Much to learn on a wander around estate

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I wrote recently about a visit to Blagdon Hall on one of its charity open days, but there’s such a wealth of things to see that I didn’t get much further than the south front.

Blagdon gets its name from the deep ravine that runs through the woods on the north side of the Hall.

It was called ‘Blakedenn’ in 1203, meaning the Black Dene. The dene is actually quite a cheerful place, with well-kept paths to walk along and plenty to look at, but without them it would be sombre and well deserving its name.

The immediate environs of the house are scattered with works of art or with works of utility finely wrought, so that wandering through them is like wandering through a sculpture park.

A footbridge called the white bridge, c.1859 but probably replacing an earlier bridge, takes you over the lake. The dam holding back the lake lies directly underneath.

The two tunnels on the opposite side are former boat houses, and were approached by cellar-like steps from the bank above.

The ideal of a Christian gentleman became to cultivate religion without superstition, piety without enthusiasm, and moderation in all things.

On the same side are two Gothic ruins. Follies, of course, but partly genuine, thought to have been built with masonry from a medieval hospital that used to stand either at Hartford Bridge or Plessey.

There is also a stone coffin nearby, which is undoubtedly genuine and presumably came from the same place.

Further along is a circular temple, standing beside the lake and lapped by its waters. It was built in 1783 by the architect William Newton, who also designed the Assembly Rooms in Newcastle.

It stood originally at Heaton Hall, a former home of the family, and was brought to Blagdon only in 1930, but for some reason has never had its domed roof put back.

The old religion of the ancient Britons and the Anglo-Saxons was firmly suppressed in the Middle Ages, though you can find traces of it in Shakespeare’s plays, most obviously in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With the Renaissance, however, came a different approach to paganism: a revival of interest in all things classical, so that although Europe remained deeply Christian, a knowledge of the pagan religions of the classical world became part and parcel of a liberal education.

It wasn’t that you believed in the old religions, but it led to a coolly detached view of one’s own. The ideal of a Christian gentleman became to cultivate religion without superstition, piety without enthusiasm, and moderation in all things. Few went so far as not to believe in God. Then, as now, life was too precarious, and pain and sorrow all too certain for such a leap of unfaith.

Adam Smith (1723-90) summed it up elegantly in his Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The administration of the great system of the universe (and) the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension; the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country.”

The Gothic ruins and the temple at Blagdon are material expressions of this ambivalence. A medieval building devoted to Christian piety and a pagan temple stand within a few hundred yards of each other, no longer places of worship, but monuments to a cultivated rationality.

The Stone Bridge, 1860, leads to the North Lodge on the old A1. When built, it gave access to the railway at Stannington Station so that the family and guests could come and go without driving past the working buildings of the Home Farm. The statues at each end are by John Graham Lough. These, and some others in the sculpture garden nearby, look as if they are made of stone, but with a metallic surface covering, giving them the appearance of gold.

This sculpture garden was rather overgrown when I saw it, but its most prominent feature is a statue of a bull, put up in 2000 to celebrate the millennium. There are statues and badges and plaques of bulls all over the estate, these being supporters on the family coat of arms.

This one has a carving of a coronet on its plinth, 2000 being also the centenary of the viscountcy. Matthew White Ridley, the 5th baronet, was Home Secretary from 1895 to 1900. He then retired and was elevated to the House of Lords as Viscount Ridley. His tomb, which is suitably magnificent, is in Stannington church.

At the end of the north drive, just near the lodge, is the Cale Cross. It stood at the foot of the Side in Newcastle and was rebuilt in 1783 at the expense of Sir Matthew White Ridley, the 2nd baronet and first of that name. Sir Matthew was at different times MP for Morpeth and Newcastle, and was active in developing both the industries on his estates and the port of Blyth.

Cale Cross was designed by David Stephenson, the architect-builder of All Saints Church in Newcastle. It did not at first have the lion and urns on top, which were added in 1786.

Being, however, “considered an inconvenience to the street, it was taken down in 1807, and presented by the corporation to its donor, and was set up in his grounds at Blagdon.” (Sykes’s Local Records).

Pevsner calls it a conduit head, i.e. a pant in Northumbrian parlance, but Arthur Mee’s King’s England says it was a market for dairy produce. Perhaps it was both.