First things first. No…. this post is not about THAT Hardwick Hall but the one in County Durham. Maybe not so many famous connections, and definitely not such an interesting mansion but with much more interesting grounds which include the largest collection of structures designed by James Paine, the great 18thc architect. I visited in July 2015 with Catherine Grezo, the Project Officer for the County Council , and Tony Smith, the Council’s Countryside Manager, and met James Paine himself even tho he died in 1789…. intrigued to know how? …then read on!
References to “Rewakening” in some of the images in this post are to a dvd made about the restoration of the park called “The Reawakening of a Sleeping Beauty”, which may still be available through the Friends of Hardwick, or the country park shop.
Although there was a Roman industrial settlement within what is now the East Park ( investigated by Channel Four Television’s ‘Time Team’ in 2001) the real story of what can be seen now at Hardwick Park began in 1748 when the estate was bought by John Burdon, the eighteenth son of a coal and salt merchant from Newcastle.
All his elder brothers died before their father, so John eventually inherited £40,000 and used a quarter of it to buy the Hardwick estate.
Burdon appointed James Paine, one of London’s foremost architects, to design a new Palladian mansion and a series of garden buildings. It is also possible that Paine was also responsible for the overall design of Hardwick Park. If he was then this level of involvement would have been very unusual since in most places he was only asked to design a single structure, and at Hardwick there are 14 of them.
Burdon and Paine transformed the grounds into everyone’s idea of what a romantic landscape should look like. The Park was laid out around a spring-fed lake of about 17-acres, with a serpentine river ‘tail’ to the south. It featured a circuit walk in the same manner as those at Rousham and Stourhead. This circled the lake taking in the 14 structures designed by Paine, including two bridges, two cascades, an island statue, a grotto and a sequence of buildings which alternated between classical and gothic design whilst progressing through the classical orders. All were tightly positioned within carefully calculated geometric relationships.
Unfortunately towards the end of his life Burdon had financial problems and in 1790 sold the estate for £40,000 to a neighbouring landowner, William Russell, who proceeded to lay out the East Park [roughly where the E is on the the map above] and complete the planting programme begun by Burdon to the south of the house.
Luckily Burdon, Russell and subsequent owners opened the park to the general public and this means that there are quite a few descriptions of the house and grounds, although they do bear a striking resemblance to each other! The earliest is a one page account in Town and Country Magazine in 1770, called ” The Beauties of Hardwick-Gardens displayed” [A full list with links where possible will included at the end of next weeks post.]
Many observers play on the park’s magnificence saying that that words were inadequate to describe the experience, although as Caroline Donoughue notes wryly that did not stop them “naturally continuing on to attempt to describe their experience in words, often a great many of them.” If you are interested in exploring this idea further, especially in relation to Hardwick then see Dougherty’s 2014 conference paper: “Romantic Places’Text and Materiality at Hardwick Park, County Durham” at:
Although, as can be seen from the aerial photo above, The lake drained away [probably in the mid-19thc because of structural problems with the dam] most of the rest of the estate was well maintained until the mid-1920s when the Russells sold the estate to a Capt. Ramsden. Ramsden and his family then gradually leased or sold off chunks of the estate, although they retained the area around the house.
During the Second World War the hall was used as a maternity home and briefly, as a billet for Bevin Boys, whilst the army took temporary possession of the park in the late 1940s. It was during this period, as so often, that rapid deterioration set in.
It didn’t help that the parkland was divided in the 1960s by the Sedgefield bypass cutting through.
In 1963 the mansion was turned it into a hotel, and a few years later, in 1972, Durham County Council purchased a 50 acre section south of the circuit walk to create a Country Park. But the council later considered that the remaining garden structures were a danger to the public and planned to demolish them. This sparked a local outcry, with Sedgefield Civic Society leading the fight to save them and eventually the demolition plans were thrown out after a public inquiry in 1981. The first step on the road to recovery was the award-warning rebuilding of James Paine’s Gothic bridge.
However it was not until 1996 when a local doctor stumbled across the flattened remains of the Bath House and contacted local councillor – and later leader of the county council – Ken Manton that the campaign to save the historic core really got under way. The Friends of Hardwick were formed in 1998 to help in the resurrection and Tony Blair, the local MP, became their president and, led by Manton, the process gathered momentum when English Heritage recognised its historic importance and raised its listing to Grade II*. This in turn encouraged the Heritage Lottery Fund to back both a feasibility study for restoration, and then offer £5 million towards the cost. The County Council then purchased another 150 acres of land, including most of the historic core of the Park.
The Restoration programme was phased and began in 2003. The first stage was to create an expanded country park, comprehensible in its historic content to the visitor but also capable of standing alone, if financial constraints meant that the second and subsequent phases had to be abandoned. Apart from recreating the massive lake and the other water features it meant laying out the Grand Terrace, and restoration of most of the major buildings, and beginning a clearance and replanting programme. It also meant a new visitors centre, new car parks and new entrances. Even then the park was attracting 250,000 visitors a year.
In fact the bulk of the programme was completed by 2009 and today the park is looking almost as good as it did in Burdon’s day, given the decision to conserve rather than rebuild some of the structures.
Given all this It is surprising that Hardwick is not better known, although this may in part be due to its geographic location, and because of its previously ruined state. However if not as grand as Stourhead, Painshill or Studley Royal, Burdon and Paine were at least as ambitious in ideas and intention. If you are lucky you can hear about their grand schemes by walking the grounds with James Paine himself – or rather since he died in 1789, – with Michael Rudd, the chairman of the Friends of Hardwick Park who brings him back to life every Tuesday afternoon!
So lets take a tour…beginning at the entrance lodge which was only about half a mile from Sedgefield. According to the 1770 Town and Country Magazine “after passing through a lane planted with a row of trees on each side, we come to a gate, on one side of which stands the gardener’s lodge.” Unfortunately the lodge was one of the casulaties of the Sedgefield by-pass.
A path led from the lodge through the woodland to the gardens and the beginning of the circuit walk. The main carriage approach to the house was through a much grander entrance arch, now also sadly gone.
Burdon’s plans for Paine to build a new mansion came to nothing, and instead he seems to have remodelled the existing house which was built in 1634. Currently listed as Grade II it is a relatively modest L-shaped building with pebble-dashed walls and a hipped roof. The interior was remodelled again in the early 20thc. The Hall is now an hotel and has been extended to provide additional accommodation, which with the new entrance drive and car parking somewhat overshadow what remains of the historic core of the mansion.
Immediately north of the Hall there is an 18thc stable block, ranged around a courtyard. Plans are afoot to convert these potentially attractive buildings for the use of the hotel.
Part of the success of the Hardwick restoration is the way that agencies and organizations, public and private, national and local, business and volunteers have worked together. The hotel group agreed to land swaps that allowed the recreation of the Grand Terrace, and they have also taken responsibility for the conservation and rebuilding of the historic features sited on their part of the estate. Prominent amongst these is the Tuscan Alcove. This did not feature on the circuit walk, as it lay parallel with the house on top of the slope. However it has a commanding position overlooking the lake and Grand Terrace.
It was in a parlous state and required almost complete rebuilding. The replica chinoiserie bench matches one that was known to have been in the nearby Gothic Seat, and was made by students at a college in Durham. As elsewhere in the restoration programme strenuous efforts have been made to make the observer aware of the surviving and replacement parts of the structure, without the difference being obtrusive.
From here you can stroll down to the Grand Terrace to begin the circuit walk which I’ll decribe in next weeks post!