Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens

2011 was the year I became a proper grown up. No, I am not referring to becoming a parent. This is not going to be a smug account of how parenthood has made me finally understand the world and what life is about. Quite frankly, life has never been more bewildering. And given that a sizable chunk of my first blog post was devoted to describing how I spend my time making animal noises, I have never felt so infantile since I was, well, an infant! No, my passage into adulthood was confirmed, when, last October, I joined English Heritage.

We were on holiday in Pickering. Inspired by Kate Atkinson’s latest brilliant novel, Started Early, Took my Dog, in which the monastic ruins of North Yorkshire feature heavily, we decided to visit Rievaulx Abbey, near Helmsley. (Well, that was the official highbrow reason. The real reason was that we had heard it had a nice tea room). Something about mooching around in the mist and the drizzle amongst the piles of desecrated Cistercian stone really got to me. Was it a sense of connection with the past? A moment of spiritual awakening? Or the stirring up of memories of my eccentric A-Level History teacher waxing lyrical about the Reformation? I wasn’t sure, but before I knew it I was back at the entrance hurriedly filling in membership forms and getting excited about the delivery of my first quarterly membership magazine.

Since then, our membership cards have taken a battering much closer to home, and our favourite local English Heritage site to visit is Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens, just off the A696 beyond Ponteland. The Hall itself is an unnervingly eerie building. Its combination of Grecian pillars and austere architecture has provided the perfect backdrop for some fantastic exhibitions in recent years, most notably Extraordinary Measures in 2010, when Ron Mueck’s astonishingly lifelike sculptures proved so mesmerising we went back to see them three times. The 14th century castle has also housed its fair share of unusual installations, including Stella McCartney’s crystal horse, Lucky Spot, which was suspended from the ceiling of the Pele Tower and illuminated by the light seeping through the castle’s crumbling windows. It was one of the few times that art has left me speechless.

However, the highlight of Belsay for me isn’t the Hall or the Castle, but the walk that connects the two. A path winds its way through Belsay’s Quarry Gardens, where the stone was cut for the Hall. The sheer rock faces and deep ravines create strange Narnia like gateways and portals, made even more atmospheric when viewed through the gnarly branches and opening buds of the vivid magnolias and rhododendrons.

Back at the entrance, there is a tea room, picnic area and gift shop, in which we were faced with a new parenting dilemma – is an English Heritage foam sword an appropriate toy for a one year old, or would such a purchase be condoning violence, even if it is of the medieval sort? What a predicament! We were jolted back to reality, but Belsay had provided a welcome otherworldly escape.