It is a masterpiece of Greek Revival architecture as eccentric as the Regency baronet who created it. Now curators hope Northumberland’s Belsay Hall will come to national prominence after a multimillion-pound, two-year conservation project to secure its future.
The building, described by its guardians English Heritage as a “jewel of the North East”, was designed by landowner Sir Charles Monck in the early years of the 19th century. He had the stone quarried on site and connected the house to Belsay Castle — his medieval ancestral home — along artificial ravines cut into the rock to create picturesque pathways and a microclimate for adventurous gardening.
Sir Charles, who changed his surname in order to inherit from his maternal grandfather, belonged to the Middleton family that lived at Belsay almost continuously from the 13th century to the 1960s.
Described by a contemporary as “original”, albeit “eccentric, paradoxical, and contradicting”, he developed a passion for the Classics at Rugby School. His vision for the new house at Belsay was inspired by his and his first wife’s honeymoon in Greece, when they visited numerous ruins. His interest wasn’t only aesthetic and historical. While his dream house was being built, Sir Charles campaigned, as an MP, for the independence of the Ionian Islands from British rule.
He was more successful in art than politics, even if he may have had a helping hand from the architect John Dobson. The Pevsner guide to the buildings of Northumberland praises the hall for its “pure and noble simplicity”. The house, built of dressed sandstone blocks, is exactly 100ft (30m) square and, like a Greek temple, sits on a crepidoma, or stepped plinth. The two massive Doric columns supporting the inset portico are copied from the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens.
The unplastered stone walls and coffered ceiling of the entrance hall create the impression of entering an ancient shrine. Nevertheless, in spite of the Greek “purity” of most of the design, the interior is arranged around the two-storey central Pillar Hall inspired by Roman villas as Sir Charles could find no suitable Hellenic precedent.
Mark Douglas, English Heritage’s Properties Curator, said: “The technical expertise and attention to detail are second to none. Almost everything in that building is stone — there’s hardly any brick. It’s this beautiful sandstone that has been smoothed and rubbed down with carborundum stones. The joints are pencil-line thin. And the scale of the building and the way it sits in the landscape — the whole thing has been conceived of like an essay in architectural detailing.”
Sir Charles’ quarrying on site, and his creation of pathways cut into the landscape in the process, are illustrative of his holistic approach. Douglas said: “It was done in such a way as to create a serpentine, circuitous walking route. So you get this picturesque walk where you go from modernity — and the throwback to modernity that was Greece — to the more chaotic nature of the medieval past and the castle. Adjacent to the hall there is a formal garden that is manicured and controlled. As you walk through the quarry garden, you go on a journey where things become more wild and rugged. You’re going away from the idea of the modern mind and drifting into what was seen as the medieval.”
The quarry garden also creates a sheltered microclimate that makes it possible to grow tender plants beyond their normal northern limit. “It’s a degree or too warmer in wintertime,” Douglas said. “And there are plants in there from around the world that need that kind of protection.”
The major conservation investment was needed to replace the hall’s leaky roof — putting an end to decades of problems with water ingress — as well as to repair the castle’s stonework and restore the 30-acre gardens to the appearance of their heyday around the turn of the 20th century.
Decades after Sir Charles laid out his gardens, they were greatly embellished by his grandson Sir Arthur Middleton, who extended the quarry garden and added a winter garden, yew garden and magnolia terrace. Plant records at Belsay show that some of the tree and shrub species noted were early introductions to England. They came from all over the world, including South America, North America, China and Japan. In 1926 Sir Arthur noted that the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) in the winter garden was planted in about 1830 by his grandfather and was one of the first in England.
Nevertheless, much of the Sir Charles’ and Sir Arthur’s planting was subsequently lost and the woodland garden was overgrown with laurels and rhododendrons.
To reverse the losses, English Heritage commissioned landscape designer and gardener Dan Pearson to develop planting plans to recapture that character in the formal areas of the gardens, using plants and designs in keeping with the ethos of the two baronets. Working alongside Pearson, the gardens team planted over 80,000 new plants, with 35,000 in the woodland alone. They also opened up original views that had become obstructed, including views of the Douglas fir. And they brought light flooding back into areas formerly choked by excess foliage.
In other additions, the coach house building next to the castle has been restored and transformed into a new café with its own renewable energy and rainwater harvesting. Another service building nearby has been converted into a children’s education centre, with an adjacent outdoor classroom. And there is a new children’s woodland play area. There is also additional site interpretation inside the castle — a typical fortified pele tower of the border region — using a projected animation and soundscape to bring stories of the Middletons to life.
Douglas said these changes at and around the castle would transform the visitor experience. “There was a café — that’s still there — at the hall. But once you walked to the castle, it was slightly disappointing for some visitors as it was a bit lifeless. These changes make that destination much more agreeable. They also zone the site. So you’ve got this academic view, if you like, of the hall where you see the architectural detail of this stunning building — one of the greatest Greek Revival buildings in the North, in my opinion. Then there are the gardens, which are brilliant to visit and see progressing through the seasons. Now, on the far side, you’ve got this more family-oriented activity area and the new café. It’s something to broaden the breadth of appreciation of the site.”
He is confident that the makeover will attract more families to Belsay. And he stresses that the site is of national and international significance. “It’s only a short detour from the A1,” he said. “Architectural students should be flocking to see the hall because it has so many stories to tell and so many lessons to be learned.”
The project was funded by a grant of £3.4 million from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, as well as support from Garfield Weston Foundation and The Foyle Foundation, and other donations.
Visitor information for Belsay is available at the English Heritage website. The photograph at the top of the article shows the two-storey Pillar Hall at Belsay Hall following the conservation project. Image: English Heritage