Belsay Hall (with Castle and Gardens) and Prudhoe Castle

Based in Whitley Bay for a night, before returning to Hadrian’s Wall (which for location purposes means the relatively well-preserved section in the middle of the country), I visited a couple of local-ish English Heritage sites.

Belsay Hall, from the front – the Greek effect is deliberate, and continuous.

Covid restrictions mean that some of the inside areas are out of bounds, though this is a site in flux in any case. The covenant that passed the property to English Heritage stipulated no attempt to recreate rooms, but just allow the space to tell the story. It’s an approach that fits with English Heritage’s approach – there is quite a difference in feel between the well preserved but rather static Roman sites at Corbridge and Chesters and the still-excavated Vindolanda – and leaves the Hall stark, but beautiful. Also, in 2020 they are in year 2 of a 5-year project to restore the gardens and add more explanatory text to rooms, so there are several reasons for the place being light on text: you aren’t allowed everywhere, not all rooms are finished, and the place is being actively restored.

That still leaves dramatic buildings, and beautiful gardens. There are sculpted gardens near the house, being restored on a long-term plan, and slightly wilder, big on trees and rocks (think small cliffs, rather than a rock garden – this is the ‘quarry garden’), areas further on. There is a one-way system in place which works well. One family ahead of me came the wrong way, to a loud, questioning “I didn’t think that was the exit?” from the young girl who was part of the group, going the right way, ahead of me. They stopped to satisfy her curiosity, and therefore got to see whatever amusing lapse of judgement caused the crash of metal poles by the infringing family.

But little real harm done. With the current one-way system, you can see the house at the beginning or end of your visit, and I went straight in. It doesn’t take long, unless you’re really using your imagination, to wander through the ground floor and cellars. It is some house, with a view over the estate, with sheep still nibbling in fields that are out of bounds.

After your first walk through the gardens, you come to the 14th-century castle. It was a castle for a while, then converted to a grand house from 1614, before that, too, was not enough for Charles Monck, who had the large Hall built between 1810 and 1817. The castle is grand but for now is an easy visit, with more interpretation to be added, and only the ground floor open.

Most people, it seems, come to this popular site for the gardens, and you are taken back into them by the route once you leave the castle. There is room for kids to explore, and gnomes tucked away for them to find, if they need extra distraction.

I was in sight (through a gateway) of returning to the hall when I wandered down a side-path out of curiosity. I was glad I had, as it takes visitors to Crag Wood walk. Don’t be put off by the sign by the lake that warns that the full walk may take up to two hours – it certainly could, but only if you move gently, and stop at every bench. Treating it as a slightly more rigorous bit of exercise than wandering in the gardens, and not stopping, I did the ‘long walk’ (there’s a cut-off to the short one, half the distance at most) in about 15 minutes. It is under a mile, and even the warning that it is strenuous refers only to a long gentle climb and descent, rather than any dramatic scrambling. The view of the house from the path that takes you to the walk is its most-photographed, through lush and beautiful rhododendrons. Or so I read – it being October, it was a grand view, but shorn of flowers.

From there I headed South to Prudhoe Castle, in a dominant position to guard a crossing over the River Tyne. Getting to the castle is straightforward, but you have the chance to cross the Ovingham bridge, which is single-carriageway. It’s worth a look at the photo here on geographic.org.uk. There are some wider sections, though I wouldn’t have fancied pulling over and waiting for someone to do the same, so was glad to read on wikipedia that that isn’t generally the way it is done – people wait at either end, using “unwritten rules that usually function well”. It could never work in the South, where attempting to dominate is ingrained in people’s sense of entitlement.

There’s just a small car park for the castle, suggesting visitor numbers are fairly low, even without the booking and limited numbers required by a pandemic. There is an exhibition in the house inside the walls, though currently only the ground floor is open. That is enough to give context: most significantly, though it defied most invaders, this is the only Northumberland castle to resist the Scots. It has long been ruined (reported as such in 1776), but in a scenic, admired, fashion, rather than a sad one.

A marathon race. Most appear to be cheating.

The explanatory panels talk you through the history, from the Norman motte and bailey castle of the 12th century, through fighting for the crown and then, thanks to Henry Percy, against it in 1403. You can see evidence of the curtain wall sagging where it was built over the wooden fort (which then rotted under the ground) and of different buildings in the courtyard. For a while there were lavish gardens, later excavated such that they now show the medieval foundations. The exhibition has some great photos from the non-war residential years – a conservatory looks scenic, if odd, sticking out from a castle.

There is also a nice circular walk around the outside of the castle, which allows you to clamber down to the ruined mill house if you fancy. And I did. In fact, I did the circular walk twice. Although the entrance is very clearly up the cobbled path through the gatehouse, I spotted a “way in” sign on the door to my left as I walked up, and thought it might be some interesting route for one-way purposes. As indeed it is, but only so that the walk is one-way, not as a way into the castle. I realised my mistake as I wandered round the back of the castle, now several metres above me, but it wasn’t all that far to walk round. And no one saw, so it didn’t really happen.

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