Queen of the desert left her heart in Yorkshire

Mark Douglas, Property Curator for English Heritage  in one of the newly restored William Morris decorated rooms which will feature in the new film at Mount Grace Priory.
Mark Douglas, Property Curator for English Heritage in one of the newly restored William Morris decorated rooms which will feature in the new film at Mount Grace Priory.

SHE WAS an adventurer, diplomat, writer and archaeologist who ditched life as a debutante for wandering the desert and mapping the Middle East.

Yet the extraordinary story of Gertrude Bell, and her link to North Yorkshire, has been largely lost to history. Until now.

The oft-overlooked heroine is the subject of not one but two films due for release next year. Hollywood is set to shine the spotlight on the Edwardian lady who helped to establish modern Iraq after the First World War with Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman and Damian Lewis.

Meanwhile, the life of the “female Lawrence of Arabia” is being told by award-winning documentary makers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl in biopic Letters from Baghdad.

And as interest in Bell looks set to grow, English Heritage is delving into her deep connection with the medieval marvel that provided a home from home for the restless traveller, Mount Grace Priory, near Osmotherley.

It began with her grandfather, the Victorian ironmaster Sir Lowthian Bell, who bought the 14th-century monastery and manor house in 1898.

“Gertrude lived nearby in Redcar, and Mount Grace was her family’s weekend home,” explained Mark Douglas, property curator for English Heritage.

While Bell was sent to London to be educated, she 
spent many breaks in its 
peaceful surroundings with her siblings.

Her affection for the house is evident in the many letters 
she sent home from her 
travels.

“It’s clear that this place in North Yorkshire had a special place in her heart because she mentions Mount Grace a lot,” said Mr Douglas.

“The family hosted parties, croquet and other events here. She was known within the community, it was part of her life and her upbringing.”

It is her family’s interest in history and culture, particularly that of her grandfather, which is thought to have ignited Bell’s curiousity in the world.

This is evident in the rooms of Mount Grace’s manor house, which Sir Lowthian decorated in an Arts and Crafts style. The three-year refurbishment was carried out by the best designers of the day, including his friend William Morris. The sitting room he helped to create has just been restored to its former glory.

While her family remained in the region, Bell immersed herself in Arab life, visiting archaeological sites, learning the language and travelling deep into the desert.

A woman in a man’s world, she worked at the Arab Bureau in Egypt, with TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – who will be played by Robert Pattinson in Queen of the Desert. The pair helped to secure British interests in the Middle East during the First World War.

But Mount Grace was never far from her thoughts.

During a visit to Japan in 1903, she bought cherry trees which she sent back to be planted in the gardens and they still stand today.

Mr Douglas said: “She was a remarkable woman. As interest heightens we hope people recognise her links to this region.”