Magazine article The Spectator

Lord of the Crags

Magazine article The Spectator

Lord of the Crags

Article excerpt

There is a corner of Northumberland, in the valley of the River Coquet, where the climate has been changed for ever by the actions of one man.

In the mid-1860s, William Armstrong set out to transform vast tracts of raw, bleak moorland into what he described as 'an earthly paradise' and by the time of his death in 1900, at the age of 90, he had planted over seven million trees and shrubs on an estate of more than 1,700 acres.

Armstrong's intention had been to recreate a rugged Himalayan landscape of rocks and streams and cascades -- a damp valley environment that, as it happened, was well suited to conifers. The species he planted included Douglas fir, Caucasian fir, Low's fir and Western Hemlock; they would have been quite unfamiliar to most of his countrymen at the time. Some have since reached such a great height that they are described as champion trees; Cragside has England's tallest Douglas fir, which is more than 58 metres high. Today the climate at Cragside is noticeably wetter in winter than it used to be before the plantings, and also -- of particular importance in this cold northern landscape -- about 1infinityC warmer. The environment provides habitats for the red squirrel and the otter.

And at the centre of the estate, on a precipitous hillside overlooking the Debdon Burn, towers the magician's palace of Cragside, an architectural triumph by Richard Norman Shaw that, thanks to Armstrong's matchless ingenuity, became the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity.

The wonder that is Cragside is the brainchild not of a romantic nature-lover but of a brilliant self-taught engineer. When he could tear himself away from the seductive charms of Coquetdale, which he had known since boyhood, the lord of the crags was emperor of another domain: the vast Elswick Works on the north bank of the Tyne at Newcastle, 30 miles to the south, where he employed more than 20,000 workers in the production of hydraulic cranes, bridges, ships and armaments. Elswick's customers included Russia, China, Chile, the United States and the Imperial Navy of Japan. A visionary genius who could turn base metals into gold, Armstrong became Britain's largest industrialist and one of the richest men in Europe. In 1887, her golden jubilee year, Queen Victoria raised him to the peerage as Baron Armstrong of Cragside, the first engineer to be so honoured.

Everything Armstrong did -- even the creation of guns -- was driven by his desire to harness the forces of the physical world to productive ends and, in doing so, to create things of the best possible quality and efficiency. Nothing agitated him more than waste. Indeed, it was the troubling nature of the wasted energy inherent in the functioning of an old water mill that gave him the idea of using water power to drive machinery. 'It occurred to me what a small part of the power of the water was used in driving the wheel, ' he recalled in later life, 'and then I thought how great would be the force of even a small quantity of water if its energy were only concentrated in one column.' It was the germ of his myriad hydraulic inventions, including the mechanisms that operate Newcastle's Swing Bridge and London's Tower Bridge.

In 1863, decades before the appearance of the first motor cars, Armstrong foresaw the energy dilemmas that we face today -- and put his faith in what we now call alternative technology. …

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