Even though I have only just moved to London, this week I have accepted an offer of a studentship with the Doctoral Training Programme in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford! So I’ll be moving again around mid-September 2017. Get ready for more posts about college history!

This summer I did some interesting sight-seeing in Northumberland and Cumbria with my father. Among other things, we visited Cragside, a Victorian estate in Northumberland, built by extraordinary water engineer William Armstrong.

William George Armstrong was born in Newcastle in 1810. As a child he was often very ill, and started making many small machines during the days he was sick at home. From an early age, he had a fascination with water. He would spend most of his holidays fishing in the river in Rothbury, while at his father’s friend Armorer Donkin’s country house. His father wanted William to become a lawyer, and so he started working for Donkin’s law firm in Newcastle. But he still spent much of his free time inventing and building things.

In 1845, Armstrong became secretary of the Whittle Dene Water Company, which supplied Newcastle with drinking water. He was working on ideas to use water to derive power. He developed a hydraulic crane that was used at the Newcastle Quayside to unload ships and was very fast, cheap and effective. At this point he decided he wanted to solely focus on engineering. He quit his work as a lawyer, and started up his own company, which became very successful.

In 1863, he visited Rothbury again, where he had spent many holidays in his childhood. He liked it so much, he decided to buy some land there so he could build a house to visit more frequently: Cragside. But Armstrong wouldn’t be Armstrong if he didn’t use this opportunity to use new technologies to improve ways of living in his new house. On the site he built a hydraulic pumping engine that would supply the house with drinking water. He also built a power house that provided electric lights to the house. The house was the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity!

Now, the house itself is just plain WEIRD. It looks like an attempt was made to combine many different architectural styles used through the ages in a single building, making the whole thing look very much thrown together. Some of the upper part of the back of the house is very clearly in the Tudor Revival style from the 19th century, but then the bottom looks more castle-y. You can also see some Neo-Gothic arches, and A LOT of turrets. Opinions are very divided about whether this design by Richard Norman Shaw is inventive and beautiful, or flamboyant and over-the-top.



Below you see the house’s living room and the first room in the world that was lit with incandescent light bulbs, invented by Joseph Swan. The electricity for these lights came from the nearby power house, which contained a water-powered Siemens dynamo.


First room in the world with light bulbs!



The gallery contains some interesting paintings, sculpture and taxidermy

In 1884 the Prince and Princess of Wales (who would later become King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) visited Cragside for five days. It is thought that they chose to visit this house, rather than Alnwick Castle where they would usually reside when visiting the area, because it had many modern comforts, like running (hot!) water and central heating. To impress the royal couple on their visit, Armstrong had a whole new section added to the building. This included rooms especially built for their occupation, among which is the Owl Suite. I want to highlight this room, because it contains a beautiful wooden canopied bed with two bedposts in which owls are carved (giving the room its name). The bed is made from American black walnut and was designed by Shaw (who designed the rest of the house as well).


American black walnut canopied bed by Richard Norman Shaw (this is actually really really pretty 🙂 )

The absolute elephant in the room when visiting Cragside is the monstrosity of a fireplace you can see below, which is in the drawing room at the end of the gallery and was also added right before the royal visit of 1884. This room was used as a banquet hall, because the dining room did not fit the number of people that were invited to have dinner with the Prince and Princess. The fireplace was designed by W.R. Lethaby, weighs a whopping 10 tons and is made completely out of Italian marble (what a waste). Now, this fireplace was designed and built to impress the royal couple, but I can only imagine how horrified they must have been at the sight of this… thing! Besides being, just, horrible, the fireplace is also completely useless. As this room is built against a rock, all the fireplace does is heat up the cold rock behind it, rather than the room itself.


Why, Mr. Armstrong, why???


A more close-up look of the ‘fireplace’.

The estate is still an important place for hydroelectricity. Recently, an Archimedes screw has been built to gather power to light the house. Archimedes screws are traditionally used to move water from a low-lying place upwards, but in this screw water goes the other way and as such power can be generated. All the light bulbs have been replaced with LEDs to make the house even more energy-efficient.



View of the house from the grounds

So, even though I didn’t 100% agree with all of the architectural design choices made in the building of this house :P, it was a really cool place to visit, because of its history in relation to hydroelectricity and the interesting stories about Armstrong and his family.

Next time will be a bit of a mash-up of topics as I’d like to talk about some interesting art I saw in Newcastle this summer as well as some really cool archeological finds I saw in the British Museum in London more recently.


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