Cragside is a superb Victorian house in the North-East of England with an unusual claim to fame – it’s the first home to be lit using hydro-electric power.
It’s also well known for other gadgets inspired by the owner, Lord Armstrong, a Victorian inventor, innovator and landscape genius whose engineering skills made him a fortune.
There’s a hydraulic lift for the servants, for example, and the first electric dishwasher in the world.But some eerie personal coincidences have made the place even more fascinating.
I’ve been working on a sequel to The Lost Orchid, a tale of botanical skulduggery in the 1880s when orchid fever was at its height. (Doing the research I became something of an orchid addict - see Orchidmania, a small blog of mine.)
Ferns were massively popular in Victorian England, and much has been written about pteridomania, so I thought a fern-themed sequel would be appropriate.
It seemed a good idea to move the action further north and this is when I came across Cragside and its fantastic inventions, all of which made it the perfect place for a sequel, although I did move it to the Trossachs. I invented an owner whose wife was a self-taught botanical expert who has developed a fondess for fronds.
After a few weeks, a plot emerged and as things got nicely involved, I created a sketch of the property, complete with a detailed fernery and automated watering devices.
Well, imagine my surprise when I did finally get to visit Cragside for real and found that apart from its famous rhododendrons and azaleas, it had the most marvellous labyrinthine fernery with species set into grey, craggy boulders for dramatic effect.
But this was not all. During our visit, I spotted an unusual purple flower nestling in the grass. My jaw dropped when I realised it was an orchid. As far as I knew, Cragside was not known for orchids, but as a paid-up orchidmaniac, I’m always on the look-out for wild species, especially in June. I took some photographs and began to trawl the internet. I soon convinced myself it was a northern marsh orchid, normally found in Scotland.
Thrilled, I notified the staff at Cragside and it appears that other visitors have also noticed the little purple orchid and now the identification has been confirmed. The Cragside conservation manager agress that it's a Dactylorhiza purpurella (what used to be Dactylorhiza majalis purpurella) - The Northern Marsh Orchid. It likes the Cragside boggy, slightly acid, soils where it thrives. Apparently, seeing my little photo certainly made his day! I have to admit to being rather thrilled.
Orchids and ferns. Fact imitating fiction always gives me a pleasing shiver.