Dazzling diaply at Northumberland's Cragside

PUBLISHED: 08:31 15 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:20 20 February 2013

The Iron Bridge has recently been refurbished and offers spectacular views up the valley and up towards the towering bulk of Lord Armstrong's Victorian mansion

The Iron Bridge has recently been refurbished and offers spectacular views up the valley and up towards the towering bulk of Lord Armstrong's Victorian mansion

This historic estate is at its most dramatic in June, when its famous rhododendrons put on their spectacular annual show

The first hint of the horticultural drama that awaits visitors to Cragside comes as you drive along the Weldon Bridge to Rothbury road.
After passing through Pauperhaugh and navigating a section of road that resembles a switchback with a series of stomach churning dips and rises, a couple of hairpin bends and a hump back bridge, you come to a welcome straight stretch of road known locally
as Crag End.
Even on a bright day the wood here is in shadow, the light struggling to find its way through the vibrant green canopy of leaves. But among the gloom spots of deep yellow shine out like beacon - banks of golden azaleas, a bushy deciduous plant that is part of the rhododendron family.
And in June, rhododendrons in countless colours and guises are what the Cragside estate on the outskirts of Rothbury in Northumberland, are famous for.
The National Trust owned property created by the North East industrialist and inventor Lord Armstrong in the 19th century, boasts a staggering 29 varieties of rhododendron along with 26 types of azalea.

And in early summer they come into their own with a myriad of purples, reds, pinks, whites and yellows bursting forth across the 1000 acre estate with its lakes, forests, walks, gigantic rockery, formal garden and magnificent mansion.
You enter Cragside from the B6341 Alnwick road past Tumbleton Lake. Splashes of pink and deep red can be seen among the foliage as you drive to the car park.
From here it is a short walk to the house, built initially by the fantastically wealthy Lord Armstrong as a holiday home perched on the side of the bare, rocky Debdon Valley in undulating forest and moorland.
He found the spot when fishing on the River Coquet. He also saw the potential of Debdon Burn and Black Burn, two minor tributaries of the Coquet near the house, which he dammed to create a chain of five lakes to power a hydraulic system.
The house expanded, backing into its own quarry, and by the 1880s it had become one of the worlds most technologically advanced buildings, being the first place to be lit by hydroelectricity.
The by-products of both Armstrongs scheme - rocks and water - created rockeries, borders and plantations of conifers and rhododendrons on a truly colossal scale.
The effect, says Cragsides head gardener, Alison Pringle, was meant to be Himalayan. But getting out of the car in front of a huge Douglas fir, it seems more North American.
But then none of Cragsides rhododendrons have ever been near the Himalayan heights. They are all mostly hybrids that were developed by nurserymen to suit the vagaries of the British - or in this case Northumbrian - climate, which can be harsh.
And while rhododendrons are popularly believed to have originated in the Himalayas, Alison says they are also native to some parts of Turkey, Armenia and North America.
Strange as it may seem, Himalayan rhododendrons arent necessarily suited to the Northumbrian climate, she explains. In the Himalayas rhododendrons tend to grow in sheltered valleys with their own micro-climate, but up this part of the world the weather can be pretty vicious at times.
It is not unheard of to have frosts right into June here at Cragside.
Lord Armstrong used hardy modern varieties to create his own version of a Himalayan landscape with the firs, tumbling water and rhododendrons and azaleas. But it is important to point out he wanted to create the effect of the Himalayas, not a carbon copy. And that is what you get, an impression of the Himalayas without the Himalayan plants and extreme climate.
It looks spectacular, never more so than in early summer when the rhododendrons are all out. Rhododendrons are a classical part of the Victorian landscape. In Victorian times they were incredibly fond of them and a lot of species were found, cultivated and hybrids developed.
The performance - for that is what it is for an all too brief three or four weeks in June - starts in earnest when you reach the house, a confident, sensibly-sized, ersatz-baronial pile with putty-coloured walls, Rhenish gables, turrets and arches and mock Tudor beams and windows. Quite magnificent.
The hillside behind the house is a mass of purple rhododendrons in June while azaleas fall over themselves to attract your attention. The mansion itself stands high and mighty above the towering rock gardens, most of the
stone man-laid.
Extending to 4.5 acres and seeming to tumble into the Debdon Valley, here the azaleas come into their own with massed plantings of pink, scarlet and white varieties alongside the wonderfully fragrant golden azalea (rhododendron luteum), and an eye-catching blotchy white and deep purple strain of plant called Sappho.
An intriquing double flowering azalea with mauve and purple petals called Fastuosum Flore Pleno can also be found along the paths beside the rock gardens and the drive sides.
The azaleas are mixed with other shrubs such as Berberis, Sorbus, Pieris and Vaccinimum. More robust alpine species grow among the smaller rockeries and outcrops.
At Nellys Moss at the top of the park, where there are two lakes you can sit and relax by, there are particularly spectacular and large expanses of bright and pale pink, peach and white rhododendrons, the colours contrasting sharply with the green hues of the trees and moorland.
Back down in the valley the rock gardens give way to the pinetum, a beautiful and secluded spot with lush green grass and conifers soaring up into the sky. In June the foliage is a vibrant green, the breeze whispering through the leaves and the grass dotted with spring bulbs and flowers.
Its a haven for wildlife. Look out for dippers and wagtails. And if you are especially lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a kingfisher in the burn.
From there you double back on yourself and come onto the Autumn Colour Walk which takes you towards the Formal Garden. Here Acers, beech, cherry and hornbeam drift into conifers and evergreens as they meet the laurel table around the Clock Tower.
Take time to make a detour to the new wildlife hide opened this spring where red squirrels and roe deer vie for attention with finches, tits, the great spotted woodpecker and even buzzards.
June is change-over time in the Formal Garden. The tulips have all had their day and the spring bedding plants are being replaced with tender perennials - 25,000 have to be planted out.
This is very much an engineers garden with bold, straight lines and curves, and a magnificent white painted Orchard House designed by Lord Armstrong in the 1870s and still used to grow exotic fruits like peaches, nectarines and apricots alongside vegetables and salad leaves which find their way onto the Cragside restaurant menu.
Apricot, pink and dark speckled foxgloves, purpley blue Canterbury bells, blue pansies, white daisies and mixed sweet Williams in shades of pink and red, provide vibrant early summer colour in the Biennial Border.
The Dahlia Walk was introduced in 1994 and is planted annually with 700 tubers. In June the first green shoots are only just beginning to show through, but by August it will be a kaleidoscope of strident colour, stretching right through to the autumn.
The effect, Alison Pringle admits, is bold, brash and vulgar, and one the Cragside team is very proud of.
Then it is down on to the Italian Terrace where in June bamboo, black grass, fragrant white choisya (also known as Mexican orange blossom) and glamorous tree peonies with their huge pink flowers, make a magnificent display.
The early clematis is in full bloom, covering the heavy, metal supports with masses of gold, pink and purple.
At the centre of the terrace is a quatrefoil pool covered in dainty pink water lilies where you can spot water boatmen and whirligig beetles traversing the water.
No one knows why its called the Italian Terrace as it is the most un-Italian garden you could imagine. There are no urns, no statues and few Mediterranean plants.
Alisons only explanation is that the name was used on old postcards and has stuck. We dont know if it was the name Armstrong called it or not, but we have continued the tradition.
Dont miss the newly created owl sculpture while in this area. Carved using a chainsaw from the 15ft high stump that remained after an oak blew down last autumn, the magnificent creation which overlooks Cragsides parkland and the Simonside Hills, includes two owls, a woodpecker and native red squirrels.
The top terrace is where you will find the ferneries, the smallest just beginning to unfurl their bright green fronds, and what was the old palm house pool where blue/green dragonflies and smaller damsel flies flit daintily in and out in mid-summer.
Back down the Autumn Colour Walk and the path takes a left hand fork past the dramatic arched Iron Bridge which stands high above the Debdon Burn close to the house. The bridge, which is just over 150ft in length and was probably made at Armstrongs works in Elswick, Newcastle, has recently been beautifully restored.
A magnificent piece of sculpture in its own right, the view back up to the house perched on its rocky outcrop from this vantage point is dizzily breathtaking. If you dont have a head for heights, there is no need to worry. Thankfully a number of much humbler rustic bridges of wood connect the maze of zig-zagging paths that cross the burn and run up the valley.
Writing in 1888 in the Comprehensive Guide to the County of Northumberland, William Weaver Tomlinson stated that words are inadequate to describe the wonderful transformation which Lord Armstrong has made on the barren hill-side (sic) as it existed previous to 1863.
He also noted that the rhododendrons, azaleas and other plants had done much to soften and brighten the hard features of the landscape till it smiles again.
After a visit to Cragside, its not just the landscape that is left smiling.

Seasonal features

March Early bulbs (crocus, muscari, snowdrop, scilia, chionodoxa) on access path, in Formal Garden and on the Rock Gardens.
April Spring bulbs (daffodils and early tulips) in the Formal Garden, Pinetum and Autumn Colour Walk.
May Tulips and spring bedding in the Formal Garden and azaleas in the Rock Gardens.
June Rhododendrons (rock gardens) and biennial border (Formal Garden).
July Carpet bedding, bedding (Formal Garden).
August Carpet bedding, bedding (Formal Garden)
September Dahlia walk, tender perennials (Formal Garden), heaths and heathers, ornamental berries (Rock Gardens).
October Tender perennials, orchard house fruit (Formal Garden), heaths and heathers, ornamental berries and autumn colour (Rock Gardens).
Winter Conifers and evergreens (throughout the gardens).

Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland, NE65 7PX, (01669) 620 333, www.nationaltrust.org.uk. The gardens and estate are open 10.30am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday. The house opens 11am-5pm Saturday, Sunday and school holidays and 1pm-5pm Tuesday-Friday. Open bank holiday Mondays.

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