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  • Julie Muller

CRAGSIDE: A Summer Stroll investigating THE ARMSTRONG TRAIL

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

A red sheep dog sits in front of an Iron Bridge and tall pine trees and a large brick built shooting lodge
Bruno rests by the Iron Bridge at Cragside

The Armstrong Trail is the trail that is probably walked by most of the dogs and their humans who visit Cragside for the first time. It is a 2-mile educational trail that helps to explain how Lord Armstrong used water to both illuminate his home and to power his amazing inventions.

Although the trail starts at the Visitor Centre, it can be divided into two very different parts. One part follows the whole perimeter of Tumbleton Lake, and the second part follows Debdon burn as it leaves Tumbleton Lake and trickles down towards the Powerhouse at the bottom of the estate. Here hydroelectricity was once generated in order to illuminate the Armstrong residence.

It was a beautiful warm June day when Bruno and I last explored the Armstrong Trail. To begin the walk, we had to walk alongside the carriage drive for a short while and so we had to be very aware of any cars that might be driving along it towards us. The carriage drive, itself, is a six-mile loop around the estate that allows humans to get an overview of what Cragside is all about – it is also a lot easier on our paws!

As we trotted up the driveway, we could see Tumbleton Lake glinting in the sunshine below us. A group of three swans paddled about at the edge of the lake whilst some Canada geese were remonstrating loudly with some in-flying pink footed geese who had dared to land on the lake.

At this time of year, the rhododendrons were still in full purple blossom alongside the road, and amongst them, a couple of azaleas were still clinging on to their yellow intensely perfumed flowers and the scent was so strong that it made us sneeze!

The colour of the purple rhododendrons is the reason why the Cragside staff sport a purple NT logo on their uniforms.

The Carriage Drive seemed very busy, so we had to keep pausing on the grass verge to allow cars to pass by. Although the verge was soft and damp to our paws, it was a relief when we eventually left the Carriage Drive and made our way down towards the lake.

We trotted down a gravel path towards the end of the lake where the Debdon burn trickles into it. We could see a nursery of young pine and birch trees below us. Above us were the remains of enormous pine trees picked up and knocked over by the powerful winds of the 2021 storms.

We soon reached the bottom edge of the lake which runs parallel with the busy A -road above, and from which we were shielded by a belt of pine trees. Around the lake there was a plethora of wildflowers all waving about in the wind. On the other side of the lake, we could see all of our canine friends and their humans enjoying the hospitality of the Visitor Centre.

A boardwalk allowed us to walk above the boggiest part of the lake, and below us, flitting between the rushes and reeds, we saw numerous blue iridescent damsel flies. The boardwalk was very springy and bouncy to our paws and although we couldn’t see the water below us, I was glad to get to the other end of it and back onto a hard surface. As we trotted over the stone bridge which is where the Debdon Burn was dammed in order to create Tumbleton Lake, we saw a couple of intimately entwined toads sitting in the middle of the road. Naturally, our humans had to move them to a safer location – but the toads were otherwise occupied and completely oblivious to us!!

The next part of the walk took us down a long flight of steps towards the Debdon Burn where the water was thrashing around at the bottom quite alarmingly.

An Archimedes screw running down the hill next to the steps was responsible for the churning water. The huge screw was being rotated by water flowing into it from the lake above, and the resulting energy was used to light up the whole house ! This wasn’t one of Lord Armstrong’s original inventions, but I think that he would have been very proud of it!

The water ebbed and flowed at the bottom of the screw - normally I love water, but I kept well away.

We crossed over a small bridge to the other side of the burn, and we were itching to dip our paws in the water, but it was hard to get to. Julie kept us firmly on our leads to make sure that we did not disturb the resident wildlife.

There were forests of tall stately foxgloves all around us – most of them were purple but others were white. These were interspersed with horse tails – primitive plants that have been used as a herbal remedy for thousands of years.

Soon the walk took us away from the water and we found ourselves on one side of the Iron Bridge with the house gazing down on us from the crags above.

We were not very keen to walk over the Iron Bridge. There was a frighteningly long drop below us! Luckily, we were saved from crossing over, as The Armstrong Trail led us down some steps before we reached it , and we went off in search of the pinetum. This surely must be the most peaceful green space on the whole of the estate. The tall pine trees towered above us sending a delightful green light that was so calming. I just had to find somewhere to roll - in spite of being on my lead. The grass was soft and lush, and everything was so tranquil. Even Bruno was calm. The burn trickled past, and we were finally able to steal a long cool drink – bliss!

I think that someone said that the second tallest tree in the U.K. is here in the pinetum. If you search very hard, you will find Douglas and, although he doesn’t stand tall anymore, he is certainly very splendid.

When we left the pinetum we diverted away from the Armstrong Trail in search of the Gorge .The Gorge is only open between April and October, but it is a firm favourite with the local canines and their humans – and we can thoroughly understand why – it is magical!

Although it was completely engineered by Lord Armstrong, it is a fairy-tale like experience with water falls and cascades over huge boulders. Steep cliffs are festooned with luxuriant green vegetation and the sound of the water gushing and gurgling, dripping, and trickling is mesmerising.

We watched a grey wagtail as it darted from stone to stone .

Water tumbling and cascading over rocks between steep rock faces and surrounded in green vegetation and  tall pine trees
The Gorge at Cragside

We didn’t want to leave it behind us. However, there was so much more to see on the Armstrong Trail.

When we left the gorge, we found ourselves very close to the powerhouse. It was here that all of the electricity was generated for the house and there is lots of educational information for all of the human visitors to read – of course, Bruno and I were more interested in being outside.

The Armstrong trail is a linear ,there-and-back, walk and so our humans decided to return to the car via the rock gardens which sit just below the house. Once again, we were excited by the terrain that we had to cover. We had to jump from stone step to stone step between huge boulders completely overhung with greenery. It was such tremendous fun. Stone steps climbed higher and higher towards the house, and we ended up by the stone archways that lead into the courtyard and on to the Carriage Drive.

A woman and two dogs walk across stone slabs between vegetated rocks
Walking through the rock garden at Cragside

A short hop, skip and jump and we were back to the car – exhausted!

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