“ Belsay, nr Ponteland, Northumberland, England, NE20 0DX. Tel: 01661 881636. Opening Dates and Times:All Year Daily (except 24th-26th December and 1st January)Open 10am to 6pm or dusk. Public Admission: Adult £3.80, Child £2.90. „
* Prices may differ from that shown
Imagine being so rich and powerful that you can order an entire village to be moved and rebuilt. That was what the Middleton's of Belsay did in the early nineteenth century. The old village was in the way of Belsay Hall's new park land, and spoiled the view! The new village which stands today on the busy A696, which links Newcastle to Jedburgh and the Scottish border, was rebuilt in a pretty italian renaissance style.
For my recent birthday (21 + :) ) I asked my dad if we could go to the nearby Belsay Hall, Castle and gardens, and as I'm still his little girl, even though i've been married 10 years, he agreed. Part of the reason I waited for a special occasion was that it costs £7.90 to get in, which is quite expensive even compared to other English Heritage properties, but then there is a lot to see.
Belsay has evolved throughout time to comfortably house the owners of the estate, who since the 13th century have been the Middletons. Their home started with the castle, which was a fortified pele tower, in the 17th century following peace between England and Scotland a hall was added to the castle (called by me the old hall). The main hall (the new hall) and gardens of Belsay were added in the early nineteenth century by Sir Charles Monck, who largely designed the new hall himself on a greek theme following his 2 year long honeymoon around Greece and Europe. The new hall was built some distance from the old hall and castle, and the two were linked by an elaborate garden, after moving that pesky village of course :). During the second world war the hall and stables were used to garrison soldiers, and in the stables you can still see signs left by them on the walls.*
The day we visited was still quite sunny, but cloudy. Belsay has ample parking and we parked in the main car park next to the hall, there is also several overflow car parks in grass fields, parking is free. In the car park are the toilets, and the cafe, which is in the hall's victorian kitchen. This also gives disabled access to the hall.
To pay you enter through the stables and pay in the shop. This is quite large and has a large variety of souvenirs, bird boxes, as well as wine, chutney etc. You then go through the shop into the rest of the stables, and come out at the front of the stables.
In the stables as well as the shop, there is a display about the Middleton / Monck family (the family name was changed to Monck to inherit from a maternal grandfather, and then later changed back), the hall and castle, as well as a nice model of the estate. This was quite good as Belsay is quite large, and from here you can see what is available to see and do, as well as plan your route. The small exhibition is good as well and explains that the hall was left empty as a condition (by Sir Steven Middleton) for English Heritage maintaining the property. When they first took over maintenance the hall had a serious dry rot problem, and English Heritage have slowly restored the hall over several years. Also in the stables is a horse drawn carriage (without the horses).
**Going back in time**
A visit to Belsay starts at their most recent addition the Victorian Hall. Crossing the circular drive, you can imagine impressed visitors puling up to visit the Middleton family. I don't think any visitor could fail to be impressed by Belsay Hall's main entrance, now or in the past. The hall was built in a greek style and the door is framed by two impressive doric columns, which reach nearly to the ceiling of the hall.
From this angle the hall appears to be two stories with 4 large windows, the bottom windows being double length. The more observant will notice that on the right wall of the building you can see that appearances are deceptive, and the hall actually had 3 floors on one side and 4 on the other, the top floor only has windows on the service side, and the service side has an extra floor. Like with the village Sir Charles designed Belsay so that the servants quarters were hidden. You enter up a small set of stairs, some modern stairs have been put up over them, I'm guessing this is for safety and to protect the stonework.
You enter Belsay as a visitor would have nearly two hundred years ago, and the first thing you come to is a small antechamber, built on a Greek temple design. The main house rooms are to the left, in front is the impressive pillar hall, and to the right are the service rooms.
When we visited there was an exhibit of Jane Austen costumes, so we started our visit in the main rooms. These at various times were the drawing room, library and dining room. Normally these rooms are empty, and you have to use your imagination to think what life would have been like for the wealthy family. These rooms overlooked the formal gardens, and rhododendron gardens, and the large windows going down to the floor make the best of the lovely view. The costumes are from the various film adaptations of her books, and while I'm not really a Jane Austen fan the costumes are beautiful, and the exhibition definitely added something to the hall. Belsay has a different art exhibit most years and these do really add to a visit.
After looking round the rooms and at the costumes, we looked at the service rooms, starting with the house keepers and finishing at the butlers. When I first visited Belsay about 12 years ago these were all still being restored, and it was lovely to see what a good job had been done to restore these rooms. We also visited the cellar, this is 6 rooms which are dark, cold and well smelly and were used to store wine and beer. There are two sets of stairs, a small one leading up to the kitchen, which is now kept locked and a larger set in the service area of the hall. The stairs to the servants section of the upstairs are kept locked, but looking up you can see that the rooms while small had fireplaces, and were probably quite comfortable.
Much of the hall does still look tatty compared to many stately halls you can visit, but this is almost deliberate so that the visitor can see the original building work and decoration.
Finally we went through the pillar hall to go up the main stairs of the hall. The pillar hall is a fabulous central area which opens up the ceiling. It is created by beautiful ionic columns downstairs, with doric columns upstairs, with an intricate metal fence to stop people falling. The stairs go up one side of it.
Upstairs there are 3 family bedrooms which all have interconnecting doors. The two smaller rooms have alcoves for the beds. Even without the furniture you can see the rooms would have been beautifully furnished, and you can see the original plaster friezes on the walls and 1920's flower wallpaper. Looking at the wallpaper I couldn't help thinking how styles come back around as it is quite similar to some of the wallpaper patterns available today.
I've always enjoyed visiting the hall, although I think if they'd been allowed to put furniture in it, it would help to bring it alive for most visitors. As it stands it's lovely and shows of the architecture, but you need your imagination to try to see it how it would have looked in it's heyday.
To the left of the hall is the gate going through the gardens. These lead eventually to the castle. The path is flat and there is a disabled route past the few steps.
The gardens at Belsay are worth a visit in their own right, as they are stunning. There is a formal garden next to the house, a yew garden, a bowling green where you can sit and watch a game assuming someone is playing, they weren't on the day we went. There is also a quarry garden created from where the stone was cut out to make the new hall, and the crag woods walk which I think takes about an hour.
We saw everything except the crag woods walk, as it had recently rained and we thought it would be muddy.
The formal gardens and yew gardens are beautiful, with lots of lavender and other plants which were attracting bees and butterflies. There is a steep drop away from the path which is a haha wall, this is a wall which can only be seen at the dropped side, on the house side it provides an unbroken view of the countryside. There are sign posts warning you of the drop.
My favourite part of the gardens are the quarry gardens these are quite wild with giant trees and plants, and I find them quite magical.
My favourite part of a visit to Belsay is the castle with their heated dog kennels. The kennels were a later edition when the castle was used as a folly, there is also a stable block here from then. Two of the three kennels have fireplaces to keep the dogs warm, the third must have been for the naughty dog :)
The castle is a 3 story pele tower with roof battlements and a watch tower, attached to it is a 17th century hall. The outer walls of the hall still stand, so that you can admire the original rooms, and in the kitchen is the original range. This either hadn't changed much by the 20th century or my dad is a lot older then I think as he said that his grandma had one when he was little. The hall though has no roof, and you can only see the walls of the upstairs.
The castle tower is in a much better state, and you can climb all the way up the spiral staircase to the roof, although not up the watch tower section. The roof gives beautiful views of the countryside, and castle and old hall section of the estate, you can't see the new hall from here due to the trees.
In the castle you can go in the basement kitchen with it's huge fireplace, the upstairs hall, and several of the smaller rooms off. The family's solar room is no longer has a floor though.
Even without furniture I love the castle as I find it easy to imagine the family sat at one of the windows in the hall, or sleeping in one of the rooms off.
Disabled access to the hall is only available to the basement kitchen.
**The cafe and toilets**
We stopped in the cafe for a scone and tea between visiting the hall and castle. This is a lovely cafe in the old victorian kitchens of the hall, these are actually built coming out of the main block of the house, and are accessible without paying to go in the hall. There are a few tables inside and some picnic tables outside across from the car park. We chose to eat inside, and paid £11.20 for 3 scones and 3 teas which I think is quite expensive for what it was.
Another thing I wasn't keen on is that to get back in the hall you then have to pass back through the shop, this wasn't a problem and nobody stopped us even though it was busy they must have remembered we had paid, but I still wasn't keen, especially as at the time I thought this was the only way to the toilets as well, which is a long way round from the castle. The main toilets themselves are clean and quite nice as toilets go, there is a disabled toilet and baby changing facilities. After asking one of the many helpful guides why the toilets were locked from the garden end (there used to be a gate here) so that you have to come back to the house she said it's because they wouldn't want to stop anyone using the toilet, but had had problems with people not paying to get in, and that if you needed them there were some portaloos in the stables at the castle. This was news to us, as there had been a pirate event for children in front of the stables so we never ventured that far :) The guide did say she didn't recommend using them though :)
Apart from the upstairs of the hall and castle I think it is all wheel chair friendly.
This is where I think Belsay is missing a trick the only information I saw apart from direction signs, is the small exhibition in the stables, and this is easily missed if you go first to the hall without exploring the stables. I can't help feeling this is a real shame as I know in other English Heritage sites I have been to these can really help bring a place to life, as well as being educational.
Belsay hosts a number of events and exhibitions, and through the summer holidays they have a children's pirate theme, including searching, cutlass lessons and other activities.
Children (5 to 15) £4.70
Like all English Heritage sites, entrance is free for their members, membership costs; Student (under 19 and NUS Members) £37.00
Adult (age 19-59) £48.00
Senior (age 60+) £37.00
Adult and Senior £70.00
Couple (age 19-59) £84.00
Senior Couple (age 60+) £58.00
Children under 19 get into English Heritage properties for free if with a English Heritage member.
Dog's on leads are allowed. I didn't see any bins mind :)
A children's sheet can be downloaded from their website.
I have always loved visiting Belsay as there is so much to do, and my recent visit was no exception. Part of me wonders if I should drop a star for the lack of signs, or the arrangement they have with the toilets and cafe, but on reflection these are not too much of a problem so my heart says 5 stars.
*English Heritage website.
Situated just outside the town of Morpeth in Northumberland, Belsay Hall and Gardens offers a rather unique experience. An impressive Regency stone hall, built after the fashion of Greek temples, combined with an earlier medieval castle and extensive gardens make for an interesting combination of architectural styles!
A Quick History Lesson
Belsay Hall consists of two separate properties. For around 700 years, it was the home of the Middleton family, initially as a medieval castle which was subsequently extended and upgraded and morphed into a family home. In the 18th century, an entirely new house was built and the castle left to go to ruin. It was handed over to English Heritage in 1980.
Finding Belsay Hall is not actually too much of a problem, although the signage to it leaves a lot to be desired! From the Newcastle area, follow the A696 until you come to the village of Belsay. As you enter the village you will see a solitary brown sign indicating the property is pretty much the first turn off to the left. As long as you don't miss that sign, it's straightforward as the left turn takes you onto the road that leads directly to the main car park. The car park itself is actually quite small, but there is an overflow area available, so parking is unlikely to be an issue.
Entrance fees for the property in 2012 are £7.70 for adults, £4.60 for children and £6.90 for concessions (free to English Heritage members). This might sound like a lot, but is actually quite good value for money. It gets you access to the Hall itself - an 18th century creation inspired by Greek architecture and the old medieval castle with the later extension. In addition, you are free to wander around the extensive gardens that lie around and between the two, including a couple of very pleasant walks through an old quarry. I was quietly impressed with Belsay and would say that it is definitely one of English Heritage's hidden treasures.
The Hall itself is very impressive from an architectural standpoint. It has suffered very badly over the years from damage (particularly dry rot) and is still in a considerable state of disrepair. In some ways, it is quite depressing to see this once grand home that would once have been filled with life and laughter, standing empty and run down. Yet, despite the fact that it has fallen on hard times, you can't fail to be impressed by the building itself.
From the outside, the Hall doesn't actually look that big. Although it has an impressive and imposing entrance (flanked by two Greek columns), it appears limited in size. In fact, this is deceptive - the property is huge and extends back much further than the façade suggests.
The property actually has a slightly cold, oppressive feel to it initially, partly because it is unfurnished (more on that in a moment), but also because it is made entirely using stone from the local quarry. Once you move into the rooms, however, the high ceilings and wide, numerous windows give it a really light and spacious feel. You can well imagine how beautiful it must have been when it was a proper home.
Interestingly, the property is completely unfurnished. When it was handed over to English Heritage, the owner had it written into the agreement that it should always remain this way, so that people could appreciate the architecture of the building, rather than be distracted by fancy furnishings. For me, this was a good decision. Whilst some people might be disappointed at the austere nature, it gives you more time to take in the architectural features.
What particularly impressed me was how much of the house is actually on display - it seems to go on for ever (in a good way!) with rooms split over three different levels including reception and living rooms, several bedrooms, servants quarters and even the wine/beer cellars. This really gives a sense of how many people would have lived and worked there in its heyday.
The hall also offers some pretty spectacular views of the surrounding countryside through its large windows and it's easy to see why this location was chosen. The area immediately surrounding the new hall is surprisingly untouched by the 21st century - apart from a couple of distant pylons and wind turbines the views are probably very similar to those of the 18th century.
I'm not really a gardens person, but the ones at Belsay are very pleasant to stroll around. Essentially, they connect the "new" house with the medieval castle (about half a mile away), via an old quarry. The gardens are home to some very impressive trees and, when they were planted, contained species of plants relatively unknown in Britain. Pathways are well laid out and relatively level and we saw several people in wheelchairs being pushed around, so it's reasonably accessible.
The Medieval Castle
The castle itself is relatively small and won't take long to look around, although if you are able to walk to the top of the tower, it offers some impressive views of the surrounding countryside. In truth, there is not much to see (and no information boards to read), but it's an interesting example of a medieval castle that has been adapted and added to in order to create a more comfortable family home. It's not the most impressive set of ruins I've ever seen and there is quite a clash between the medieval part and the later additions, but it's still worth a look.
As ever with English Heritage properties, my only real complain is the lack of information boards around the house, although things start off promisingly. The stable block (the first building you come to), contains several large boards giving you a brief history of the property and its owners from around the 1600s to the 1980s. This is very informative and easy to read.
Sadly, this is not replicated throughout the house. There, only a few information boards exist and they are obviously quite old, using very formal, stilted language. They actually read as though they are written for an academic text book on architecture, rather than aimed at the general public. There is not a diagram in site, the brief information doesn't really tell you anything you couldn't work out for yourself and kids would find them incredibly dull.
Facilities at Belsay are surprisingly limited. There is a small coffee shop selling drinks, snacks and light refreshments, but with fewer than 20 tables I would imagine it can be quite difficult to get in at peak times. Other than that, there was a toilet block (nice and clean) and a gift shop. The castle ruins also have a few portaloos nearby and a small stand where you can buy drinks.
The hall is open 10am-5pm every day from 1 April to 30 September.
We were very impressed with Belsay. It's a different property to anything you might normally see and as such is well worth visiting. Whilst admission prices might seem quite steep, you are effectively getting three attractions for the price of one (hall, castle and gardens), so I feel it offers pretty good value for money. We were there for a good two-plus hours and would happily go back again.
Belsay Hall & Gardens
© Copyright SWSt 2012
We have had quite good weather for the time of year and with our English heritage card in tow, we decided it was time to have a look round Belsay Hall and gardens. There is plenty to do at the site, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable day, since there wasn't just a castle to see, but it was a whole morning of walks sights and activities. The hall is situated in Northumberland.
**The Gardens... **
The gardens are set in thirty acres of picturesque landscaping. Just outside the hall are the terraced gardens with the fairy trail. Little Miss enjoyed looking for the fairies set in plant pots and writing their names on the sheet she was given at reception, and we weren't allowed to leave the gardens till we had found all 8! Through a gate is the Quarry Garden with ravines, and sheer rock faces inspired by the quarries of Sicily. Rock from the quarry was used to build the Regency Hall. This garden is lovely to walk through and especially in autumn because of the different coloured leaves. The garden also has clues to the crystal horse, and as we walked through, we could hear hoof beats, neighing, and found horse shoes hidden beneath the trees- a truly enjoyable walk.
After a walk through the quarry garden, is the castle, which was the original home of the Middleton family, which was built in the 14th century. When we first entered the castle, this was clearly the earliest part of the building as there are walls but no ceilings, although it's still got an old range in one of the walls. Walk through the ruins and we come to a later addition to the castle, the hall. This has ceilings and has had some restoration work done. The first-floor great chamber still has traces of medieval wall-paintings, and there are little nooks and crannies to explore, but watch your head as some bits are really low. Climb up a narrow spiral stair case to the Great Hall and we come to Stella McCartney's Lucky Spot, the crystal horse! The stair case isn't suitable for people with impaired mobility, but it is visually accessible to all visitors because there is a touch activated screen on the ground floor. The crystal horse is very magical suspended as it is in the centre of the hall, and whilst there is a low kind of fence round it, it is easy to get close enough to have a really good look at it.. Another climb up a winding stone stair case takes you to the top of the castle. Where we were able to walk around the edges and had great views of the countryside.
**The Hall... **
Belsay Hall, is a Classical Greek Revival villa, centred around the central two-storey 'Pillar Hall' and it is into this house that the Middleton family moved from the castle on Christmas Day 1817. The house has been treated for dry rot, and visitors are free to wander around the rooms, some of which still have the original wallpaper. There are some small information boards explaining what the rooms were used for, and it was interesting to see how the family used their rooms. There was also evidence of the destruction caused by the dry rot with fireplaces seemingly suspended in the upper storey walls where the floors have been destroyed.
The tearooms are situated inside the original Victorian kitchens where homemade cakes and sandwiches, quiches and light snacks can be bought and eaten indoors or out.
1 Apr-30 Sep 10am-5pm All week
1 Oct-1 Nov 10am-4pm All week
2 Nov-31 Mar 10am-4pm Thu, Fri, Sat, & Sun.
24-26 Dec and 1 Jan Closed
**How much does it cost?...**
Family Ticket: £16.30
We arrived at opening time and spent three very enjoyable hours here. The walks are gentle and scenic with plenty along the way to keep children amused and interested. Little Miss especially enjoyed the crystal horse trail which really made her want to find the crystal horse. It was quite eerie walking through the Quarry gardens and hearing the horses hooves galloping along behind us but once used to it, it was ok! The hall itself was, I think, shown to best advantage without furnishings because we really got a feel for the size of the rooms, and it was interesting to be able to actually touch things and see things such as the wooden shutters at every window, which all still opened and closed. The castle was about a 15 minute walk from the hall and well worth it, especially with the horse.
A really interesting day out and one which I would recommend.
Thanks for reading.
A few years ago I decided that our family should become members of English heritage. The main reason for this decision was to be able to visit Belsay hall and gardens in Northumberland whenever we wanted to without having to fork out vast sums of cash each time we visted!
What is at Belsay?
With a population of 450, Belsay village is more of a hamlet. The village was once part of the Belsay hall estate and now provides an attractive backdrop. Belsay hall itself consists of a 19th century manor house and a 14th century ruined castle all set in 30 acres of stunning, magical gardens. For over 600 hundred years Belsay was the home of the Middleton family.
How to get there.
Belsay feels very much as if it's in the middle of nowhere. However it is only 14 miles north west of Newcastle on the A 696 and 7 miles north west of Ponteland. Morpeth is 10 miles away. Belsay is accessible via bus from Newcastle station.
On arrival in Belsay village you will see signs for Belsay hall. The long drive leading to the main car park is a great place to spot red squirrels, so drive slowly! The main car park is situated a short walk from the main entrance. There are disabled parking spaces available. To the edge of the car park is the picnic area with several benches. The main toilets are situated here too.
Entry to the grounds is through the national trust shop. Before you go in I suggest you take a few minutes to look at the introductory exhibition. Although small the exhibition will give you an explanation of the history of the place.
Once inside the grounds I always have a feeling of peace. The short path takes you first to the rather austere Belsay hall.
Belsay hall is not my idea of an attractive building .It is however unusual for its time as its built in the Grecian style. Charles Middleton was inspired by the ancient buildings he saw whilst on honeymoon in Greece. On his return to Northumberland in 1807, he decided to build his new home in the same style.
The hall is now unfurnished. I quite like this as it makes the architecture stand out. Even if empty 19th century buildings are not your thing, it is worth going inside to look at the huge Grecian style pillars in the main hall. The hall often houses exhibitions. Last summer saw the hall used to show some really exciting art and design.
From the hall the path leads to the far end of the estate where you will find the far more interesting small ruined 14th century castle and Jacobean manor. The peel tower is said to be one of the best in the country. My children love this part of the estate and it certainly gets their imaginations working! Climbing the steep spiral staircase you come to a first floor chamber. It is still possible to make out some medieval artwork. At the top of the tower you will be rewarded with stunning views over the Northumberland countryside. I can imagine living here and being under constant threat of attack from the Scots just over the boarder.
Next to the castle and tower is the manor. The manor was added in 1614 following more peaceful times under James 1st.The Middleton family lived in the manor house until 1817 when they moved into the newly built Belsay hall.
At the front of the castle is a lawn, ideal for playing knights! There is a well-positioned bench for parents to sit and watch with a flask of tea! At the back of the castle is a small shop selling ice creams and a small selection of souvenirs. This shop is only open in the summer months.
For me, this is the best part of any visit to Belsay. There is something about the gardens at Belsay that I find really uplifting. I love the variety too. The path from the hall to the castle passes through areas full of exotic plants and flowers. In the spring the rhododendrons are wonderful. My favourite part of the estate is the quarry garden an area of huge sheer rock faces and natural arches. My children have named this area Jurassic park! There are giant ferns and other oversized plants all giving the area a very strange feel.
The local bowls club meets at Belsay and there are several benches situated around the Bowling Green. Here the gardens are more formal with neatly labelled plants. If you are interested there are often plants for sale outside the shop at the entrance. There are several paths leading through the woods. In the spring there is a lovely carpet of snowdrops. Red squirrels live in these woods and I always enjoy spotting one.
There is a walk to a small lake with swans and ducks, all very peaceful even in high season. Belsay allows dogs as long as they are kept on the lead. This is another huge plus for me! There are always dog bowls located around the estate too.
English heritage recommend you spend at least 2 hours at Belsay to sample all that is on offer. We often spend a lot longer especially during the warmer months. If we come for several hours we always pack a picnic lunch. There are benches in the car park area although it is far nicer to eat by the ruined castle.
There is a café at the entrance where you can buy light lunches, home made cakes and various drinks. Compared to other cafes this one is reasonably priced. I have only ever tried the chocolate cake and can highly recommend it! The café is open from April until October. My advice is to bring a picnic!
Free for English heritage members.
A family ticket will cost £15.30.
This is not a cheap day out in my book and if you plan more than 1 visit it is best to join English heritage. These prices are set to increase in mach.
Belsay hall is open all year as follows-
From April until September open every day from 10am until 5 pm.
From November until March closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Open every other day from 10am until 4pm.
In October open every day from 10am until 4 pm.
Belsay is suitable for people with a disability. There are free wheel chairs available from the entrance shop. Many of the paths are wheel chair accessible and these are clearly marked. There is a ramp up to Belsay hall but the castle has a steep spiral staircase and is not suitable for anyone with mobility problems.
There are plenty of benches if you need to take a rest. If you have a disability you will qualify for a concession when you pay.
At the front of Belsay hall there is quite a steep drop onto the lawn something to be aware of before you let young children race ahead!
There are baby-changing facilities in the main toilet block in the car parking area. Most paths are suitable for pushchairs.
There are often exhibitions and re-enactments staged at Belsay. It is always worth checking the english heritage web site for details!
Overall I highly recommend a visit to Belsay Hall. It is a fun place for children to play and explore without giving parents too much stress! The gardens are lovely at all times of year and you can take the dog too, so all the family should be happy!
I think the best way for me to start this review is to tell you what Belsay actually is. Well, it is a small village in Northumberland, not much more than a cluster of houses set among vast expanse of fields that feels as if you are in the middle of nowhere. More importantly for this review though, it also lends its name to a 30 acre country estate owned by English Heritage - formerly the home of the Middleton family for 600 years. I have visited this estate twice over recent weeks, once last month to escape the city for a day, and again this weekend to attend an event there. The Belsay Estate is a rather unusual one to say the least. Anyone who is used to visiting historic sites will no doubt be familiar with one of two main types - you either get a ruined castle or you get the archetypal English country mansion with formal gardens. Belsay, though, is a combination of the two. At one end of the estate you have a small fourteenth century castle tower with an added Jacobean manor house, while at the other there is a nineteenth century Greek-revival hall. Between the two, you get a mixture of formal gardens and woodland walks. What this leaves is effectively a history of the activities of the Middletons on the estate over time, with the buildings and gardens formerly unaltered in the past 200 years. - Getting to Belsay Although it feels very rural and remote, the Belsay estate has the big advantage of being reasonably close to Newcastle, with a major A road right on its doorstep. If you are driving, it will take you 30-40 minutes from Newcastle city centre and is very straightforward to fin d - just take the A696 (which starts at Kingston Park), and follow the brown English Heritage signs once you get to Belsay village. If you need public transport, it is also possible to get to the village by bus if you are travelling from the city. Arriva Northumbria's 508 service to Rothbury stops at Belsay village, leaving from G
ateshead metro station, Newcastle train station and Newcastle's Haymarket bus station on summer Sundays until October. It takes around 2 hours, and you will need to walk the 2 miles or so from the village to the estate. For information, phone 0870 608 2608. - How much will it cost? Entrance to the Belsay estate costs £4.50 for adults, £3.40 for concessions (student and seniors with ID), £2.30 for children under 16 and is free for under 5's. If you are in a group of 11 or more, then you can get a 15% discount on your entry fee. English Heritage members are admitted for free, with members of CADW and Historic Scotland getting a 50% discount. If you join English Heritage during your visit, then your entry fee is refunded to you. Some events may charge a small additional fee, although they are usually free to members. (Please note, these prices are more up to date than those quoted by dooyoo in the category heading). - What can I do there? The entrance to the estate brings you into the main car park, which is located in the courtyard of the buildings associated with Belsay Hall (the nineteenth century structures). As well as the hall itself, the courtyard has all of the important visitor facilities: the toilets, cafe, gift shop and introductory exhibition. I would recommend having a look around the exhibition before venturing out into the estate - it is located above the shop, and gives you the basic history of Belsay and the Middleton family. Although very basic, it is quite well presented and does help you to understand what you are seeing in the various buildings and gardens, th us removing the need to buy a guidebook for most visitors. There are two problems with the exhibition, though. Firstly, it is up steep steps that not everyone will be able to manage. Secondly, there are no external signposts to tell you it is there. I only found there was an exhibition at the end of my first visit to Belsay, when I
went to browse around the gift shop before leaving and discovered it by accident. This was mildly annoying, as I know I could have got a lot more out of my visit had I had that information before I went to look around the estate. Belsay Hall itself is a Grade 1 listed building, and one of Europe's best examples of Greek revival architecture. In fact, it has even been described in a recent article in The Times as "the ultimate refinement of classical architecture in the Regency period". The hall was built by one of the more eccentric members of the Middleton family, who had it designed on the basis of 300 architectural drawings he made whilst on his honeymoon tour of Greece in 1804. At the time the hall was being built, it was the Roman style that was still in fashion - Greek was almost unknown in England - so he was considered to be rather barmy by society for pursuing this. The result of design was a rather severe building, although to be fair it probably appears harsher than it is due to the fact that is now nothing more than an empty shell. The last occupant of the hall insisted in his will that no refurnishing was to take place under English Heritage's care, leaving a bleak building with little for the average visitor to see. There has been some attempt to incorporate interpretation panels into the rooms, but they are bland and boring - unless you are an expert on architectural history, this is rather a disappointing experience. Leaving the hall, there are two ways across to Belsay Castle - the short path through the car park, or the longer path through the gardens. I would strongly sug gest you take the garden route, as it is far more scenic. This walk will take you through the winter garden (with heather, conifers, scented plants and a croque t lawn), through an area of woodland and into the unique quarry garden. The quarry garden was created after stone had been cut from this area of the estate to provide
building material for the hall - the result is a man-made ravine filled with vines, ferns, rhododendrons, tropical plants, and soaring gateways, a quite unexpected find in Northumberland! This part of Belsay is unlike anything I have ever come across before, and I loved it; the atmosphere was peaceful and quiet, yet in places almost Middle Earth in character. The end of the quarry garden path brings you out next to Belsay Castle. The castle is a rather strange hybrid - part fortified tower, and part Jacobean manor house, and to be honest is does look rather odd. This was the original home of the Middletons and had to be fortified due to the proximity of the Scottish border, with the manor added at a later date, presumable when the region was more secure and the family felt safe enough to live in an undefended home. Both of these building are now in ruin, although it is possible to explore the castle and climb to the top for a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside from the top. There is no real interpretation at this site - something I found to be rather a shame - and English Heritage seem to prefer to use it more for a backdrop for events in the open field in front of it. A visit to the Belsay estate will take you between 2 and 3 hours, more if there is an event taking place. Available visitor facilities are: - the cafe (open only in summer, but offering reasonably priced food, drinks and home-made cakes, including a children's menu) - picnic area with tables - the shop (small, selling English heritage books, Belsay souvenirs and ice creams) - toilets with baby changing facilities and disabled access - wheelchairs available for free use - free leaflets with maps of the estate, available from the entrance and inside the hall Wheelch air access is available to the ground floor of the hall, shop, cafe and parts of the formal gardens. Disabled visitors may find it difficult to reach the ca
stle as the path is uneven and sloping, and will not be able to enter this building as there is no ramp available. The exhibition, as I have said, is off limits unless you can manage the stairs. - My opinion The Belsay estate has an awful lot of potential as a historic visitor attraction, although at the moment I really don't think it is making the most of what it has. Although I appreciate that English Heritage are always going to be short on funds and that conservation is top priority, they really need to consider some changes here - most of all in communication with the visitor. It was not just that the exhibition was not signposted or that there was a complete lack of "way out" signs, either. The strongest memory I have of my first visit was of a great disappointment in finding the hall to be empty; nowhere (not in the member's guidebook, the website or any leaflet) does it mention that Belsay Hall is unfurnished. I have been to many historic sites across Britain, and my experience tells me that it is reasonable to expect a nineteenth century country hall to have period furnishings within it in a National Trust-ish manner, unless told otherwise. And it was not just me: the hall rang to sounds of other visitors muttering "its empty" and "there is nothing here". The sole reason I made a return visit to Belsay was for this weekend's event, the excellent annual medieval tournament (which I highly recommend, by the way). Would I return to see just the property again? No. And that comes from a committed English Heritage member and regular visitor of historic sites. <br > Overall, recommended if you... - are already an EH member - like gardens - are interested in nineteenth century architecture - can visit when there i s an event on But avoid if you... - have to pay full entrance price (it is just too expensive for what you get) - are disab
led - like buildings furnished in period style - cannot make it to any events - Details Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens Belsay Nr. Ponteland Northumberland The estate is open 10am to 4pm (winter) or 6pm (summer) throughout the year (except Christmas and New Year). Tel: 01661 881636 www.english-heritage.org.uk