My new book Think of England takes place in a country house called Peakholme. It’s an ultra-modern building, packed with cutting-edge technology for the absolute latest in comfort and luxury. We’re talking hot-water heating, electric lights and – get this – a telephone. Neat, huh?
I should have probably mentioned, the book’s set in 1904. Electric street lighting had come in, in the towns and cities anyway, but most people didn’t have domestic electricity until the 1930s. Hot water radiators demanded investment in terms of boilers and installation and space that most people didn’t have. The telephone system was well established in the cities but rural and domestic connections were another matter. For an isolated country house in the north of England to have all of these things would have required an astonishing amount of wealth. You’d have to put in your own electrical generator, your own telephone exchange, and invest an insane amount of money.
Luckily (for them), some people had it to spend.
Peakholme was loosely inspired by a real and astonishing house called Cragside. Like my imaginary country house, although built a few years earlier, Cragside was created out of nothing, on a bare rocky slope miles from anywhere. It was a work of genius, taking a green approach to energy at a time when ‘green’ was a colour achieved by adding arsenic to paint and then using it for baby chew toys and kitchen shelving. Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. It had hot and cold running water, showers, and its own Turkish baths. The lightbulbs were specially designed for the system. The kitchen spit for roasting meat was turned by electric power to save labour. Its creator surrounded it by astounding gardens, importing trees including giant redwoods from all over the world, turning the bare ground to a thing of beauty.
It was the Victorian equivalent of a Bond villain’s ultra-tech hideaway and, no kidding, it was built by an arms dealer. Well, where else do you get that kind of money?
For the record, there is no similarity between the historical Lord Armstrong who built Cragside and my own wealthy arms manufacturer Sir Hubert Armstrong. Except for the job. And the surname. (Come on, it was irresistible. The phenomenon of people having jobs that sound appropriate to their names is known as nominative determinism, since you ask.)
Lord Armstrong (real) seems to have been a reasonably decent man: he gave large sums to charity, was strongly in favour of clean, renewable energy, and said of his arms business, “If I thought that war would be fomented, or the interests of humanity suffer, by what I have done, I would greatly regret it.” He added, “I have no such apprehension,” having sold guns to both sides in the American Civil War and developed battleships and gunboats, but nobody’s perfect.
Cragside is now run by the National Trust, and if you should ever find yourself in the region of Northumberland, I strongly recommend a visit. It’s a fascinating place to spend a day. (Photo from their website: the planting worked out pretty well.)
Peakholme isn’t Cragside. I changed the location and the timing, updated the tech and altered the layout. I also, and with the greatest reluctance, abandoned its subterranean Turkish baths, despite the amazing potential of a subterranean Turkish bath in a romance novel. (There is a cut scene…) But Peakholme does have features that you might recognise if you visited Cragside, such as the terrifying quantities of stuffed hunting birds in murderous postures. Nothing like a dead eagle with a rat hanging from its beak to brighten up a room.
Peakholme, unlike Cragside, and despite the mod cons, is not somewhere you’d want to go. It’s seething with secrets, and very bad things have happened to some of its guests. When Captain Archie Curtis comes to stay he finds himself mixed up in espionage, betrayal and murder, and forced into an unwilling alliance with fellow guest Daniel da Silva, a decadent poetic foreign type and the last man Curtis would choose to trust…
Yeah, I’d visit Cragside, if I were you. It’s safer.
The first review of Think of England is in; the book comes out 1 July.