22 Aug Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens, Northumberland
Belsay Castle was built in 1370 by Scottish nobleman, John de Strivelyn (Stirling), the estate having been granted him, thirty years earlier, by King Edward III, for services rendered in battle. On his death, the lands were inherited by his daughter, who had married Sir John Middleton. Belsay remained the property of the Middleton family for the next 600 years.
The Buildings at Belsay
The fortified structure was expanded into a country house in 1614, following the union of the English and Scottish crowns. In 1817, Sir Charles Monck, who had changed his surname from Middleton to that of his maternal grandfather, moved the family into his newly-built Belsay Hall, and began to re-design the parklands along the principles devised by Launcelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The completed project is essentially that which exists today.
During World War II, Belsay Hall was requisitioned by the Army, with soldiers billeted in the stable block. The gardens were maintained by a skeleton staff, assisted by prisoners of war. By 1980, the buildings were in need of much repair, and were taken over by English Heritage.
Art Exhibitions at Belsay Hall
Situated 14 miles north-west of Newcastle, Belsay Hall is an impressive Classical Greek revival building that looks out across the extensive parklands. It is unfurnished, so its interior can appear quite stark, its dominating feature being the two-storey pillar hall. However, it is a frequent venue for craft and antique fairs, which give it a warmer atmosphere. During recent years, it has proved to be an ideal setting for the display of modern art.
In 2016, for example, English Heritage commissioned an exhibition entitled Extraordinary Measures, in which visitors were greeted by contrasting works ranging from hyper-realistic giant sculptures by Ron Mueck to miniature photographs by Slinkachu. In between, and scattered in unexpected places through the grounds, were thought-provoking creations by several other contemporary artists.
The Stable Block, adjacent to the main building contains, in addition to a small café and shop, a display that traces the history of the estate.
Formal Gardens at Belsay
The glory of Belsay lies in its gardens, which are well worth visiting at any time of the year. To the south of the Hall are two formally laid out terrace gardens. These look across a stretch of lower ground toward a dense forest of conifers and colourful rhododendrons. To the west of the terraces is the compact Yew Garden, from which a footpath leads along Magnolia Terrace before making a right-angled turn between the Winter Garden and a croquet lawn that is still in frequent use.
Belsay Quarry Garden
A wooden walkway now continues west again to what is undoubtedly the horticultural highlight, the Quarry Garden. This huge sandstone quarry provided the stone for the building of Belsay Hall. It is a maze of deep, narrow canyons, ponds, arches and smaller quarries-within-the-quarry. The atmospheric gloom is enhanced by the plethora of exotic plants, which hang from the sandstone walls and trail along their bases, thriving in the unique micro-climate.
Beyond the dark wonderland of the Quarry Garden, the trail opens out, in almost magical contrast, to reveal Belsay Castle. Though the 17th century extension is now roofless, the original Pele tower retains most of its structure, and its upper floors can be reached by means of a steep spiral staircase. Though it is somewhat forlorn in appearance, this Grade I listed building has a perceptible ambience of tranquillity.
This sense of peace also pervades the woodland through which the return pathway leads around the southern edge of the Quarry Garden.