Lighting up Cragside

Simon Stephens, 16.04.2014
This National Trust property could do with a bit more spark
I’ve visited various heritage sites in Northumberland in recent years while on holiday there with my family.

We’ve been to the National Trust’s Warkworth Castle and Lindisfarne Castle, and English Heritage’s Dunstanburgh Castle and Belsay Hall.

This year we went to Cragside, the extraordinary house created by the Victorian inventor William Armstrong. The National Trust has worked hard to make the property enjoyable to a range of interests, which was great for us as we had ages ranging from four to 70-plus in our party.

There were a couple of play areas for the children, a well-stocked shop for those who wanted a bit of retail therapy and a cafe that seemed to appeal to every one.

The trust’s website even has a Walking Your Dog leaflet to download, which was a good job as we had two border terriers with us.

But what about the house itself? Well, as often happens at historic properties, I was left feeling a little deflated.

Reflecting Armstrong’s passion for innovation, the house was the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. There were many other innovations, including a lift and a hydraulic engine that pumped thousands of gallons of fresh water into the building to allow hot and cold running water.

The interpretation does a pretty good job of conveying the idea that Cragside was a unique place that was technologically advanced for its time. You also get the sense that Armstrong was a remarkable inventor.

But it’s difficult to get a feel for what life was like in the house at the time for the people who lived there. And, beyond his role as an inventor, I didn’t really feel I understood what Armstrong was like as a person.

Overall, there is a slightly deadened feel to the house. Maybe it could be made more sparky and evocative by interpretation that moves beyond the laminated A4 sheets of text and images that feature in the rooms.

The only place with any life was the kitchen, where two volunteers were baking. The smell of the food was great and using people’s sense of smell could have worked well in other areas – the exotic Turkish bath suite, for example.

I also felt sound could have been used to give visitors more of a sense of life at Cragside during the Victorian era.

And there are so many objects in the rooms that it can become overwhelming. Doing more to highlight key items with strong narratives attached to them could help tell more of the story of Armstrong and the house.

Cragside has a great story – it just needs to be told with a bit more passion and flair.