architecture, church, eyecatcher, Folly, garden, garden history, landscape, Northumberland, Rustic shelter, Summerhouse

The Sitooteries at Belsay, Northumberland: 20 Years On

One of the few upsides to the current situation is that there is time to rootle around in the attic and find all sorts of forgotten files full of treasure. Opening one box revealed this invitation to the private view of The Sitooteries, 20 years ago this month. What’s a sitooterie you may ask? Well it’s as simple as it sounds – a building to sit out in (the term is supposed to originate in Scotland, so try saying it in your best Caledonian accent).

The Sitooteries show was conceived by Judith King, who at that date must have had a huge business card to accommodate her job title of ‘English Heritage North East Regional Visual Arts Consultant’. She worked with Mark Daniels of Northern Arts to curate the showcase of ‘contemporary takes on the traditional summerhouse and pavilion’. 12 Artists, designers, and architects were invited to design a structure within a footprint of 12 feet by 12 feet (no metric in far off 2000) and with a maximum budget of £10,000.

©English Heritage

The structures were placed within the grounds of Belsay in Northumberland, an English Heritage property. The estate houses an ancient castle and a stunning neoclassical mansion, both in partial ruin, as well as formal lawns and a famed woodland garden set within a former quarry. Grandest of the names on the list of designers (at that date) was Sir Norman Foster, then very much in the news in the north-east and beyond for his design for what the press release called the ‘Regional Music Centre’ in Gateshead – the building on the south bank of the Tyne better known to us today as ‘The Sage’ (or The Slug to its detractors) which was opened in 2004.

The Folly Flâneuse has completely failed to find any decent photographs in her albums, but did find photos of three of the models created by the artists during the design process.

©English Heritage/Keith Paisley, 2000. Thomas Heatherwick, model for ‘Hairy Sitooterie’.

Thomas Heatherwick’s ‘Hairy Sitooterie’, which would be perched on the edge of the haha at Belsay, was a cube pierced with 5600 spikes. Heatherwick said at the time that he really enjoyed the challenge of designing a ‘small building’, and his Sitooterie was a prototype that he went on to further develop during his career, most prominently with the UK Pavilion for the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010. Heatherwick went on to found Heatherwick Studio, whose design projects include the abandoned Garden Bridge in central London.

©English Heritage/Keith Paisley, 2000. Welfare State International, model for Wishbone House.

Welfare State International designed the ‘Wishbone House’. The space was available for private contemplation or for public celebration, with visitors encouraged to use the shelter for marriage proposals or naming ceremonies.

©English Heritage/Keith Paisley, 2000. FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste), model for Romanesque Church.

The Romanesque church created by FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) was covered with thousands of discs which shimmered in the dappled woodland light. In 2002 the sitooterie was installed in a new home at the Grizedale Sculpture Park in Cumbria, where the two seats inside gave views of the surrounding forest. Sadly, visitors to the park were unable to resist prizing off the shiny discs, and its residence was short-lived. More recently Charles Holland of FAT Architecture worked with Grayson Perry and Living Architecture to create the holiday rental ‘A House for Essex’, which also seems to shimmer, but is clad with more durable tiles. Living Architecture describes the house, which opened to guests in 2015, as belonging  ‘to a history of follies, whilst also being deeply of its own time’. It’s well worth following the link below to learn about the whole ‘history’ Perry created for the house.

The Sitooteries show attracted almost 100,000 visitors in the 7 months it was on show at Belsay, and was widely featured in the media, including the New York Times which ran a feature headlined ‘The Summer House, Reinvented’. Further excellent art exhibitions and installations have followed at Belsay over the last 2 decades. For obvious reasons all current plans are on hold, but watch this space

The full list of artists was: Inflate, Claudio Silvestrin, Simon Watkinson, Michael Anastassiades, Thomas Heatherwick Studio, Welfare State International, Tania Kovats, Mosedale Gillatt/Octo Design, FAT, Julian Opie, Ashley McCormick.

For Heatherwick’s Shanghai big brother to the Belsay sitooterie see

For Grayson Perry and FAT’s House for Essex click here


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4 thoughts on “The Sitooteries at Belsay, Northumberland: 20 Years On”

  1. Grace Ellis says:

    I have never heard or seen the name Sitooteries used in England before
    Having lived in Scotland for 40 years before moving back to Lincolnshire
    where I heard it used quite a lot in Scotland
    surely its a Scottish word
    but useful anyway

    1. Editor says:

      It’s an interesting and evocative word, and made it into the OED last year. It seems to have been used colloquially in Scotland, but very seldom appeared in print until this exhibition brought it to a wider audience.

  2. Gand and Norma says:

    We thoroughly enjoyed the sitooteries at Belsay Hall. Can’t believe it was 20 years ago. Thoroughly enjoyed the reminder today. As for the word sitootery it’s become our standard word for outside shelters ever since.

    1. Editor says:

      Amazing how time flies!

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