Belsay Hall Museums at Night sleepover
Ben Stiller had his own take on what happens in a museum after closing when the last visitor has gone home. In the film Night at the Museum an ancient curse means that animals and exhibits came to life and create havoc after the museum has closed for the night.
I was sure no such scene would unfold at Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens in Northumberland as I headed there last night with a sleeping bag tucked under my arm. The rooms are completely empty – apart from some current exhibits on the main floor of the Hall – so what could come to life?
But as a privileged group of us gathered to share Belsay Hall’s first ever participation in Museums at Night, it was clear I was wrong. Something would come to life after all – Belsay’s secret and unseen history.
And not only that, we would also experience a country house rich in history and character. When the Middleton family left in the 1960s all the furniture, books and possessions were sold – leaving the rooms completely bare. And so as you visit the focus is completely on the architecture and architectural detail – all inspired by temples from ancient Greece. During daylight, the rooms are grand and magnificent. But at night, Belsay Hall filled with a sense of history through the centuries. The former owners and occupants seem ever more real as the hall descends into darkness.
About 25 of us gathered last night for the first ever Belsay Hall sleepover. We were the first people to occupy the grand bedrooms for more than 50 years. We were greeted warmly by English Heritage staff, Kate Anceau, Blanche Johnson and Vic Cunningham and as we gathered in the old, warm kitchen for our tour of Belsay Hall
English Heritage – A Remit to Preserve
Blanche Johnson is, I suspect, great fun to know – particularly for any fan of history and old properties. She is Belsay Hall’s tour guide and knows the manor in intimate detail, including everything about what’s called unseen Belsay – the servants’ quarters in the secret attic area, some of the large guest bedrooms on the (usually closed) North side of the Hall, and the Edwardian bathroom.
“Belsay is a fantastic place because it is as it was years ago and it tells its own story,” she explains. “We can see the grandness of the place and the vision and attention to detail.”
Blanche gets asks every kind of question you can imagine and, with her encyclopedic knowledge of the place, always provides an answer. A case in point is the curious design of the drains at Belsay. A focus on aesthetics and a desire on the part of the Hall’s creator – Charles Middleton – to have no drains visible on the exterior of the Hall meant that all drains were contained within the building. They were lead-lined and then encased in wood, and were hidden inside the walls in the Hall. But in the servants’ quarters they are visible and run the length of walls just below ceilings. Blanche often gets asked about them, as well as the servant bell panels, and other relics of a age and way of life now almost completely gone.
As well, she sometimes gets asked about the way in which Belsay Hall is preserved, why the rooms are empty and why some parts of the Hall appear to be left as they were years ago.
“Belsay Hall is under the care of English Heritage,” she explains. “We are the guardians of Belsay Hall and our role is to maintain, and not refurbish. I know that some people have said they would like to see furnishings here, but the the great thing about Belsay is that you can see so much, and these spaces are perfect for exhibitions and displays.”
Blanche explains that Belsay Hall, built at the beginning of the 19th century by Charles Middleton, was occupied by the army during World War Two and this was the beginning of the end of domestic life for the Hall. The Middleton family returned after the war but life was not the same and money not as plentiful. In the early 1960s the Middletons left Belsay Hall and when it was transferred to guardianship of the state and then English Heritage, the family requested that the hall be preserved and remain empty.
Belsay Hall – Modelled on a Greek Temple
Our tour of Belsay Hall began in the entrance hall – an austere and stately space with high stone walls. The whole feel is that of a Greek temple. This entrance reflects the classical exterior of Belsay Hall, with its stone columns, copied from an ancient temple in Athens known as the Theseion.
Further inside, the central hall in Belsay is called the Pillar Hall and is the most impressive place in the building. This vast space connects the downstairs rooms and creates the gallery on the second floor. There is an atrium high above. This natural light would have been enhanced by lamps on brass around the upstairs gallery when the Middletons lived at Belsay. We also saw the grand old library, the study and the dining room. Today these rooms are used for the fascinating exhibitions hosted by English Heritage.
Belsay Hall – The Unseen Belsay
Blanche also shows us additional guest bedrooms and the Hall’s only bathroom, installed before World War One – these, along with the servants’ quarters are rarely seen by the public and are the unseen Belsay.
From the outside Belsay Hall looks like a two-storey building, but there is in fact a basement and a third floor on cleverly tucked away on the north side of the building. This is where the servants’ quarters are.
Many of these rooms are today used to safely store artifacts from the Hall and the old manor house near Belsay Castle. English Heritage is cataloguing and preserving all this material. These items are fascinating, but what stands out most is the difference between the size of a family bedroom and a servants’ quarters, and also the lack of architectural decoration and detail. The servants’ quarters are so much smaller and plain. A servants’ dormitory is roughly the same size as a family bedroom on the floor below. The boxed drain pipes run along the dormitory wall – imagine the noise during heavy rain! The dormitory has only a skylight, no window.
Most visitors to Belsay Hall will notice that there are no bathrooms on display. The original building did not have piping for hot baths or water closets and the family and guests would have used jugs, basins and free-standing baths. But in about 1909 a bathroom was added to the North side of the building. It sits close to some larger guest rooms. The bathroom is Edwardian and includes a high-level wall-mounted cistern, a large sink and large tub.
It’s now time for us to be assigned to our rooms. The main second floor where we’ll be staying is reached by a staircase on the north side of the Pillar Hall. At first it seems hidden and not central as was the case in most country houses of the time.
I’m assigned a smaller room, though I use the word ‘smaller’ relatively. My place for the night is easily the size of a largish modern hotel room. My room sits above and to the right of the main entrance, and looks eastwards across gently rolling fields where sheep graze. In the corner is an air mattress and a large lamp stands near the window. We’re all equipped with small, portable lamps too should we require a trip to the toilet – located outside – in the night.
We regroup for a delicious dinner of lasagne, salad and chocolate roulade before walking through the long and impressive quarry garden to Belsay Castle, where both adults and children alike are entertained by character actors in Medieval dress-up. Returning to the hall, it’s time for a quick hot chocolate before lights out.
Unlike Chillingham Castle, I’m told no ghosts make appearances at Belsay Hall. I’m not even sure I believe in ghosts, but I’m suddenly nervous as I head up the wide long staircase and circle the Gallery that runs around the Pillar Hall and head to my room.
Belsay Hall is without heat and it’s a chilly 11 degrees at night in Northumberland at the moment, and possibly even colder inside Belsay Hall. I close the enormous wooden shutters and zip up my hooded sleeping bag. I anticipate complete darkness and a bit of a scare, because I don’t like the dark. But as I peer around I see a gentle glow of light falling into the room from a glass panel above the door – the main second floor Gallery is still lit. I sleep soundly from about 11pm until 7am this morning and thankfully don’t need to take any night-time trips along the Gallery, down the stairs and outside to use the toilets.
I later read that my room was Elinor Middleton’s bedroom. She was an unmarried daughter of Sir Arthur Middleton and lived at the hall all her life (1876 – 1942). This room is next to what was Sir Arthur’s room.
Despite being empty, the detail in Elinor’s room is fascinating. The wallpaper dates back to about 1909, and the original servant’s bell and electical sockets remain in place, as do the large shutters on the window. Brass curtain rods remain above the large panelled window (which looks deceptively small when I survey it the from the outside the next morning). Two large brackets below the window would have held a bar across the lower section of the window to prevent accidents. This means the room could have been used as a nursery at one point. Old fashioned light switches remain, too, and are made of brass, with small toggle switches in the middle.
Everyone who came to Belsay Hall’s Museums at Night sleepover felt really lucking to be there, and to be able to experience the hall at night. Paul and Janet Young from North Shields said they “jumped at the chance” to stay a night at Belsay. “It’s such an interesting place,” said Paul. “And we wanted to be able to see the places you’re not normally allowed to see.”
Paul and Janet are big fans of both history and English Heritage – when they married last year Janet presented Paul with an English Heritage pass. They make a point of regularly visiting Northumberland locations including Warkworth Castle, Housesteads Fort and Prudhoe Castle.
Stuart Bird and Katie Matthews said they feel Belsay has a special place in their hearts. “We got engaged at Belsay,” explained Katie. “We really wanted to take part in this weekend and stay overnight and see what it would be like. It’s been a great experience and we’d definitely do it again.”
Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens History
The Hall was the creation of Charles Middleton, who inherited Belsay in 1798 from Sir John Middleton. Before the building of the hall there was Belsay Castle and manor house.
The castle dates back to the late 14th century and was believed to have been built by Sir John de Strivelyn to protect himself and his family against attack. He wanted it to be a comfortable and impressive home. At the time Belsay Castle was likely surrounded by barns, stables, and sheds. All these buildings would have been enclosed by a wall and moat.
When Sir John died, his daughter and her husband Sir John Middleton inherited the estate, and it has remained with the family since. As time passed and the turbulence in the the border region between England and Scotland decreased, family member Thomas Middleton realised that a castle was no longer needed and a home would suit. He constructed a large new home next to the castle and surrounded it with gardens.
Belsay Hall’s Greek Roots
In 1798 Charles Middleton inherited Belsay. He changed his name to Charles Monck to inherit his grandfather’s estate. Charles married his cousin Louisa in 1804 and went on a honeymoon and tour of Europe that lasted almost 19th months. It was on this trip that Charles became inspired to build Belsay Hall.
He and Louisa stayed in Athens for a year where Sir Charles studied and drew ancient Greek buildings. These drawings were then used these to design Belsay Hall in the ancient Greek style when he returned to England.
Sir Charles decreed that Belsay Hall would be an eternal memory of his and Louisa’s honeymoon. In the early 19th century most wealthy landowners would have worked with an architect on a project of this size, and had the architect to the main work. But Sir Charles did almost all of the design himself in order to ensure that Belsay Hall was as close as possible to an ancient Greek building.
Work on Belsay Hall begain in 1807 and took ten years to complete! The Middleton family moved in on Christmas day ten in 1817. Even then, the interior was not completely finished until 1830. Building stone came from quarries on the Belsay Estate.
English Heritage – Guardian of Belsay Hall
When Sir Charles died in 1867 the estate passed to his grandson, Sir Arthur Middleton (born Arthur Monck, but he changed his name to the family name of Middleton). It was Sir Arthur who in 1872 dedicated time to the older parts of the estate. He also carried out repair work on the ancient castle and altered some of the rooms in Belsay Hall in 1887-8.
On Sir Arthur’s death in 1933, the hall passed to his nephew, Sir Stephen Middleton. But the old way of life at the hall was about to change. The outbreak of World War II meant that Belsay Hall was requisitioned by the army for training and accommodation.
The Middleton family left the hall in the early 1960s and lived on the estate. In 1980 they gave the hall to what has now become English Heritage. Treatment and removal of extensive dry rot was needed before the hall could be opened to the public. Under the terms of the guardianship agreement the hall was displayed unfurnished. Since 1996 Belsay Hall has also become the setting for many of temporary contemporary art exhibitions.