THE worst damage in living memory is being cleaned up at Cragside after £50,000 worth of damage was caused by the recent arctic weather.
Snow more than two feet deep has left a trail of destruction at the National Trust’s estate near Rothbury.
Hundreds of trees – some dating as far back as the 1870s – have been ruined or destroyed, while the magnificent mansion built by the great Victorian industrialist and inventor Lord Armstrong has also suffered badly at the hands of the snow and severe cold.
But despite the devastation caused by the coldest December for more than 100 years, staff and volunteers are working around the clock to repair the damage and Cragside general manager, John O’Brien, is confident it will be business as usual come the February half-term.
“Extraordinary events call for extraordinary acts,” he said. “The scale of the snow and ice damage has been astounding, but our staff and volunteers are making every possible effort to ensure that Cragside’s beautiful buildings and gardens are safe and that no further harm will be sustained.
“While we were forced to close a month early last year in the run-up to Christmas as temperatures plummeted and Britain found itself blanketed in the worst snowfalls for decades, we expect to be open as normal for half-term with a full programme of events and other exciting activities planned for all the family.
“And that will in no small part be due to the enormous dedication and devotion of our staff and volunteers who are making Herculean efforts to put right the worst the weather has thrown at us over the past weeks.
“The extent of the damage has to be seen to be believed and is a reminder of just how brutal Mother Nature can be.”
The most spectacular evidence of this winter’s wrath is the plight of a 140-year-old holly tree growing in the rock garden to the front of the house. Such was the weight of the snow the 30 foot high tree has split into five and will need to be completely removed.
In the formal garden up to 40 panes of glass in the Orchard House will need replacing after a dramatic snow slide from the roof left drifts seven feet high piled up against the fragile building. Much of the glass in the covered canopy outside the tearoom has also shattered, leaving gaping holes and jagged edges.
Even the new wildlife hide has fallen victim to the weather after a tree bough fell on to its roof.
The damage wreaked across Cragside is among the worst in living memory.
Mr O’Brien said: “Christmas events had to be cancelled as the estate was unsafe for visitors to enjoy. We were devastated by the effects of the snow in the run-up to Christmas, but we will be in a position to re-open safely for the February half-term.
“Parts of the upper estate will have to remain closed, but the house, gardens and visitor centre will be open and there will be access on foot to the children’s play area and lakeside walks.
“But we still estimate that the remaining damage at Cragside will cost over £20,000 to repair as well as a lot of man hours.
“As the National Trust is a charity we depend on donations and visitor income to upkeep the stunning places we look after. People can help by visiting Cragside or, if they wish, making a donation.”
While the National Trust insures its buildings and contents, this does not cover all damage.
Mr O’Brien added: “We do everything we can to protect the fabric of our buildings under a planned repair programme. We also carry out tree-surgery and plant shelter screening in the gardens and countryside.
“But we have millions of trees and plants which cannot be insured. Planned maintenance protects these buildings and landscapes from many threats, but not exceptional weather such as we have recently experienced.”
Cragside’s head gardener Alison Pringle said it will take many years for the wider estate to recover. “There are so many branches down. There is nothing more dramatic than seeing a tree completely split open, but the number of branches that have broken off or are hanging is almost beyond belief.
“We have a wonderful copper beech in the formal garden which has lost six limbs, three on each side. It looks a real mess, and while we are determined to retain it as a tree it is going to need a lot of work.
“It is devastating when you remember that many of these trees have been here since the time of Lord Armstrong and are such an important link with the past.
“People may say that bad winters were once a common occurrence, and yes, in the time of Armstrong they were much colder. But you have to remember that then these trees wouldn’t have been so big.
“Even in the winters of 1947 and 1963 which are held up as being particularly bad, the trees would not have been so mature and there would have been less room for damage.”
The weight of the snow was such that for days in the run-up to Christmas the sound of the tree branches snapping and glass splintering reverberated around the estate like the crack of gunfire.
Alison, who has lived and worked at Cragside for 17 years and has never encountered a winter like this, said the damage to the Orchard House was particularly extraordinary.
“It looks like a giant has gone along with his finger and thumb and snapped off all the panes, such was the weight of the snow. At its worst we had about 27 inches lying level, but more than that would have fallen.
“It was probably over 30 inches, but the snow compacted and turned to solid ice.”
While the majority of the snow has melted, there are still mounds in the car parks and along the road sides, while the lakes remain frozen in shaded areas.
Anyone who would like to make a donation to help repair the damage at Cragside can either do so in person at the property or send cheques made payable to the National Trust to Val Miller, Property Administrator, Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland, NE65 7PX. If you would like to volunteer for conservation work please call 01669 622 001.