Crook Hall

Crook Hall Gardens

Frankland Lane, Sidegate, Durham, DH1 5SZ

As you can see by the DH1 postcode Crook Hall Gardens are in Durham city centre very close to the River Wear. There’s a footbridge across the river nearby for those walking from the shopping area but a word of warning for those driving there, Durham, like many historic towns in Britain, has been ruined by 1960’s planners with busy dual carriageways running through the city with lots of roundabouts with many junctions on. If you are driving there are brown tourist signs when you get closer but the confusing bit is next to a busy taxi rank where there is a hidden left turn into what looks like a multi-storey car park or bus station. In fact the road goes under the buildings and the other side runs alongside the river and then becomes very tranquil.

View of Crook Hall
View of Crook Hall

The oldest part of the buildings were built in the fourteenth century by Peter del Croke and in 1372 Alan de Billingham and his descendants lived there for almost 300 years and were employed by the Bishops of Durham. The hall was restored by a married couple in the twentieth century who also laid out most of the gardens we see today. Although the main house is not open the Medieval Hall with its minstrel gallery is open to the public, complete with book stall.

VIew of gardens and Durham Cathedral from inside the Hall
View of gardens and Durham Cathedral from inside the Hall

The gardens themselves look like they might be small but are a revelation and lots of rooms and paths lead off from the main entrance leading to the top of the hill where there is a pond on the site of the old moat from the original hall. Each section is named with the Cathedral Lawn and the Shakespeare Garden being fairly self evident and the planting is rich and varied throughout.

Yew Specimen
Yew Specimen

Much of the topiary is box hedges which neatly format some of the gardens but there is one large yew specimen in the Shakespeare Garden, so called incidentally as it has only planting mentioned in the Bard’s plays. The National Trust makes a point of telling visitors on a sign that literary worthies visited the gardens during the nineteenth century William Wordsworth, Walter Scott and John Ruskin so you are walking in the footsteps of history. (NOTE: Links take you to their biographies on one of my other websites, Britain Unlimited).

Another view of the Shakespeare Garden
Another view of the Shakespeare Garden

Of great interest to toparists, mathematicians and children alike is the maze which is to the right of the main entrance as you go in. My recommendation is to try it after you have visited the other sections of the garden as you don’t want to tire yourself out before you have seen the other parts. Unusually the outside hedge walls are made of Cotoneaster Horizontalis which is dense but not prickly as there is not much room inside the paths. You know you are getting near the central goal as the trees change to the deciduous Hornbeam (Carpinus Betulus). I have to admit that the grandson solved the maze first and therefore reached spiritual enlightenment as, many of you will already know, they were originally devices to enhance contemplation of the almighty. The only let down is that there is nothing at the centre but a round space of soil but who needs baubles when you have the environment as your medium. Then it is time to find your way out and probably go to the Trust cafe next door for a rest and recuperation.

The Maze surrounding my meadow planting.
The Maze surrounding my meadow planting

Much of the garden is tended by volunteers as it is quite labour intensive but they don’t mind stopping for a chat about what they are up to or which plants are coming through next. They are keen to point out their succession planting so there is something to see throughout the year.

Borders with roses and other interesting planting
Borders with roses and other interesting planting

As mentioned before the whole gardens are divided up into several rooms such as at Hidcote Manor and there’s even a vegetable garden to see for you sustainability enthusiasts. Many of the sections are through intriguing gates or entrances such as the one below, complete with yew arch.

Yew arch and gateway
Yew arch and gateway

All in all for something you think you will be able to knock off in an about ten minutes will quite happily keep you occupied for a couple of hours or more and is well worth the visit. It is also full of ideas for translation into smaller gardens if you have one.

All photographs by Anthony Blagg

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