle upon Tyne. You can find details of their location and services on their website.

Causey Arch

Causey Arch in County Durham is the oldest surviving single arch railway bridge in the world. It was built in 1725 for a group of coalmine owners to facilitate the transport of coal from Tanfield Colliery to the banks of the River Tyne from where it was loaded onto colliers at Newcastle upon Tyne for shipment to London and other markets.

The Tanfield Waggonway which ran over the bridge was a railway with wooden rails with coal waggons drawn by horses. It was converted to iron rails in 1839. Tanfield Railway is still going . It is said to be the world’s oldest railway.

Causey Arch bridge was built by Ralph Wood, a local master stone mason. Since it was the first stone arch bridge of its kind to be built anywhere in the world since Roman times he had no prior experience of this type of construction and he had little confidence that it would not collapse, in fact he was so worried that he took his own life by jumping from the bridge before it was completed.

In its heyday, the bridge carried 930 waggons per day with an interval of only 20 seconds between waggons but by 1770 the Arch was little used and it fell into neglect for 200 years until it was restored from 1975-81.

A section of the waggonway is currently being recreated with the aim of completion in time for the Tanfield Waggonway’s 300th anniversary in 2025.

Aside from the bridge itself, other attractions here are:

Tanfield Railway. This is a volunteer-run heritage railway with preserved steam trains stopping at four stations. You can find details on their website.

A pleasant 3km circular walk starting at the car park, taking in Causey Arch and through the woods alongside Causey Burn. You can see the route on this map:

Nearby

Beamish, the Living Museum of the North

Hong Kong Centenary Stamp 1941

One of my favourite stamps in my collection is this one. It was part of a set issued in February 1941 to mark 100 years since the establishment of Hong Kong as a British territory.

The main illustration is of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s head office at number 1 Queens Road Central on Hong Kong island. The bank headquarters building was still relatively new at the time and when it was officially opened in 1935 it was the tallest building between Cairo and San Fransisco and the first fully air-conditioned building in Hong Kong. I spent a short time in this building before it was demolished in 1981.

It’s a pity the stamp’s designers didn’t spell the bank’s name correctly since the bank has always spelt Hong Kong as one word.

‘Hongkong’ was the more common spelling during the colony’s early years and stamps issued during Queen Victoria’s reign were spelt that way. The spelling switched to ‘Hong Kong’ on stamps issued from the start of King Edward VII’s reign onwards.

Why the bats in this stamp’s design? Bats are a symbol of good luck in Chinese culture since the Cantonese pronunciation of the word for bat is apparently the same as the word for fortune. (A bit ironic since bats are getting the blame for spreading coronavirus to humans!) Five bats represent the five blessings – long life, prosperity, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death. Unfortunately this stamp had only three bats and Hong Kong at that time certainly didn’t enjoy good luck and just ten months after the stamp was issued Japan invaded and occupied the territory.

The Chief Manager of HSBC, Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, was arrested by the Japanese and imprisoned in the Stanley internment camp where he subsequently died in 1943. Also in Stanley was the Postmaster Edward Irvine Wynne-Jones and Chief Draughtsman William Jones who spent their internment plotting revenge on the Japanese by designing a set of Victory stamps which was issued in 1946.

Bats on this stamp too, and a phoenix rising from the flames.

Tynemouth Priory and Castle

Tynemouth Priory and Castle is a good place to visit. The main highlights here are the ruined priory, the shrine area where a Saxon saint was believed to be buried, a gatehouse, the castle walls, a 20th century restored coastal defence battery and fine views from its cliff-top position.

The priory was founded in the 7th century. St. Oswine (or Oswin), a king of Northumbria and cousin of St.Bede, was killed and buried here in 651. Two other kings were also buried here: Osred II, king of Northumbria, in 792 and Malcolm III, king of Scotland who was killed at the battle of Alnwick in 1093. Malcolm’s body was later reburied in Scotland.

The priory was plundered and partly destroyed by the Danes on several occasions during the 800s and Oswin’s grave was forgotten until 1065 when a priest found some bones under the church and claimed them to be the saint’s remains. Local people began to make pilgrimages to the grave in the hope that their prayers would be answered, and their donations brought prosperity to the priory.

A Benedictine monastery was founded here in the 11th century and within its walls were kitchen gardens, farm animals and orchards as well as cloisters and other buildings for the monks.

The ruined church we see today was started in 1090 and renovated around 1210.

The monastery was ordered closed by Henry VIII in 1539 and most of the monastic buildings were dismantled. Then the site was used as a major coastal fort and was occupied by soldiers right up until 1960.

The gatehouse was constructed following a raid by the Scots in 1388. The ground floor consists of a series of passages and guardrooms while the upper floors contain a great hall and a grand chamber which would have accommodated a high ranking official or royal visitors.

The Percy chantry was built in the 15th Century. The Percys were earls of Northumberland and the ornate chapel ceiling shown here is carved with their family emblems.

This concrete gun emplacement is one of two constructed in 1902 when Britain was concerned about Germany’s increasing naval threat. The gun is a 6 inch steel Mark XXIII.

Looking back at the castle from Tynemouth Pier you can see the 13 concrete buttresses built over 100 years ago to strengthen the crumbling cliff edge on which the coastal battery stands.

This cannon is from an earlier era. There have been coastal defences at Tynemouth since the 1640s.

After visiting Tynemouth Priory and Castle you can wander down to the lovely beach at King Edward’s Bay and perhaps sample some fish and chips at the highly rated Riley’s Fish Shack.

The attraction is managed by English Heritage and you can find details of opening hours and prices on their website.

How To Get to Tynemouth Priory and Castle

The location is marked on this map:

A Northumberland Garden In May

While we’re all locked down Mother Nature continues to do her thing.

Spring comes late at this northern latitude but now in early May our garden in Northumberland is bursting into colour.

I dusted off my video camera and put together this video to record the sights and sounds of Spring.

Hadrian’s Wall Path – Gilsland to Sewingshields Crag

The Hadrian’s Wall Path is an 84 mile (135 km) long trail stretching across the narrow neck of Northern England from Wallsend, Newcastle upon Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria on the west coast.

The trail follows the line of Hadrian’s Wall built by the Romans from A.D. 122 onwards to consolidate the northern border of the Roman Empire. The path passes through some of England’s best scenery and there are a number of Roman forts and museums along the way for the history lover.

So far I have walked the most scenic part of the trail from Gilsland to Sewingshields Crag which includes the best preserved sections of wall, many points of interest and excellent views. The total distance walked was about 24 miles (there and back) spread out over several days.

Highlights

National Trail near Gilsland. National Trails are waymarked with the white acorn symbol shown here.

Thirlwall Castle, above, was built in the early 14th century using stone recycled from Hadrian’s Wall. Legend has it that during one of the many Anglo-Scottish skirmishes in the 15th century a servant of the castle hid the owner’s most precious possession, a golden table, down a well where it remains to this day, protected by a magic spell.

Typical Hadrian’s Wall scenery. A lonely farmhouse alongside the wall.

The trail passes through working farms and pet dogs need to be kept on a leash if there are any sheep around.

Watch towers or turrets were usually built about every half mile along the wall. This is English Heritage’s artistic impression of turret 45a at Walton Crags around AD 180. Roman Empire to the right, barbarians to the left.

Only the foundations of turrets remain.

Small forts, called milecastles, were incorporated into the wall every Roman mile (about 1.48km). They had gateways to allow people to pass to and from the Roman province of Britannia. This is an artist’s impression of Cawfields milecastle around AD 130.

An outline of a milecastle’s foundations can be seen here.

The builders of Hadrian’s Wall made use of any natural crags and cliffs along its route to improve its defensive qualities. The central sector of the wall follows a craggy rock formation called Great Whin Sill.

Not exactly the Great Wall of China but impressive all the same. The original wall would have been taller. Many of the stones have been removed and reused over the centuries and found their way into churches, stately homes and farmhouses.

This section of the trail provides good exercise with lots of steps and slopes.

Sycamore Gap is probably the most photographed spot on Hadrian’s Wall. The tree grows in a natural gap in the Whin Sill. The tree has appeared in numerous TV shows and in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner.

Housesteads Roman Fort was a strong defensive position and contained barrack blocks and a hospital.

You can wander around the ruins of Housesteads Roman Fort and there is a museum to provide explanations of what you are seeing.

Time to walk back to my car.

Far from light pollution, the Dark Skies sites at places such as Walltown Quarry provide a great opportunity to enjoy the star-filled night sky.

If you are interested in walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path you can obtain lots of practical information from this website.