Get there quick to see spectacular blooms at Cragside

Time is running out to see Cragside’s famous rhododendrons in all their glory.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 20 June, 2019, 06:51
Visitors at Cragside, Northumberland.

The colourful blooms brighten up the grounds with delicate white, purple and pink flowers, which stand out dramatically against the coniferous landscape created by Lord and Lady Armstrong in the 1860s.

The impressive show of rhododendrons is complemented by bursts of azaleas dotted around the grounds, giving off a beautiful scent and showcasing vivid yellow and bright orange flowers.

Clearance work has been done in places to keep paths clear and provide space for fresh growth.

Visitors have been able to enjoy the display since the end of May but the good news is that they are at their peak in mid-June and will be around until the end of the month.

For the most part, they have also survived the recent battering of heavy rain and strong winds.

Neil Cuthbertson, head gardener at the National Trust property, said: “They probably have one more week in the rock garden but they could last until the end of the month on the upper estate, depending on the weather.

“The fact that it’s been cold has actually helped them flower longer. If it’s too hot they don’t last as long.”

Close view of purple rhododendron in bloom, planted by Lord Armstrong c1863 on previously barren hillside at Cragside.

Neil has been conducting weekly tours around the rhodies, as he calls them, while visitors have also been able to find out more through self-guided trails.

“In the past, there’s been a bit of a tradition of coming to see the rhodies at Cragside but we’ve been keen to promote it a bit more and the tours have been well-received, informing visitors about the history of both the estate and pointing out some of the significant plants,” he explained.

The gardens were created at a time when lots of Victorian nurseries were breeding rhododendron hybrids, creating many different varieties.

“They were the horticultural fashion of the time,” revealed Neil. “Added to that, the acidity of the soil here is exactly what rhodies like so it’s well suited.”

Cragside head gardener Neil Cuthbertson surveys the estate's famous rhododendrons.

There are hundreds of different species and a National Trust botanist has been exploring the rock garden area in recent weeks to try and identify as many types as possible.

“There are hundreds of varieties of hybrids from those times and a lot of them have been lost,” said Neil.

“We have got ‘Lady Armstrong’ here which was planted in the 1990s but there is supposed to be a ‘Lord Armstrong’ too. It’s listed in a nursery catalogue from the 19th Century but we have never found it so that’s the Holy Grail for us.

“The Trust botanist is deciding what to keep and what not to because a lot of the stuff now is root stock which has often taken over the plant that it was grafted on to.

Visitors walking in the rhododendron forest in June at Cragside, Northumberland.

“So, if you see a rhody with two different colours on the same plant, that’s an example where the root stock has been able to shoot away and it flowers. The root stock plant is more aggressive and, if left, takes over.”

The common rhododendron, known as ponticum, is particularly problematic.

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“It just shoots away and takes over the original plant,” said Neil. “In addition, it’s also really dense and fast-growing so it’s difficult to control.

“It has helped to give rhodies a bit of a bad reputation but there are other varieties we’ve planted such as ‘Milky Way’ which is a dwarf variety covered in lovely little flowers and ‘Evered’ which is bred for the leaves rather than the flowers.

Unfortunately there are no documents outlining which species were originally planted by the Armstrongs on their 1,000-acre estate just outside Rothbury.

“That means there’s a fair bit of detective work for us,” said Neil. “All we know is what the National Trust has planted since it took over in 1977.”

A bank of rhododendrons at Cragside.

And if you’ve got rhodies in your garden at home, Neil advises: “They don’t need an awful lot. There is a school of thought that dead-heading the flowers is beneficial but we’ve got far too many here to do that!

“We have started doing a lot of pruning of ours. There is a theory that if you take off the lower branches it increases the airflow and helps to fight off disease.

“A lot of the rhodies here haven’t been touched for decades but you can chop it back to four foot stumps and it should rejuvenate and grow back into a better shape. You can be quite brutal with them.

“Some people say you should take it back one-third every year over a three year cycle but if you’re feeling brave you can get it right back and it usually comes back. The same tips apply to rhodies in your garden at home.”The best way to see the rhodies is by taking the historic carriage drive, and experience the magnificent display as Lord Armstrong’s guests would have done.

Neil, who has worked at Cragside for 11 years, admits: “It’s a very nice place to work, even when the weather’s not so good – as long as you don’t think too much about the ‘to do’ list!”

Neil has a team of six gardeners looking after the formal gardens and rock garden, while a team of rangers and foresters look after the wider estate, supplemented by volunteers.

With an estimated seven million trees and shrubs on the estate, there’s always lots for them to tackle!

Lord Armstrong was a visionary inventor, engineer, scientist and businessman, bringing global renown to his great Elswick works on the north bank of the Tyne. In its heyday, Elswick employed over 25,000 people in the manufacture of hydraulic cranes, ships and armaments. Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity.

Armstrong built Newcastle’s Swing Bridge and the hydraulic mechanism that operates London’s Tower Bridge.

For more information about Cragside visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cragside

Cragside head gardener Neil Cuthbertson.
Rhododendrons in full bloom at Cragside.
The lower branches of these rhododendrons have been cut back to improve air flow and fight against disease.
Visitors walking beside the lake at Cragside, Northumberland.