Nicola here. For the last two weeks I’ve been on a trip to the North East of England, taking in plenty of castles and historic houses along the way. I visited Cragside, the home of pioneering Victorian engineer William Armstrong, and the first house in England to be lit by hydro-electric power. The most special visit I made though, was to Belsay Hall, which we Word Wenches chose as the inspiration for Holbourne Abbey, the house that is the setting for our new anthology, The Last Chance Christmas Ball. It was very exciting to visit Belsay on behalf of all the Wenches, to wander through its rooms and imagine our characters celebrating the Christmas season in the ballroom and watching the snow falling beyond the drawing room windows. I could almost hear their voices and the faint drift of music!
Christmas is a significant date in the history of Belsay Hall for on Christmas Day 1817 Sir Charles Monck,
the owner, moved with his family the short distance from his “old” castle to the newly-completed mansion house. The timing of the move symbolised a new beginning for the family; the transfer of the seat of the Belsay estate from the ancient residence to a modern one built in classical style, a gem of regency architecture.
One visitor to Belsay at the end of the 19th century recalled her impressions of the Christmas season at the house:
“There was snow everywhere… Belsay came as an incredible surprise – the snowy, cold landscape without, and the generous warmth within; arrival at that magnificently unique four-square house with its leaping fires, standing so boldly forth in its surround of sparkling snow. To feel the warm welcome, to mount the stairs, candlestick in hand, and see the flickering shadows of the light on all the pillars… the blazing fire in one’s bedroom, was glory.”
It almost makes me wish we had been able to see the house in winter rather than on a glorious sunny autumn day!
time of great turbulence along the English/Scottish border. It has huge thick walls, turrets, and stone spiral stairs. In the 17th century it was enlarged to make it a more comfortable family home. Above the entrance you can still see the family coat of arms and the inscription: “Thomas Middleton and Dorathy his wife builded this house anno 1614.” Today the castle is wonderfully atmospheric, the ruins lending themselves to the story of a wounded war hero who rediscovers love and learns to live again...
The new Regency mansion built for Sir Charles is an extraordinary piece of architecture. Sir Charles was obsessed with Ancient Greece – he owned every book on Greek Architecture that had been published! – and he designed his house in a classical style. I was completely blown away by the elegance of the Pillar Hall, which occupies the centre of the house and rises over two storeys, lit by a huge window in the roof. It's the first thing you see as you go in and is absolutely magnificent, perfect for welcoming guests to a ball. I used this grand entrance in my own story and it was exactly as I imagined it. The thought of the hall decorated with candles, pine branches and coloured ribbons for Christmas was gorgeous.
The staircase is hidden behind a colonnade of pillars and sweeps up to the first floor where there is a gallery all the way round. It’s totally stunning and because the house is empty now it gives the imagination space to wander, to people the house with all our characters, to see them taking dinner or flitting through the hall, or climbing the servants' stair. The bedroom in the picture still has its 19th century wallpaper and you can see how the door leads out onto the gallery beyond.
The servants’ quarters at Belsay are extensive, taking up the whole north side of the house. As well as a servants’ hall, kitchens, butler’s pantry and extensive storerooms there are six huge cellars, four for wine and two for beer. Housemaids had rooms on the top floor, kitchen and parlour maids on the floor below. There were some lovely descriptions in the guidebook of how the servants would watch from the gallery to see all the guests arriving for balls and parties (and how they would sunbathe on the roof of the in summer in their precious free time!)
One of the most beautiful aspects of Belsay is the garden. Close to the house is the formal garden of
terraces is laid out with shrubs and perennial flowers. There is a walled Winter Garden and a yew garden with topiary. Most spectacular however is the quarry garden, a dramatic, wild landscape that was deliberately created to be a contrast with the parkland. There are grottoes and cascades, rock arches and canyons, with trees overhanging the gorges and exotic plants lining the paths. As the guide book said, well-tended paths were still important in a picturesque landscape as Georgian ladies and gentlemen could stand only so much drama and sublimity!
For me as a reader and a writer, background and setting are a huge part of a story. I love being able to visualise the world through which the characters move. Ever since I read Mary Stewart and Daphne Du Maurier in my teens I have loved the atmosphere that can be conjured up to add layers to a story. Belsay Hall is the sort of place that inspires the imagination and I hope I have managed to convey some of that magic.
Today is World Teacher's' Day and it was my first two history teachers, Mrs Chary and Mr Conway, who,
along with my grandmother, taught me to love history, a journey that has brought me to the point I am at now where I am lucky enough to tell stories inspired by wonderful places like Belsay.
Is there a teacher who inspired you, or a place that fires your imagination? One commenter between now and midnight Tuesday will win a copy of The Last Chance Christmas Ball. Thank you!