Newest Review: ... 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 ... more
A hall, a castle and gardens :)
Belsay Hall & Gardens (Belsay)
Member Name: Dragonfairy
Belsay Hall & Gardens (Belsay)
Advantages: A great day out, lots to do
Disadvantages: Quite expensive
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.
Summary: A great fun day
- Rufford Old Hall
- London New Year's Day Parade
- Dunvagen Castle (Skye)
- Womack Staithe (Norfolk)
- Horsey Wind Pump
- Parc Glynllifon (Caenarfon, Gwynedd)
- Bolam Lake and Country Park (Belsay, Northumberland)
- Fort Fun (Eastbourne, East Sussex)
- Caister Roman Fort (Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk)
- Standalone Farm (Hertfordshire)