MANY people have been in touch following the article a fortnight ago about Gertrude Bell, who was probably the most remarkable woman to have come out of the Tees Valley.

Gertrude was a chain-smoking mountaineer who has a Swiss Alp named after her. She was the first woman to receive a first class degree in Modern History from Oxford University, the first woman to do a solo camel ride into the uncharted Arabian desert, the first woman spy, the most powerful woman in the British Empire, and the woman who created a country: Iraq was her brainchild.

She was also a founder member and northern president of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, and so in the run-up to the First World War she campaigned against women getting the vote.

Chris Wimhurst emailed to say: “She was certainly an iconic woman of the early 20th Century. May I highly recommend the 2017 documentary Letters from Baghdad, which explores her life in detail, featuring the voice of Tilda Swinton reading from Gertrude’s extensive stock of letters. The voice overlays a wonderful selection of photographs and film clips.”

The well-received Letters from Baghdad is available on dvd. Other readers pointed us in the direction of the 2015 film, Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman.

Other comments focused on the houses connected with Gertrude Bell.

She was born in Washington Hall, in the north of County Durham, in 1868, which was the home of her grandfather, the ironfounder Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell.

Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was in charge of the family’s Teesside ironworks and so got his friend, Philip Webb, to design a family mansion at Redcar.

Webb is one of the most important architects of the late Victorian era. With the interior designer William Morris, he led the Arts and Crafts movement, which advocated traditional craftsmanship with simple designs and folksy decorations – it was the antithesis of overblown Gothic majesty of many of the period’s industrial buildings.

Webb was not the fastest of workers. The property which made his reputation was Red House in Bexleyheath in 1859 for Morris. It is now owned by the National Trust.

His second commission was Red Barns in Redcar for Sir Hugh. It was built from 1868 to 1870 and was Gertrude’s childhood home – she learned to ride on the beach and her father would arrive home after a hard day at the iron or chemical works in the private railway halt at the bottom of the back garden.

Red Barns is a Grade II* listed building, making it among the most important eight per cent of buildings in the country. In later life, it became a school and then a hotel, before it fell derelict. In 2013, planning permission was granted to turn it into flats, but it is still derelict. There is a campaign group, Friends of Red Barns, which is trying to save it with a view to turning it into a museum to tell Gertrude’s story. This campaign is supported by Redcar’s MP, Anna Turley.

The Bell family, which was the sixth richest in England, were so taken with Red Barns that Lowthian commissioned Webb to build another country mansion at East Rounton, near Northallerton. It was Rounton Grange, and it too was in the Arts and Crafts style, with Gertrude laying out her grandfather’s gardens.

The Grange was completed in 1876, which allowed Lowthian to leave Washington Hall – in 1872, a seven-year-old boy had been killed there sweeping a chimney. It is not known whether Lowthian was guilty of employing under age children, or whether it was a contractor pushing a boy up a chimney without Lowthian’s knowledge, but after the accident, he effectively abandoned Washington Hall.

The Bells fell on hard times in the 1920s depression, and Rounton Grange was shut up. During the Second World War, it was used to house German and Italian prisoners. It was unsuccessfully offered to the National Trust in 1950, and was demolished soon after. Its loss is much lamented by Arts and Crafts fans.

“Some of the stone from Rounton Grange was used by the Constantine shipping family to build a new house, Laskill Grange, at the foot of Newgate Bank in Bilsdale,” says Echo columnist Harry Mead. “It's still there – now a small hotel and wedding venue.”

Rounton Grange coach house has survived. It is a gloriously incongruous building which always catches by surprise the numerous cyclists who pedal around the flatlands around the A19.

The Bells’ mansion-building did not stop with Red Barns and Rounton Grange, because Sir Hugh’s sister, Ada, and her husband, Major Percy Godman, commissioned Webb to design Smeaton Manor for them. It is only about eight miles west of Rounton Grange, hidden away in countryside outside the village of Great Smeaton.

The ten-bedroomed home was last on the market in 2014, for £2.5m. Its stable block is now a luxury holiday cottage that sleeps 12.

Three mansions designed by a leading artistic architect is clearly not have for one family. In 1881, the Bells commissioned him for a fourth time to design their industrial headquarters in Zetland Road, Middlesbrough. It was completed near the station in 1891 and is described by the renowned architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as Boro’s “most valuable building”.

Webb only completed 36 major buildings in his life – he died aged 84 in 1915. It is quite a coup for this industrial family to have commissioned four of them, given that he was an anti-industrialist architect. Indeed, he was a socialist and actively promoted violent revolution as he thought it was the only way in which art could be reintroduced to everyday life.

But other views of Webb chimed with those of the Bells. He had formed the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, and in 1898, the Bells bought the ruins of Mount Grace Priory, which were in a bad state. They tried to tempt Webb out of retirement to preserve them, but he refused, so they had to look elsewhere. Nevertheless, they preserved the medieval priory along the lines advocated by Webb’s society, and they converted the priory’s guest house into an Arts and Crafts shooting lodge, along the lines of Webb’s designs.

The Bell family kept Mount Grace until 1953 when they handed it to the nation in lieu of death duties. It is now a visitor attraction, run by English Heritage, and the guest house now features Arts and Crafts wallpaper designed by William Morris and a large Morris carpet salvaged from Red Barns, the first of the Bells’ Webb mansions at Redcar.