A prominent feature in the extensive demesne of Alnwick Castle is the Observatory on Ratcheugh Crag, a ‘stupendous and romantic rock’. The building was one of a number of landscape features planned by Hugh and Elizabeth, 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, in the 1770s, but the sham-ruined eye-catcher was not completed until after her death.
Ratcheugh Crag is an outcrop of basalt, and a watercolour in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland, dated to the mid 1770s, shows it bare. The crag, which is visible from Alnwick Castle, was a popular destination for an excursion, and in 1773 the Duke and Duchess noted their decision to build ‘A Ruin at Radsheugh’, and to lay out a new road along the rocky escarpment. The Duchess died in 1776, which may have put plans on hold, but a visitor in autumn 1782 noted an ‘unfinish’d building above the rock’, and this became the pavilion that stands today.
As work continued to complete this folly, the Duke, or rather the architect Robert Adam, went back to the drawing board and in 1783-84 a series of magnificent designs for a greatly extended symmetrical range ‘proposed to be erected upon the top of a Rock near Alnwick Castle’ were executed. A number are in the Sir John Soane museum, and at Alnwick there are wonderful highly-finished designs for a range in a castellated style (below) and an alternative in an ecclesiastical manner.
But these grand plans were never executed. At Alnwick there is a drawing of Ratcheugh by John Lambert which is annotated with the words ‘drawn from Mr Bell’s original design’. John Bell was the Duke’s mason and builder, and had accompanied the late Duchess on tour, sketching the buildings she admired. This wording suggests that it was Bell’s design that was under construction in 1782, and complete by 1784 when Adam noted on one of his plans (above) that ‘the part shaded light already executed by the Duke’.
The Duke had a new drive laid to the crag to enable visitors to arrive in comfort, and in 1785 the Duke took a guest to admire the ‘building imitating the Ruins of an Old Castle’. The upper room was glazed on all sides, and from it Alnwick could ‘be viewed to great advantage’. The panorama also took in the Cheviot Hills and the North Sea.
The Duke died in 1786 and early the next century his son added an extension to the the ruin (not illustrated) to provide a home for the Keeper, which became known as Crag Cottage. The 1844 tithe map calls the hilltop folly the ‘Ratcheugh Tower’ and by the time of the first Ordnance Survey map of 1867 (surveyed 1861-4) it is marked as ‘Observatory’. The surveyors noted it as a ‘Mock Ruin of which the Observatory forms the Apex’, adding perceptively that it had been ‘erected about a century ago to add to the effect of the naturally beautiful landscape’.
The Crag was celebrated in a very curious poem by John Scafe, an Alnwick-based poet and geologist. In 1820 he combined his interests to write King Coal’s Levee, or Geological etiquette, a versified study of stone, which Goethe described as containing ‘all the knowledge of Geology a man wants’.
Thence to Ratcheugh Crag he pac’d:
– A little wilderness of taste
Dropt on the fertile lands,
And still, by ducal visits graced,
The hoary summit stands.
Northumberland Estates has restored the building, and it continues to be used by the Percy family. There is no public access, but there are occasional open days for local charities, and Ratcheugh Crag and its folly can be admired from public rights of way and the road.
For some stunning drone photos of the observatory, and a short film, visit https://fabulousnorth.com/place/view/ratcheugh-observatory/
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