Newest Review: ... walks through an old quarry. I was quietly impressed with Belsay and would say that it is definitely one of English Heritage's hidden t... more
It's all Greek (architecture) to me
Belsay Hall & Gardens (Belsay)
Member Name: SWSt
Belsay Hall & Gardens (Belsay)
Advantages: Unusual architectural style; two properties to look at
Disadvantages: Unfurnished Hall might not appeal to all; lack of information boards
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
Summary: One of Northumberland's hidden treasures
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