Yesterday I went up to Cragside in Northumberland, the former country residence of Sir William Armstrong, the Victorian arms manufacturer. My daughter-in-law, Shao Xin Ying, is a film-maker and hopes to make a documentary about him, so my wife and I took her there to take some outdoor shots in the beautiful landscaped grounds. The house is a fantastic hotch-potch of different styles, as bits were added willy-nilly as the years went by, but it is certainly fascinating and well worth a visit.
In this house Armstrong entertained Edward, the Prince of Wales, and many foreign diplomats to whom he hoped to sell arms. He actually supplied both sides in the American Civil War and was a major supplier to the rising Japanese Empire, very much enabling them to become a modern military power.
On the other hand, he founded a college at Newcastle University, gave his town house and grounds to the people as a park and restored Bamburgh Castle, among other philantrhropic deeds. As the historians say, we must judge people by the standards of their times.
We ate our pic-nic by one of the artificial lakes Armstrong had created and wandered among the bright rhododendrons, many of which were just coming into flower. It was a beautiful day and we had a wonderful time. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for our subsequent visit to the Newcastle Hotel in nearby Rothbury.
There was a fair range of real-ales on offer, but none were at their best. The Black Sheep Bitter was the worst I have tasted for a long time, positively sour. The Deuchar's I.P.A was warm, weak and innocuous. The best brew they served was Wychwood Brewery's Hobgoblin, which was clear and tasty, with a heavy chocolate flavour.
Glancing around, I noticed that the bar had been "decorated" with the most obviously fake ceiling beams I have ever seen in my life - they looked like plastic! We were finally driven out when the bar staff turned the music up to full volume and everyone in the bar began shouting over the din. This was NOT an experience to be repeated!