Our Friends from the North

Our Friends in the North

We met Lynn and Darryl trekking in the Himalayas in 2008. They were and  are great outdoor enthusiasts. On retirement from Special Needs Education in Durham they have spent many months in Rwanda setting up charitable projects. Last week we spent three days at their home in Heighington, county Durham. A village so neat and prosperous that it could be transported to West he Sussex with barely a blush.

But the village has other claims to fame. Not least it is the resting place of one of Nelson’s Heroes William Pryce Cumby(1771-1837). A cadet of the local Jepson-Cumby family who sent generations into the Senior Service he joined the Navy aged 13. At Trafalgar,October 21 1805, he  was  first lieutenant on the Bellerophon (aka Billy Ruffian) which sailed fifth in line in Collingwoods column.

Like all of Nelson’s god fearing officers Cumby knelt  before battle and prayed for” a glorious victory and gracious protection for my dear wife and children “. As the  hungry British fleet crashed through the  Franco-Spanish line ,   Cumby’s ship was soon entangled with the enemy. While its broadsides created total destruction, in the masts of the French Aigle were sharp shooters. And as with Nelson they  took special aim at  officers. Captain Cooke refused take off his epaulettes declaring “It is too late,I will die like  a man”and ordered Cumby to go below to increase the firing rate. On his return Cooke was down and his last words were,”Tell Cumby never to strike(the flag)”. Cumby took over command, pushed on and took the Aigle . In the course of the battle he picked up a French grenade and tossed it overboard. Nelson’s heroes indeed!

He was promoted to captain in 1806, served in the West Indies and North Atlantic and was eventually put out to grass as commander of the royal yacht and superintendent of the Pembroke Dockyards, where he died. With his prize money he bought several farms in the Heighington area and  a major building in the village is Trafalgar House.

Hames The Best

Passing the Angel of the North, heading  into Northumberland we spent a day at Cragside. A creation as one wit put it of the “arms and the man”. The arms manufactured by Lord William Armstrong’s (1810-1900) created the wealth to employ the great  architect Norman Shaw (1831-1912)to build this Wagnerian  folly. Which is complete with a scullery sized fireplace where the great engineer could  sit with his dogs. Above the fireplace was  the Geordie legend seen on so many miner’s  porches, “East or West, Hame’s Best.”

Both men deserve mention. Armstrong  trained as a lawyer and didn’t take up engineering until his late thirties but inventions  and ambition made him an almost archetypal Victorian hero. Hard working, rich, famous, philanthropic. At his peak he  employed 25000 and supplied  armaments and ships for the Crimean, American Civil and Russo-Japanese wars. Originally his firm built cranes,he also built the Newcastle swing  bridge-so ships could get to his gun factory and the mechanism for Tower Bridge.

Cragside is almost the opposite of a  gentle rolling parkland Capability Brown  fantasy. Here gigantic rock gardens, the tallest Douglas  firs ,valley walks and moor land views dominate. This is the border home of a Geordie son of Newcastle. Inside  Armstrong engineered the first electric lights in Britain powered by his home designed hydro scheme.

Norman Shaw  believed in architecture as an art form and everything from Bryanston School(which I know well) , Bromley Town Hall, Albert Hall Mansions to the Norman Shaw buildings in Westminster flowed from his drawing board. So varied and excellent are his designs that he has been called “the Picasso of architecture”. In his time only August Pugin ran him close in importance  and  influence.

Many decry Cragside( see link) saying Shaw designed it in a day and it suffers from too much client interference. It was ever thus, especially, when your client is someone as successful, dynamic and inventive as Armstrong.



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