Belsay is the creation of the Middleton family, over more than seven centuries. The Middletons were first recorded as owning Belsay in 1270. Although they moved out of the hall in 1962, the estate that surrounds the historic nucleus of hall, castle and garden remains in their possession.
The great fortified tower that still dominates the castle was built both as a statement of family pride and as a response to the conflict and unrest in this border region between England and Scotland. Built in the 14th century, it is one of the best-surviving examples of a pele tower – a regional type of fortification built by rich families in the late Middle Ages to defend themselves.
In the early 17th century, after the union of the two kingdoms under King James I in 1603 had brought relative peace, a mansion wing was added to the west side of the castle, converting it into a gentleman’s residence. An engraving of 1728 shows a formal walled garden in front of the castle, with rows of evergreen shrubs clipped into cones and balls.
Another wing was added further west in 1711, visually counterbalancing the medieval tower. This was mostly pulled down in 1872.
The Middletons lived in the castle until the completion in 1817 of a new mansion, which was designed by the then owner Sir Charles Monck, formerly Middleton (1779–1867). On Christmas Day 1817, Sir Charles and his family moved the short distance from the castle into their newly finished hall.
Belsay Hall was inspired by what Sir Charles had seen on his extended honeymoon in Greece, and is a building of austere perfection. Despite its plain façade, it had a comfortable interior, arranged round its imposing central two-storey Pillar Hall.
Under the terms of the guardianship agreement by which it passed into state care in 1980, the hall is displayed without furnishings, revealing to visitors the fine craftsmanship that went into its construction.
The vast gardens that provide a magnificent setting for the castle and hall are also largely Sir Charles’s work.
The garden he inherited from his father in 1795 included informal planting, a serpentine drive and a lake. Sir Charles, however, was influenced by the emerging Picturesque movement, which favoured the shaping of landscapes less conventionally beautiful and more wildly naturalistic.
His romantic Quarry Garden, created where stone was cut for his hall, has ravines, pinnacles and sheer rock faces inspired by Sicilian quarries. Contrasting with the strict geometry of the hall, and linking it with the castle, it is a remarkable example of the Picturesque style, with a microclimate that makes it possible to grow tender plants beyond their normal northern limit.
The layout of the Belsay gardens has remained largely unchanged since Sir Charles set them out in the early 19th century. His grandson Sir Arthur Middleton, likewise a pioneering plantsman, added the Winter Garden, Yew Garden and Magnolia Terrace, and planted red, purple and white rhododendrons in the Rhododendron Garden created in the 1860s. His influence was largely confined to these formal gardens around the house, but he also added an extra section to the quarry and introduced a wider range of exotic plants there.