The first Tuesday of our holiday was rainy, grey and a bit windy. We took the opportunity to relax, having been on the go relentlessly for several days: packing, travelling and sight-seeing. We wandered around Seahouses and joined the National Trust. I explained to the chap who signed us up it was the final proof I had reached middle age. He explained that plenty of young people were members.
Regular readers will know that, on the whole, I hate Stately Homes. My main objection is the distorted view of history they represent. A misplaced belief that they are acting altruistically as custodian of a common good, but actually the defender of ill-gotten gains. The visitor is obliged to admire portraits of the 15th Baron or the 3rd Earl, whose accomplishments remain a mystery, other than 'serving the King', or being on the right side of a battle for power, or having the skill to be the oldest surviving (male) son or great nephew of the previous incumbent.
Cragside is different. Cragside was the home of William Armstrong, engineer, scientist, inventor and philanthropist, the first engineer (or scientist) to be ennobled.
I don't suppose many people have heard of Armstrong. I'm not sure that I had until I started to read up on 'days out' in Northumberland. I despise that facet of Englishness that bangs on about our glory days but conspicuously fails to celebrate the engineers and inventors upon which the nation's wealth was founded.
Sadly, I found Cragside disappointing in its failure truly to celebrate the glory of engineering. Like all these Stately Homes it was acutely aware of its main selling point: people want to walk round houses, gawp, imagine the life they'd live if they were richer, and study the interior decor. I took several photographs within the house, of variable quality due to the variability of the light, and in hindsight, I too fell into that trap of focusing on the fripperies and ignoring the wonder of science.
It was busy in the house. Not oppressive, but busy. One had to manoeuvre round people. "oops, sorry, after you, no no, after you." apart from one ghastly little woman who...oh I can't even be bothered, some people simply can't cope with being out in public and need to take a long hard look at their behaviour. It was heaving in the café where we stopped for a disappointing cup of coffee. It has to be said the grounds are quite challenging, especially for people with limited mobility (a core NT demographic, especially during school term). But they do run a shuttle bus around the place. Once we had finished in the house, we had several hours of glorious tranquility, barely encountering a soul.
We descended steeply to the river and ascended again up to the Formal Terraced Garden, where we baked in the sun, admired the view and enjoyed the gardens. Regular readers will know that much as I love being in gardens and photographing them, I am hopeless at identifying plants. I am learning, from visits and from the TV, but it's a slow process.
After the garden we took a stroll along the River Coquet, still within the grounds. So did maybe half a dozen other people. I was puzzled, because the car park had been extremely busy - I just don't understand what these people do. Once again I thought of the '100 yards from the car park' rule.
Since we visited, they have launched an Archimedes screw to generate electricity. That article references one also at my beloved Morden Hall Park. Cragside was the first building in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, and Armstrong visualised the potential for solar power.
We returned to the coffee shop and wisely chose, rather than indifferent beverages, a superb ice cream from Doddington Dairy. The National Trust, complacent about its captive audience - and indeed many independent visitor attractions - don't have to care about the quality of their tea and coffee. Most of their customers couldn't care less. A diversified dairy farm has to ensure its products are high quality and must actively market them.
We drove out the long way, via the Estate Drive, which featured in one of my guidebooks as a walk. Again, I was astonished how few people we passed, or even saw in the distance. If I were to visit again, I would spend more time in the wilderness beyond the touristic centre.