Why You Won't Want to Miss the Beautiful Rhododendrons of Cragside
When you think about National Trust gardens, it's easy to get swept up by visions of well-tended flower beds with straight borders, beautifully sculpted trees and hedges, and decorative water fountains, but the gardens at Cragside are very different
But while this remarkable landscape may appear natural, it is in fact artificial. Cragside’s creators, William and Margaret Armstrong, transformed what was once a heathery moorland where very little grew, into the ultimate designer garden, created for beauty and function.
With an abundance of evergreen trees and plants, Cragside looks mostly luscious and green all year round, but towards the end of May and into June each year an assortment of different rhododendrons, some of which are the Armstrongs’ original plantings, put on a spectacular colourful show as they burst into bloom. Affectionately knowns as ‘rhodies’, they create a patchwork of colour for a few short weeks during the year as pockets of hot pinks, deep reds, sunshine yellows, warming oranges and delicate lilac flowers emerge from their buds, providing a short-lived and dramatic floral display.
Due to its position on the estate, south facing and lower in altitude, the Rock Garden flowers first. This huge garden surrounds the house and offers quite the climb for adventurous walkers. The sandstone that makes the steps was carved from quarries in the grounds to create a maze of paths that criss-cross up the hillside, from the enormous Iron Bridge spanning the Debdon Valley to the House.
If you’re familiar with Cragside you’ll know that picture-perfect view of the house perched at the top of the Rock Garden, and it’s extra special when the rhododendrons are in bloom. It’s well worth taking a stroll through the valley along the path that hugs the burn – after a couple of short climbs up and down a gravel path you’ll start to see the house emerge at the top of the hill surrounded by a kaleidoscope of colour.
‘If you’re familiar with Cragside you’ll know that picture-perfect view of the house perched at the top of the Rock Garden, and it’s extra special when the rhododendrons are in bloom’
The rhododendrons don’t stop at the Rock Garden either. After a couple of weeks, the rest of the rhodie flowers make an appearance. From Tumbleton Lake, near the visitor centre, you’ll see lilac and purple blooms stretching up the hillside ahead of you, creating the impression that the trees are growing out of a sea of flowers.
One of the best ways to experience the rhododendrons in all their glory is to go for a walk through the grounds. There are 40 miles of footpaths to explore on this 1,000-acre estate, but there are seven way-marked walks to help you get around. Whether you’re looking for an easy stroll or a challenging hike there is something for everyone.
Choosing a walk that includes a climb through the grounds is highly recommended. The Gun Walk – the former route of Cragside’s gamekeepers – takes you along narrow rocky paths lined with rhododendron. The Inspiration Trail takes you on a short but challenging walk to Slipper Lake – you’ll be immersed in colour as you hike uphill before being rewarded with views of the Coquet Valley below once you reach the top.
The Carriage Drive is a 6-mile circular route around Cragside. Once used by Margaret Armstrong for driving horses, it’s now a great way to discover the estate on two and four wheels. It starts with a stunning drive through the archways of the house. Blossoming flowers line the road and there are lots of places to stop, take photos and explore a little further.
As though the transformation of a moorland into a grand designer garden isn’t enough, the grounds were sculpted for function as well. Nelly’s Moss Lakes, a pair of lakes high on the estate, were engineered by William Armstrong as a store for the much-needed water for the hydro-electricity system. Water from here was channelled more than 100m down the hillside to the Powerhouse to generate the power to light the house. At this time of year, a stop at the nearby car park is a must, to witness the purple red flowers that surround the lakes.
William Armstrong also constructed a dam across the Debdon Burn, creating Tumbleton Lake, a head of water that powered Armstrong’s domesticated crane technology to drive water up to a basin tank and to the house. This gravity-fed water system not only provided the house with water for use in the kitchens and bathrooms, it also ensured there was enough pressure to power the hydraulic passenger lift, the kitchen roasting spit, fire hydrant system and the cascades in the Rock Garden.
Of course, if you’re looking for a traditional garden experience you can take a stroll up to the Formal Garden. In June, the beds are starting to come alive with colour in this three-tiered garden where neat rows, sculpted lines and geometric patterns are prominent.
Originally much of the top tier of the garden was under cover in an enormous suite of glasshouses and the technology for which Cragside is famous was also used there. The Orchard House was fitted with its very own central heating system and bespoke rotating pots were designed so that every side of the fruit trees could catch the sun for even growth.
Behind, where huge tropical palms once stood, there’s now a lilypad pond which is a great place to spot summer dragonflies skimming the water’s surface. Look out for a small unassuming stone doorway, which leads you to the ferneries. This petite rock garden is covered in ferns which unfold into large green leaves in the summer, creating a natural grotto to explore.
The Formal Garden looks out over the Coquet Valley with views of the Simonside Hills in the distance. It’s well worth sitting on the bench in the Loggia to smell the sweet scent of pelargoniums, listen to the water trickling in the quatrefoil pool and watch the resident swallows swooping and diving over the fields beyond.
This summer will see the return of the Carpet Beds to the Formal Garden. These large, sloping, twin beds were traditionally planted to create complex geometric patterns, with 20,000 plants needed to create this dramatic display.
William Armstrong was also a stickler for excellent timekeeping. There are examples of this found in the house, including an electric gong which called guests to dinner and a highly accurate Dent Clock which set all of the clocks in the house with precision, while outdoors, there is a heliograph – a glass orb that measures the hours of sunlight by burning the day’s sunlight on a tracking card. Tucked in a the top of the Formal Garden is the grandest timepiece of all, the Clock Tower. The mechanism in the clock is unique, with three intertwining mechanisms rather than the usual two. The first is the escapement, which moves the hands. The second causes the bells to chime. The third was the ‘estate regulator’ – an elaborate alarm clock. Many of Cragside’s workforce lived in the nearby village of Rothbury, where the clock could be heard. It chimed at 6am to wake people up, then again at 6.30am – a bit like a snooze button. It called people to work, set lunchtimes and sounded to mark the end of the day. The third mechanism chimed until 12 noon on Saturday and not at all on Sunday, giving an insight into what life was like as a worker on the estate.
‘Pinetums were highly fashionable among wealthy Victorians seeking to impress. You will find towering Douglas trees, Caucasian fir, Noble fir and Redwoods in this pocket of Cragside. The trees planted were selected especially for their grandeur and size’
Within the Armstrongs’ grand designer garden is the Gorge. If you imagine the Rock Garden as an enormous rockery, and the Formal Garden as the main flower beds, the Gorge is a spectacular water feature. The Gorge has always been a natural water way for the Debdon Valley to flow through, but William Armstrong made it more impressive by dynamiting the cliffs to increase the flow of water, creating a ravine that cuts through the rock. Not only that, the boulders were carefully re-arranged to engineer the most impressive cascade to add further drama to an already extraordinary landscape. There’s a short but picturesque walk through the Gorge, with places to stop and watch the water flowing into the Coquet River below.
Nestled between the Iron Bridge and the Gorge is the Pinetum. ‘What’s a Pinetum?’ we hear you say. It’s a collection of non-native evergreen coniferous trees. Pinetums were highly fashionable among wealthy Victorians seeking to impress. You will find towering Douglas trees, Caucasian fir, Noble fir and Redwoods in this pocket of Cragside. The trees planted were selected especially for their grandeur and size at maturity and now this tranquil part of the woodland is home to some of the tallest trees of their kind in the country.
Cragside’s annual rhododendron display is well worth adding to your calendar each year. With 1,000 acres to explore and 40 miles of footpaths that weave across the estate it’s impossible to squeeze everything in to one day, but it does provide the perfect excuse to come back to Cragside again and again. Don’t forget your walking boots or sturdy footwear for an adventurous day out.
Cragside is currently open 10am–5pm (last admission 4pm), seven days a week. Adults £22, children £11, family entry £55. National Trust members and under fives visit for free. Car parking is free and you can now get the X14 Arriva bus service to Cragside too. Visit nationltrust.org.uk/cragside to discover more about this fascinating property in Northumberland.
‘Rhodies’ to watch
Chosen by Peter Edge, Cragside’s Head Gardener
Even on a grey day in spring, the Rhododendron ‘Golden Flare’ brings the sunshine. You can find this warming variety on the slope between the main car park and the house.
Rhododendron ‘Loderi’ has beautiful large creamy pink blooms and is found on the way to the Pinetum. It grows to be one of the largest and magnificent in the rock garden.
We have numerous cultivars found on the Rock Garden and throughout Cragside including some Rhododendron azalea. They are noticeable for their overpowering scent where they are planted in mass.
The flowers of the Rhododendron ‘Sapho’ are what make it so distinct. They are large and creamy but inside they have beautiful purple-pink markings which appear to have been painted individually within each petal. Look out for them on the northern side of the Rock Garden.
Rhododendron fastuosum ‘Flora-pleno’ offers a twist on a normal ‘wild’ Rhododendron as they bear double flowers – the inner parts of the flower have turned into more petals. It is a curiosity which is found throughout Cragside.
Rhododendron ‘Lady Armstrong’ bears lovely pink flowers. It’s of a moderate size and a visitor favourite. It’s found near the Iron Bridge and distinct to Cragside.