Water wonder

31st October 2003 at 00:00

Cragside, Rothbury, Morpeth NE65 7PXTel: 01669 622 003 Email: cragside@nationaltrust.org.uk

Cragside House is both fairytale castle and monument to the appliance of science. Helen Lowe reports

If you catch your first glimpse of Cragside looking up through the trees below the house, you may mistake it for a fairytale castle set in an enchanted wood.

In 1884, when the Prince of Wales visited the house in Northumberland, the grounds were illuminated by 10,000 glass lamps and thousands of Chinese lanterns, hung amid the rocky slopes and strung between the trees.

Fireworks and balloons carrying coloured magnesium lights completed the display. The Prince was so impressed with Cragside's demonstration of the domestic advantages of electricity that he determined to have it installed at Sandringham.

The real glory for Cragside's owner, William Armstrong (1810-1900), was in the opportunity to showcase his developments using hydroelectricity and hydraulic energy. As the first domestic house in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power, Cragside provides the opportunity to explore Victorian science and technology as well as the domestic and economic life of the 19th century.

Armstrong moved to these steep Northumberland slopes in the 1860s, developing the house and estate with massive landscaping and building projects, creating attractive lakes and planting trees (seven million of them) in what had been empty hill country. The lakes were not merely decorative - the dams were intended to provide water and power for the house, gardens and surrounding farms.

Armstrong was very much in favour of using his inventiveness to make labour-saving devices for the home, including laundry equipment and a hydraulic lift for carrying coal and heavy kitchen equipment up from the scullery, thus improving working conditions for the servants. But he strongly resisted trade unions, in particular in their struggles for a shorter working day.

Among the home comforts were hot and cold running water, central heating, fire alarms and a Turkish bath suite, which can still be seen.

A visit to Cragside also provides a lesson in social history. The man and his household were very much the epitome of Victorian upper-class life, and 19th-century census returns make fascinating reading - the list of everyone on the estate included rabbit-catcher and gamekeeper, and caretaker of the electric light.

The "Armstrong trail" is a circular walk that explores the power house and the hydraulic and hydro-electric machinery of the estate. It passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in the area, including a pinetum, which also provides an ideal opportunity to study the contrast between woodland and river habitats. The visitor's centre provides a topographical model of the estate as well as an exhibition of Armstrong's life and work.

Armstrong's first commercial success was to improve Newcastle's water supply by greatly increasing the water pressure. Recognising the potential of water as an energy source for machinery, he set up a company to build a hydraulic crane, and soon had a book full of orders from around the world.

Perhaps the most famous of his constructions were the hydraulically-powered twin bascules (from the French for see-saw) of London's Tower Bridge, operated by steam power from its opening in 1894 until 1976, when electricity took over. The original pumping engines now form part of the Tower Bridge exhibition.

The arms trade around the world provided much of Armstrong's wealth. He sold weapons to both sides in the American Civil War and his company merged with Vickers to become the Vickers-Armstrong company in 1927.

Cragside House, owned by the National Trust, can be used in history, science, geography and technology from key stage 2 upwards. Education rooms can be booked free. Guided walks and activities charge pound;1 per pupil.

Contact Pam Dryden, education officer (tel: 01669 622 003) or Len Gregory at Open Industry, a charity that organises industry-linked visits (tel: 0191 200 1550)

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