Hexham-Wall-Chollerton-Thockrington-Kirkharle-Rothbury-Alnwick-Alnmouth. It sounds like a list of stations on some sleepy Northumberland branch line before Dr Beeching’s axe fell. In fact, these places all sit on a historic road that linked Tynedale to the coast. It was called the Corn Road because in the eighteenth century, maybe before, the harvest of Tynedale was carried along it to the port of Alnmouth from where it could be transported up, down or across the North Sea. It was also known as the Alemouth Road, a street name that still exists in Hexham.
If you want to avoid the main roads, it’s a pleasant scenic way to drive to the north of the county. And among many points of interest along the route is Wallington Hall. It’s one of my favourite places in Northumberland, famous on no fewer than three counts: the house itself, its marvellous garden, and the family who lived there.
Let’s start with the family or more accurately, families. There were two big Northumbrian names associated with the estate’s early history: the Fenwicks, and then the Blacketts who acquired it in the late seventeenth century. It was they who created the house as we now know it. But the name that is indelibly linked with Wallington is not theirs but that of Trevelyan. Originally from Cornwall, the Trevelyans came into ownership as a result of a marriage into the Blackett family. The nineteenth century saw them rise to a position of remarkable political and intellectual dominance in the nation. Many will know the name of G. M. Trevelyan (George Macaulay T who died in 1962) through his writings on history and biography. I remember the four volumes of his English Social History in their colourful dust jackets lining my parents’ bookshelves in my childhood. I still have them.And what is so enjoyable at Wallington is the sense that this is still essentially a family home. The Trevelyans bequeathed it to the National Trust during the war, and it was opened to the public in 1968. It is undeniably a grand house, but it is modest with it, genuine, humane. It feels lived in, hospitable and for me anyway, the kind place you not only admire but love. This may be to do with the Trevelyans’ politics. They were a forward-looking family who believed that inherited wealth and privilege should not be used selfishly but should benefit wider society. Which they did in support of a number of important social and political causes such as the universal franchise.
They also had a strong sense of their place in history, not least in North East England. One of the best of the many splendid rooms at Wallington is the arcaded sitting room created by the Tyneside Victorian architect John Dobson by roofing over the central courtyard. To decorate the walls, the Trevelyans commissioned a series of eight murals by the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Bell Scott. They depict scenes from Northumbrian history including the Roman Wall, St Cuthbert being offered his bishopric, the death of Bede, Grace Darling’s heroic sea-rescue, and heavy industry (“iron and coal”) on Tyneside. The colours are as fresh and vivid as when they were painted. The saloon, dining room and library are splendid too, as is the famous collection of dolls’ houses upstairs.
But for many visitors, best of all is the park that surrounds the house. A good way of getting a sense of it is to follow the waymarked path that takes you right round it. It includes extensive woodland (with snowdrops and bluebells in profusion if you time it right), a stretch of the infant River Wansbeck complete with James Paine’s beautiful little hump-bridge that you will have crossed if you approached from the south (“sound your horn” warns the sign: this elegant bridge is steep-sided and narrow by any standards). Not far from the house is a hide, popular with bird-watchers. And if you are lucky, you may glimpse red squirrels too (though I haven’t yet).
Even if you don’t visit the house, or do the long-ish walk, on no account must you miss the much-loved walled garden. It is the star of the show, possibly (Alnwick notwithstanding) the best garden in Northumberland if you treasure naturalness and a sense of intimacy. You reach it by walking back from the house under the beautiful cupola gateway to the courtyard, crossing the road (carefully) and following the signs through the wood. What makes this walled garden so beautiful is not simply the array of colour that adorns it throughout the year, but how it has been cleverly landscaped to follow the contours of the land as it drops away from the house. A stream flows from west to east down the centre of the garden. This provides south-facing slopes that in this sheltered environment support a marvellous variety of plant life.
The terrace above is overlooked by an owl perched on top of a pavilion. Inside the conservatory is a marble fountain with an inscription drawn from a Roman sarcophagus: “When wearied or overwrought by study and affairs of business, repair to these haunts and refresh your mind by a stroll amidst the flowers”. It’s good advice for anyone looking for physical and spiritual renewal amid the stresses and strains of twenty-first century life. We are fortunate here in Tynedale to have it so close at hand. And our very own Corn Road to get us there.
Wallington is a National Trust property. For opening times, consult the NT website.