If, as is sometimes suggested, the cost of a Catholic upbringing is a life-long guilty conscience, how much worse for the recusant landed family whose estate owes its existence to Henry VIII’s rupture with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries? And the ironies don’t stop there at Cheeseburn Grange, near Stamfordham, eleven miles north-west of Newcastle upon Tyne, a property passed only by marriage and inheritance since the Reformation.Cheeseburn Grange is just one of several houses in the county which have been associated successively with the same two extensive Northumbrian families, the Widdringtons and Riddells, whose religious and Royalist affiliations, combined with their proxmity to Scotland, lead almost inevitably to their participation in the 1715 Jacobite uprising. Strange then that Cheeseburn’s most high-profile owner to date should have been a Puritan Parliamentarian who actively sought to undermine the constitutional position of the Scots.
“You have established your throne upon two columns of diamond, Piety and Justice; the one gives you to God, the other gives Men to you, and all your subjects are most happy in both.”Words taken from the address of the Recorder of York, Thomas Widdrington, greeting the arrival of King Charles I in the city on 30 March, 1639, effusive loyalty which plainly went down well as Widdrington was knighted the following day. Eighteen years later, however, Sir Thomas (left), by now the Speaker of the House of Commons, was overseeing Oliver Cromwell’s investiture as Lord Protector (Cromwell having resisted Widdrington’s recommendation that he take the crown as king).
Sir Thomas’s father, Lewis Widdrington, was the illegitimate offspring of a family prominent in Northumbria since the C12; by the end of the C16 he was the owner (via marriage) of Cheeseburn, formerly a grange of Hexham Priory. Thomas duly inherited in 1630, married Frances Fairfax three years later and in April 1640 as the MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed he entered parliament and the cockpit of constitutional calamity.
A cautious lawyer by reputation, Puritan Widdrington, whilst ready and willing to confront the likes of backsliding bishops such as Matthew Wren (right), would have no part in the prosecution of their tacit inspiration, the king himself. But there could be no real hiding place from the harsh realities of civil conflict when your brother-in-law (Thomas Lord Fairfax) was commander-in-chief of the New Model Army and your sister (Hannah) was married to John Rushworth, personal secretary to Oliver Cromwell.
Widdrington’s metier was backroom negotiation and he would be right there at the anvil as a new constitutional settlement was hammered out. Sir Thomas was not without his own agenda, however. As the leader of the ‘Northern Gentlemen’ faction of MPs (historically wary of their neighbours north of the border), Widdrington’s perceived attempts to relegate the role of Scotland created ‘apprehension which contributed greatly to the outbreak of the Second Civil War’.¹
But Thomas’s generally moderating stance throughout these turbulent times saw him survive relatively unscathed in the spasm of vengeance which accompanied the restoration of the monarchy. Able to remain an MP, Widdrington lost most of his positions of office but not his property. His only son having predeceased him, at Sir Thomas’s death in 1664 Cheeseburn Grange passed briefly to his brother, Henry, and thirty years on was in the possession of Henry’s son, Ralph and his wife, Mary.
We can be precise about this thanks to a feature in the walled garden at Cheeseburn, a splendid survival from a major remodelling of the house which would take place some 120 years later: ‘Entry to [the] summerhouse re-uses a door surround of 1694. In the pediment a large crest and shield of the Widdrington family inscribed RW MW 1694. Flanking the pediment two large busts of spotted bulls, the crest of the Widdringtons.’ [Listing] Ralph’s namesake grandson was to be the last Widdrington of Cheeseburn Grange, however. This Ralph’s sister, Mary, had married Thomas Riddell of Swinburne Castle (right), another Northumbrian seat which had belonged to the Widdringtons from the C13 until passing by marriage in 1678. (Swinburne has remained in this line; a C16 wing and C18 orangery were incorporated into a new house in the 1990s.)
Both Ralph Widdrington and Thomas Riddell were proactive Jacobites and spent several years in exile after their routing in 1715 but ultimately survived with their properties intact. Ralph died childless in 1752, Cheeseburn passing to his nephew, Thomas’s second son – Ralph.It’s clear that being Catholic gentry in the least densely populated county in England did somewhat limit the gene pool. Ralph Riddell’s elder brother, Thomas, married Elizabeth Widdrington, heiress of Felton Park (left). In turn, two of their sons would marry the Salvin sisters of that Catholic Co. Durham dynasty (seated at Croxdale Hall since the C15). The younger son, Edward, having inherited Felton Park through his mother, died just seven months after his wedding.
With Felton now passing to her brother-in-law (Ralph Riddell), Edward’s widow remarried … her late husband’s cousin, Ralph Riddell of Cheeseburn Grange.
Both Ralphs would significantly remodel their houses; at Cheeseburn, Ralph Riddell (1771-1831) turned to the coming man of architecture in the area, John Dobson. This young practicioner was not long back in his native North East after a spell furthering his education in London. Dobson had resisted flattering encouragement to set up in the capital sensing greater opportunities back home. And he was not wrong, being fully employed throughout a career which would leave a dominant stamp on both town and country locally. Ralph Riddell was amongst his earliest significant patrons, Dobson being engaged to refashion the house and park at Cheeseburn Grange from 1813.²While his country houses are most characteristically crisply classical in style, Dobson also developed a line in picturesque Gothic of which Cheeseburn is an agreeably modest example. Having removed the old main door surround to the garden, the entrance was now to the south and emphasised by a castellated porch and tower while ‘a high parapet pierced with Gothic openings [hid] the old roof’.³ Proposed turrets at each corner of the house never materialised but a new chapel attached to the west side of the house would be served by a private chaplain in continuance of the tradition of a Catholic mission at Cheeseburn. The altar (left) was later redesigned by ‘one of the most remarkable characters of the Victorian age’, Joseph Aloysius Hansom, also responsible for a substantial Gothic wing added to house c.1860 (r). While the inventor of the Hansom cab and founder of The Builder (now Building) magazine also has a substantial built legacy – Birmingham Town Hall, Arundel Cathedral, etc – this no longer includes his extension at Cheeseburn which was demolished in the 1970s. ‘Dobson’s proposals [at Cheeseburn] are important for also including major alterations to the surrounding parkland. He suggested a whole new scheme of planting to shelter the house, and replanned the driveway to enable the visitor on approach to fully appreciate the siting of the house in its landscape.’³ And very recently the visitor has been invited to appreciate the siting of other creations within this landscape…
… the past few years having seen the emergence of Cheeseburn Sculpture.‘On the walls are old masters whose darkness conceals their artistic insignificance‘ – Somerset Maughm’s comic put-down of the art likely adorning the minor country seat. Doubtless Cheeseburn Grange has had its share of such but is now determinedly raising its game. Part of a mini-trend which has seen some traditional private estates develop their grounds as occasional alfresco art galleries – at the opposite end of the country, Delamore in Devon (‘in the same family since 1688’) is a not-dissimilar model – Cheeseburn has, since 2014, become ‘a showcase for sculpture, design and art, where the public can encounter new and established work in the setting of our historic house and gardens’. Behind this serious commitment to new art is Joanna Riddell (left), wife of the present squire of the 2,000-acre Cheeseburn Grange estate. Since taking over from Simon Riddell’s bachelor uncle in 1992 gradual rejuvenation of the house and gardens (“project after project .. serious hard graft”) has finally made way for novel creativity. The recent conversion of outbuildings has expanded the curatorial options for Riddell (and arts consultant Matthew Jarratt); Cheeseburn’s latest show takes place this coming weekend.
Potentially overlooked these days amidst this sudden influx of diverting objets d’art, spare a thought for an ancient garden feature which was hitherto without rival as the object of curiosity and wonder hereabouts:
‘Pedestal sundial. C17. Sandstone. Complex multi-faceted top recording the time not only in Stamfordham but also in Cracow and Mexico.’But of course, Cracow and Mexico, where else? The exotic, mystifying dimensions of this grade II listed artifact gave inspiration to recent writer-in-residence, Linda France:
‘The old sundial has given up its ghost, a puzzle now of broken gnomons and random numbers, nearly worn away by centuries of March winds and April showers.’
The Dictionary of National Biography perhaps provides some clues: ‘James Riddell (d.1674) was the son of an English merchant descended from a landowning family who traded in Cracow, Poland, and later moved to Edinburgh.’Intruigingly, an earlier edition also notes that this James ‘made the acquaintance of Oliver Cromwell, who is said to have stayed some time in his house in Leith’.
Maybe one day all will be explained. But for now, with the bar having been significantly raised in the fascination stakes around here, it’s perhaps just as well that the old sundial should remain simply another of the riddles of Cheeseburn Grange…