It’s main interest today lies in its association with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Although Swinburne is the greatest poet the county has produced, he was not born there but in London. The family, however, is a very old one in the north. It existed previous to the thirteenth century, when it possessed Swinburne. The name seems to have been taken from Swin, or Swine Burn, as Dr. Furnivall used to recall in the days of the famous ” flyting ” between him and the poet. The Swinburne family produced many members distinguished as soldiers and sailors, but Mr. Gosse in his biography of the poet rather laments that it attained no literary distinction. Swinburne had no ancestor to whom his temperament can be traced. The house at Capheaton was built in 1688 by Robert Trollope, who was also the architect of Netherwitton Hall and the old Exchange at Newcastle. Much alteration has been done in the course of time, and although the back is still a piece of beautiful and practically untouched Tudor work, the front is modern and the roof of Westmorland slate. In Leland’s time the family inhabited the ancient castle of Swinburne, which was moated and fortified, and had a great stone or Menhir in the park. The moss-troopers used to be as much of a danger to Capheaton as to Swinburne Castle, besides which the owners were implicated in the many political movements and rebellions which occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is no wonder that in Capheaton there used to be many priest-holes and hiding-places, but these have all but one disappeared in the process of the many alterations made.
Algernon was born in Chester Street, Grosvenor Square, London, in 1837. Lady Jane Swinburne had been on her way to the seaside home of the family on the Isle of Wight. In spite of being born in London, Swinburne was thoroughly proud of being Northumbrian.
At one time I saw a good deal of him, and his talk ran very much on the ballads and superstitions of his county. He delighted in reading his own Northumbrian ballads, and the curious chanting sing-song was singularly appropriate. His memory was full of strange legends, many of which tempted him into verse. But a considerable number of the ballads he read to me have not been published. There is a great deal in his work to stir the imagination of Northumbrians. It may be divided into two classes, one in which the external characteristics of the region are dwelt upon, and the other which glows with the spirit of wild and romantic Northumberland. His pride and affection came out most conspicuously in the early drama called ” The Sisters.” In a letter to Mrs. Lynn Linton dated 1892 he said he ” never wrote anything so autobiographical as Redgie’s speech about Northumberland, done in the Eton mid-summer holidays ” :
The crowning county of England – yes, the best ! . . Have you and I, then, raced across its moors Till horse and boy were well-nigh mad with glee So often, summer and winter, home from school, And not found that out ? Take the streams away The country would be sweeter than the south Anywhere : give the south our streams, would it Be fit to match our borders ? Flower and crag, Burnside and boulder, heather and whin – you don’t Dream you can match them south of this ? And then If all the unwater’d country were as flat As the Eton playing-fields, give it back our burns, And set them singing through a sad south world And try to make them dismal as its fens, – They won’t be.
It was a Northumbrian neighbour, Pauline Lady Trevelyan, wife of Sir Walter Trevelyan of Wallington, an old friend of his father, who was the first to discover the genius of the strange youth, then a puzzle to less appreciative minds. The friendship was only ended by the lady’s early death. The letters Swinburne wrote to her show more than anything else the terms of confidence on which they stood. In the description of Wallington will be found some account of the brilliant company Sir Walter and Lady Pauline used to get together. Young Swinburne, in addition to the friendship he formed with Ruskin and Rossetti, both of them intimates of Sir Walter Trevelyan, had also included William Bell Scott in the number. In a few lines written to the old Newcastle drawing master and litterateur we have a most engaging picture of the poet, in the careless grace of early youth, galloping from Capheaton to Wallington, his mind seething with rhymes and ideas :
Whenever in August holiday times I rode or swam through a rapture of rhymes, Over heather or crag, and by scaur and by stream, Clothed with delight by the might of a dream, With the sweet sharp wind blown hard through my hair, On eyes enkindled and head made bare ; Or loosened a song to seal for me A kiss on the clamorous mouth of the sea.
But it was in the best of his ballads that he rendered the true spirit of the county. Northumberland was indeed part of his very life and blood. From childhood he had at Capheaton listened to reminiscences connected with the stirring deeds of Border strife. The raids of the Scots, the gatherings at Capheaton to organise defence and counter-attack, the legends of the rebellions of the Fifteen and Forty-five, in which his family had taken the side of the Stuarts, formed his common conversation. His knowledge of the Stuarts was not obtained entirely from books, but was part of the lore instilled into him at Capheaton. That was what enabled him to write “A Jacobite’s Exile.” I quote pretty fully from the poem, because nothing finer has ever been written about Northumberland, and because of the exquisite and intimate pictures it gives of the braes and burns :
The weary day rins down and dips, The weary night wears through : And never an hour is fair wi’ flower And never a flower wi’ dew.
O lordly flow the Loire and Se’ne And loud the dark Durance : But bonnier shine the braes of Tyne Than a’ the fields of France ; And the waves of Till that speak sae still Gleam goodlier where they glance.
O weel were they that fell fighting On dark Drumossie’s day They keep their hame ayont the faem And we die far away.
On Aikenshaw the sun blinks braw, The burn rins blithe and fain ; There’s nought wi’ me I wadna gie To look thereon again.
On Keilder-side the wind blaws wide : There sounds nae hunting-horn That rings sae sweet as the winds that beat Round banks where Tyne is born.
The Wansbeck sings with all her springs, The bents and braes give ear ; But the wood that rings wi’ the sang she sings I may not see nor hear ; For far and far thae blithe burns are, And strange is a’thing near.
We’ll see nae mair the sea-banks fair, And the sweet grey gleaming sky, And the lordly strand of Northumberland, And the goodly towers thereby ; And none shall know but the winds that blow The graves wherein we lie.
With this should be read the fine poem on Northumberland which he contributed to the first number of that most interesting but too short-lived magazine which Mr. Howard Pease started years ago. Of this the following verses have the true Northumbrian spirit. These are the first, third, and fourth verses:
Between our eastward and our westward sea The narrowing strand Clasps close the noblest shore fame holds in fee Even here where English birth seals all men free – Northumberland.
The splendour and the strength of storm and fight Sustain the song That filled our fathers’ hearts with joy to smite To live, to love, to lay down life that right Might tread down wrong.
They warred, they sang, they triumphed, and they passed, And left us glad Here to be born their sons, whose hearts hold fast The proud old love no change can overcast, No chance leave sad.
Wallington Hall is interesting per se and also because of some old and many modern associations. It was built by Sir William Blackett towards the middle of the eighteenth century on the site of a mansion described by Leland as ” the chiefest house of the Fenwicks.” Earlier still the family of De Strother had there an ancient peel house. Strother is a Northumbrian name of not infrequent occurrence, and no doubt many who bear it would like to trace their pedigree back to the ancestor who had been at college with Chaucer and whom the poet with characteristic humour made one of the leading characters in ” The Reeve’s Tale ” – a story too broad for modern refinement but related with a terseness, skill, and point unexcelled in any of the other Canterbury stories. There were two brothers,
John highte that oon and Allyn highte that oother ; Of o toon were they born that highte strother Far in the North I kan nat telle where.
The ” town ” appears to have been near Kirknewton in Glendale, but no trace of it now remains, unless there be some truth in the surmise of Mr. Crawford Hodgson that some of the stones have been built into Kirknewton Church. But the name frequently crops up in the annals of the county.
Sir John Fenwick is the most historical of his family. He was out in the ‘i5 and the part he played is described at great length in Macaulay’s ” History of England.” After his execution his goods were forfeited to the State. William of Orange chose for his personal share a famous horse, named Sorrel, that according to tradition grazed the excellent pasture in front of the house. This was the animal he was riding through the park of Hampton Court when, urging his steed to a gallop, it accidentally put its foot in a molehill. It stumbled and threw the rider, whose collar-bone was broken by the fall. William’s health had previously begun to fail, and he never recovered from the accident. As he had been far from generous to Sir John, there were some who saw a wild justice in the accident. In the songs of the day frequent reference is made to the Wallington cellars and wines, and the impression is produced that the Fenwicks belonged to the jovial, hearty, and hospitable type of Northumbrian squires, such as Sir Walter Scott has depicted in the Osbaldistones of Osbaldistone Hall.
The Blacketts belonged to a different category. Newcastle often from its whirl of business enterprise throws out remark-able men. For generations the Blacketts were leading men in the county – parliamentary representatives, high sheriffs, merchant princes – of whom the builder of Wallington was a notable example. He must have had a lively imagination to foresee that out of the bare and dreary solitude could arise a fine mansion surrounded by a noble park going down to the edge of the gleaming Wansbeck and set about with sylvan beauty. Well-wooded and fertile as the estate is now, there was not, at the time of building, a scrap even of the light timber needed for the fencings and the gates. Many travellers bear witness to the bareness of Northumberland in the eighteenth century. Sir Walter Blackett had indeed to start from the beginning. But his taste and resourcefulness proved equal to the demand on them, and the solid and handsome eighteenth-century mansion is the proof. The house was on the model of a French chateau, with a courtyard in the interior.
This courtyard became notable in the nineteenth century. By that time the house had fallen into possession of the Trevelyans through the marriage of Sir Walter Blackett’s sister with Sir George Trevelyan, Sir Walter having died without issue. It occurred to Sir Walter Trevelyan and his friend John Ruskin that it would make an excellent picture gallery, an idea ultimately carried out by Dobson of Newcastle. Part of the decorations were effected by that gifted and singular half-member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, William Bell Scott. To many he is now but the shadow of a name, or only a gifted drawing master. Nevertheless, he was in his day a poet as well as a painter. One of his poems, the strange, fantastic, fanciful Witches’ Ballad, holds a place in the anthologies, and deserves to do so were it only for that grotesque immortal daylight dance of witches in the market town.
Arms and legs and flaming hair Like a whirlwind in the sea.
Scott is not seen at his best as a painter in the cartoons he did to adorn the panels on the ground floor. The typical Northumbrian scenes are too conventional for his brush. The building of the Roman Wall, Cuthbert being offered a bishopric, Danes landing, the Venerable Bede, the Charlton Spur, Bernard Gilpin, Grace Darling, and the iron and coal of the busy nineteenth century are all important landmarks in the history of Northumberland, but not necessarily the best subjects for wall decoration. Much more appropriate to the purpose are the illustrations of Chevy Chase on the angles and spandrels of the upper series of arches, where eighteen scenes from the ballad are depicted. Here imagination may work its will, because the ballad-maker wanders far from the region of fact. The painter therefore had the same free scope as Sir Noel Paton claimed for the series of pictures called the Dowie Dens of Yarrow. Here Mr. Bell Scott achieved a pleasing effect even if he did not represent deer-hunting in the fourteenth century as described, for example, in ” Gawaine and the Green Knight,” the author of which was apparently a gentleman of the North of England. A more modern painter would have gone to the ” Master of Game,” a treatise of the same date, for realistic detail. But one does not tire of the lords and ladies gay, of the dogs and the deer and the bowmen, of the fighting, the slaughter, and the sad return.
John Ruskin was frequently a guest of Sir Walter Trevelyan, and he occupied part of his time in teaching the ladies how to paint on stone and in practising that beautiful form of architectural art. His handiwork and the handiwork of his pupils are seen in the rendering of tall flowers and plants such as rushes and sheaves of corn.
Lady Trevelyan, beautiful and kind and tactful, was an attractive centre round whom gathered many of the Victorian celebrities arrived or going to arrive. Young Algernon Swinburne, whose letters to her bear the stamp of a tried and intimate friendship, reflected the esteem in which she was held by Rossetti, Ruskin, and other frequent and brilliant guests.
No account of Wallington would be complete without a reference to the curious picture of Miss Sukey Trevelyan. As it stands it is a composite production. Originally it was painted at Bath by Gainsborough and, in the words of Sir George Trevelyan, ” it subdued an over-bold expression and her strongly marked features by a large hat of the prevailing fashion.” About 1767 Arthur Young made that pilgrimage through Northumberland which will be found recounted in his ” Northern Tour.” Young was a man of taste and a judge of pictures as well as an eminent agriculturist. He described the Gainsborough as ” a portrait of a hat and ruffles.” This very much disturbed the equanimity of the Blacketts and Trevelyans, for Arthur Young’s dictum carried far in those days. So it happened that when Sir Joshua Reynolds was on a visit to Wallington some years later they persuaded him to paint out the hat. He did so with so much thoroughness that nothing was left untouched except the face, the white and gold gown, and the right arm, thus spoiling what, in spite of Arthur Young, must have been a very fine portrait.
It would take many pages to describe the contents of Walling-ton Hall. Sir Walter Trevelyan made many fine collections, of which the most important is that of old china. It includes many fine and even famous examples. The pictures too are notable. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Peter Lely, Hoppner, Cornelius Jansen and Pietro della Francesca are among the artists represented. There is some interesting tapestry, too, and, as is well known, Lord Macaulay left his library to his nephew and biographer, Sir George Trevelyan, who in a supplement to the biography has reprinted many of the annotations on the Greek and Latin classics and also on the works of Shakespeare and other English writers.
The village of Cambo, which closely adjoins Wallington, has been to a large extent rebuilt, and no greater compliment could be paid it than to say it fits in beautifully with the gardens and grounds of Wallington. It was here that Capability Brown, as he came to be called, received his education. Little did the schoolmaster guess that his pupil would have the shaping and re-making of many of the most beautiful gardens in England.
Belsay Castle differs from Capheaton and Wallington in the vital particular that it is no longer inhabited. It was probably built in the reign of Edward III by an ancestor of Sir Arthur Middleton, who owns it at the time of writing. Sir Arthur has written an elaborate and learned account of the manner in which for a time it passed out of the family. Sir Gilbert de Middleton was the grandson of that Richard Middleton who was Chancellor to Henry III. But in the subsequent reign Sir Gilbert de Middleton was the instigator of a rebellion against the weak rule of Edward II and was, after many exploits, captured at Mitford, carried to London, executed, and his estates forfeited. Sir Arthur gives a most interesting list of the other landowners who lost their estates in the counties of Northumberland and Durham for being adherents of Sir Gilbert. The estate came back to the family in the time of Edward III by marriage. Sir Arthur Middleton inherited Belsay through his grandfather, Sir Charles Monk. This gentleman had been a sort of Ruskin of his own time, and he thought that Grecian buildings alone were worth imitation. It was this notion that brought into existence the mansion in which the Middletons now live. The taste of a later time would almost certainly have inclined Sir Charles Monk to make the most of his castle which the Rev. John Hodgson, the historian of Northumberland, thought was the best example of castellated architecture in Northumberland.
The surroundings of the modern house are as interesting as the house itself. Minor features are the fine hedges of yew and Lawsoniana, but the most striking is the rock garden. It happened that the building-stones were quarried close at hand, and the quarry, which is sheltered, has been laid out and planted as a rock garden with rare skill and taste. The majestic old house stands empty, but the old outbuildings and walls have been carefully preserved, so that the place looks as if it were waiting for a tenant. The interior of the walls has often been described owing to their having been ornamented with coloured stencilled drawings. Fortunately everything worth preserving, everything old, has been taken great care of, and Belsay as it stands is a joy to the architect and antiquarian.