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Belsay (Northumberland)

Situated about eight miles west of Morpeth, Belsay, which boasts a very colourful history, belonged to the Middleton family for some 800 years. Early in the 13th century, about 1226, two brothers John and Richard Middleton, married two daughters of Walter the Scott of Belsay and each inherited half the property. Richard was chancellor of England from 1270-72 and bought John's share of the estate.

Tragedy struck in 1318 when the great grandson of the chancellor forfeited his estates for participation with his cousin Sir Gilbert de Middleton in rebellion. He was involved in kidnapping and raiding during the misrule of Edward II and was hung, drawn and quartered. Belsay estate was given to Sir John Crumbwell, constable of the Tower of London, and Thomas de Bamburgh, King's Clerk, for their lives and later by Edward III to Sir John Strivelyn, one of his military commanders and some-time constable of Edinburgh Castle. Sir John, on his death in 1391, settled Belsay on Sir John Middleton, who is presumed to have been the grandson of the last Middleton possessor of the castle, and is believed to have married Strivelyn's eventual heiress.

In September 1804 Sir Charles Miles Lambert Monck, sixth Baronet, drove away from the Jacobean porch of old Belsay Castle on his honeymoon. He had changed his name from Middleton five years before in accordance with the will of his maternal grandfather, Mr Monck of Caenby, Lincs. The honeymoon lasted two years, during which time his wife Louisa, daughter of Sir George Cooke Bt; gave birth to a son, Charles Atticus Monck, while Sir Charles threw himself into the study of Hellenic architecture with the singular purpose of designing a Grecian-style house to build in Northumberland on his return home. During the period 1810-17 Belsay Hall was built, away from the castle, which still remained habitable. The quarries, from which the stone was hewn to build the hall, were later converted into gardens and the whole area landscaped. These beautiful gardens remain today, having been restored twice over the past 50 years. They fell into neglect during the Second World War when servicemen were in residence and again during the 1970s.

In 1867, Sir Charles Monck died aged 88 years and was succeeded by his grandson, Sir Arthur Middleton. He was a most respected employer and ran a thriving estate with many staff in all departments; farmers, joiners, drainers, masons, foresters and numerous staff in the hall, which must have been a very cosy place with fires in all the rooms. Two men were employed solely to 'lead' coal from Angerton station to the hall. Another two men were employed to saw logs to a specific size to fit the huge grates of the library, dining room and study.

The village, which echoes the Greek theme with its arcaded construction, must have been a very busy place with the many shops centred mainly in the arcade. There were two confectionery shops, Anderson’s and Pickering's; Mr William Pickering had a motorcycle repair shop and later moved from the arcade to a purpose-built garage on the opposite side of the road, serving petrol and carrying out repairs for miles around, his being the only garage between Cowgate, Newcastle, and Otterburn. Cuthbert Snowball ran the post office and telephone exchange along with his wife and family, and they also had a saddlery shop adjacent to the post office. Mary Nixon had a tearoom at the Pavilion, now known as Woodbine Cottage, next to the police house where Mr Douglas, the first policeman, took up residence in 1927. Travelling towards the village from the police house we come to Guidepost; here the joiner lived above his workshop and at the corner the blacksmith lived next door to his smithy. In the 1930s a new and imposing blacksmith's shop was built opposite to his residence, as befitted the talent of Edwin Creer, who was reputed to be the finest blacksmith in Northumberland. This shop is now an elegant tearoom.

The village school, built in 1870, replaced the old school house of the 1830s. The council school was purpose-built to accommodate 150 pupils; this must have been a very cramped situation for the pupils who would be taught in either the hall or the one classroom! Mr Firthwas the headmaster and his wife the assistant. He was the proud owner of a motorbike combination. Up to the mid 1950s Sunday services by the vicar of Bolam were held in the school and regular dances and evening classes were well supported by countryfolk from a wide area. The Women's Institute and Methodists continued to hold their meetings in the old school house until 1960. Numbers in the school have varied over the past 50 years from around 25 pupils to the present 80 and still rising. A larger mobile classroom has been installed to cater for the rising population which is most encouraging for the survival of our idyllic village.

At the west end of the village, there was, during Sir Arthur's time, a tollhouse, or gatehouse as the locals called it. And at this very junction the local RAC man directed the traffic! He was responsible for collecting the toll money and opening the gate to travellers heading towards Otterburn. One local character was known to object to the charge and whipped his steed into a high jump over the gate, much to the annoyance of Mr Riddell no doubt. At the junction of the other two roads, Scotsgap and Whalton, facilities for high finance were catered for by Mr Sutherland, the manager of Lloyds bank.

Sir Arthur died in 1933 at the grand old age of 95 years and was succeeded by his son Sir Arthur Charles Middleton, but owing to ill health the estate was directed by his nephew John Middleton, who unfortunately died in 1939. Stephen, his brother, took over the management of the estate, becoming the ninth Baronet in 1942 when his uncle died.

Sir Stephen was anxious to build up a profitable estate again after the war years. William Atkinson, son of the former estate agent, was appointed agent and he very quickly revitalised the estate by advertising nationally for heads of various departments. The woodlands were cleared and a vast planting programme was put in operation; the building department modernised and repaired property ready for new employees; farming acreage was extended; parklands were let to tenant farmers and the grounds were restored to their former glory .For the first time, the rhododendron gardens and castle grounds were open to the public. Employees were expected to take their turn manning the gate to the hall and castle. The hall became a very busy place both during the day for business, as the office and Sir Stephen's study were here, and in the evenings when there was the Scottish dancing club and the youth club. Private functions were held at the hall, such as the English Speaking Union, the Historical and Antiquarian Society, the Red Cross and many others. Catering for these events was usually from Arcade House Hotel, once the temperance hotel in the village, where Mrs Holms ran a catering and accommodation establishment.

By the 1970s the estate was hit by the economic situation and the number of staff was drastically reduced; much of the work was carried out by contract and eventually the Department of Environment, later English Heritage, restored the grounds once more and again the gardens were open to the public. A variety of functions are held here now as in the 1950s, but of a very different nature. It is a popular place for visitors from both far and near. Today, village trades are much depleted - only the garage and store with post office remain - but all the houses in the village are occupied, with young families who are interested in and part of our village community.

The village information above is taken from The Northumberland Village Book, written by members of the Northumberland Federation of Women's Institutes and published by Countryside Books. 

'In terms of both its architecture and its landscape features, Belsay is one of the most important sites, not only in Northumberland, but in the whole country. It is an encapsulation of English history.' Nikolaus Pevsner (1992).

Wallridge is an isolated row of bungalows within the parish of Belsay. The origin of this settlement is unclear. In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Wallridge like this: "WALRIDGE, a township in Stamfordham parish, Northumberland; 11 miles NE of Hexham. Acres, 191. Pop., 4. House, 1".

The parish of Belsay contains some of Northumberland's most important monuments, and historic sites still dominate the landscape of the area. Although the medieval and later architecture of the parish is the most visible part of the parish's heritage there are many traces of earlier periods below the soil.

The earliest trace of human occupation in the parish belongs to the Mesolithic period, a time before farming had been introduced. A number of worked flints belonging to this period have been found in the area of East Shaftoe Farm. These tools may have been used to hunt animals and birds or harvest wild plants. The first evidence for actual settlement comes from shortly after the Mesolithic in the early Neolithic period. The discovery of an occupation site of this period is very rare in Britain and unique in Northumberland. Some late Mesolithic finds were also made at the same site in Sandyford Quarry field suggesting that people had been living at the site for a long time. Many flint tools of the Neolithic period have also been found at several sites in the parish, including East Shaftoe, Middleton Bank and Shortflatt.

In the Bronze Age people began to make objects out of metal, particularly bronze, as well as flint. This can be seen, most spectacularly in Belsay with the discovery of two bronze shields. Such objects are very rare, and they may have been buried for religious purpose, as in this period valuable metal objects were often given to the gods in this way. Other remains of Bronze Age religious practices can be found across the parish. Two standing stones have been found, one on Bygate Hill and one next to a burial cairn at East Shaftoe. The precise purpose of these monuments is not clear, but they are quite rare in Northumberland, and as such are of great importance. Also, a number of Bronze Age burials have been found in the parish. A large barrow is known at Stob Hill, and another grave has been found at Bygate close to the site of a cairn. A number of Bronze Age pottery vessels have also been found: from near Belsay Castle, Black Heddon and West Bitchfield. These may well also have come from burials. Despite all this evidence for how the people of the Bronze Age worshipped and buried each other, no evidence for their houses or villages has been found in the parish. This may be because these settlements were often very slight, and their remains have probably not survived.

The situation in the Iron Age is in complete contrast. Although there is little evidence for burial practices from this period in Belsay, there is good evidence for settlements. This evidence is mainly in the form of cropmarks seen on aerial photographs. These have shown the presence of fortified enclosures near Bolam Hall, on Slate Hill and at Huckhoe. These were surrounded by one or more earth banks and ditches, which would have protected the buildings inside. Querns, stones used for grinding corn, have been found at both sites. These show clearly that crops, such as grain, were being grown nearby.

Although the parish is not far north of Hadrian’s Wall, the northern edge of the Roman Empire for much of their time in Britain, little seems to have changed in the Roman period. The settlement at Huckhoe continued to be used into the Roman period with few changes. The only obvious change in settlements is a move to the use of rectangular rather than oval enclosures. Such sites can be seen at Edgehouse and Low House. However, the parish could not entirely escape the influence of the Roman army. A Roman road ran north through the area and at one point a small fort was built to protect it. It is along this road that the Roman pottery found at Bolam may have arrived.

Following the end of Roman rule in Britain in the early fifth century there is very little evidence for any form of occupation until after the Norman Conquest (AD1066). However, we know there must have been some Anglo-Saxon occupation in the area as many of the place-names in the parish are of Old English origin. For example, Belsay means 'the ridge of land belonging to Bel.' In addition the parish Church of St Andrew contains some Anglo-Saxon material, belonging to 10th or 11th century.

By the Middle Ages the parish was densely settled. As well as the village of Belsay itself there were a number of other named settlements, many of which must have had their origin in the earlier Anglo-Saxon period. The number of settlements suggests that the area must have been extensively farmed, allowing the land to support so many people. The area suffered from a period of warfare and many raids from Scotland. It was because of this that a number of fortified tower houses were built, including the particularly well-preserved one at Belsay. There was also a growth in the number of religious buildings in the medieval period. As well as the parish church, which was considerably added to at this time, there was also a chapel at Belsay Hall. A hospital, which would have been run by the Church to serve travellers, was also built in the 13th century."

The parish continued to be an important agricultural area into the post-medieval period. The wealth from farming must have helped pay for the construction of Belsay Hall, a building of outstanding architectural importance. When it was first constructed it was on the cutting edge of European design and one of the first houses of the Classical revival in the country. It is even more important as it is set in a nationally renowned landscape park. This garden links Belsay Hall with the Belsay Tower house, which was retained as an important feature in the park. The creation of this park has also had wider consequences on the landscape, as the old village of Belsay was demolished to clear the way for the gardens. The new estate village was rebuilt at some distance from the main house. The beautification of the estate in the 18th century even went as far as building a farm in the fashionable Gothick style.

Belsay Hall still keeps its central role in the parish. The hall, the house and the 30-acre garden are now owned by English Heritage and are open to the public. English Heritage has made great efforts to return Belsay's gardens, which suffered from neglect after World War II, to their former state, to complement the great house.

The History of Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens

Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens are the creation of the Middleton family, over more than seven centuries. First came the castle, still dominated by its massive 14th-century defensive 'pele tower'. Built as a refuge at a time of Anglo-Scottish warfare, it was also designed to impress: it still displays rare traces of elaborate medieval wall paintings. In more peaceful times a Jacobean mansion wing was added: here the family lived until Christmas Day 1817, when they moved into Belsay Hall.

Belsay Hall is an austerely Classical Greek Revival villa, now displayed without furnishings to reveal the fine craftsmanship of its construction. Begun in 1807, it was designed by Sir Charles Monck (formerly Middleton), a man inspired by Ancient Greece and the buildings he had seen on his honeymoon in Athens. Yet despite its austere façade, it had a comfortable interior, arranged round its amazing central two-storey 'Pillar Hall.'

The vast gardens which provide a magnificent setting for the castle and hall are also largely Sir Charles's work. His romantic Quarry Garden, created where stone was cut for his hall, has ravines and sheer rock faces inspired by Sicilian quarries. His grandson Sir Arthur Middleton, likewise a pioneering plantsman, further embellished the Quarry with the exotic species which thrive in its micro-climate, and added the Winter Garden, Yew Garden, and Magnolia Terrace.

Middleton Baronets, of Belsay Castle, Northumberland (1662)

The Middleton Baronetcy, of Belsay Castle in the County of Northumberland, was created in the Baronetage of England on 24 October 1662 for William Middleton, of Belsay Castle, Belsay, Northumberland. The Middletons were descended from Richard Middleton who was Chancellor to Henry III. His grandson Sir Gilbert Middleton took part in a rebellion against Edward II. He was captured and executed. The Middleton estates including Belsay were forfeited to the Crown but were restored to the family by marriage in the reign of Edward III. Sir John Middleton was a fervent Yorkist in the 15th century and fought at the Battles of St Albans in 1455 and Bosworth in 1485. The third, fifth and sixth Baronets all sat as Member of Parliament for Northumberland. The sixth Baronet assumed in 1799 by Royal sign-manual the surname of Monck in lieu of his patronymic, according to the will of his maternal grandfather Lawrence Monck. The seventh Baronet, who represented Durham in Parliament, resumed the use of the surname of Middleton. The title became extinct on the death of the tenth Baronet in 1999. The Middleton family and estate records are held in the archives of the Northumberland Record Office.

Sir William Middleton, 1st Baronet (c.1625–1690)
Sir John Middleton, 2nd Baronet (1678–1717)
Sir William Middleton, 3rd Baronet (c.1700–1757), MP for Northumberland 1722–1757
Sir John Lambert Middleton, 4th Baronet (1705–1768)
Sir William Middleton, 5th Baronet (1738–1795), MP for Northumberland 1774-1795
Sir Charles Miles Lambert Middleton, 6th Baronet (Monck from 11 Feb 1799) (1779–1867), MP for Northumberland 1812-1820
Sir Arthur Edward Monck, 7th Baronet (Middleton from 12 Feb 1876) (1838–1933), MP for Durham 1874-1880
Sir Charles Arthur Middleton, 8th Baronet (1873–1942)
Sir Stephen Hugh Middleton, 9th Baronet (1909–1993)
Sir Lawrence Monck Middleton, 10th Baronet (1912–1999), Extinct on his death.

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