Saturday 15 October 2022

Crook Hall Gardens

It's happened to me several times over the past 10 years of this scone quest: the National Trust has excitedly announced that they've opened another property, complete with a lovely new cafeteria. In the early days of the project, I would think 'Bravo for the National Trust saving another house/cliff/hill for the nation! I'll add this lovely new cafeteria to my list and go there forthwith! Smashing!'

But when the Trust announced in July this year that they had just opened Crook Hall Gardens, I'll admit that my first thought was "please God let it be within the M25". I was on the home straight, with fewer than 20 properties to go, so I really wasn't in the market for new additions to my list. 

It turns out that Crook Hall Gardens is not within the M25. It's in Durham. But! This presented me with an opportunity because a) I had never been to Durham and b) my excellent friend SJ is from the area and her lovely parents still live there. 

Crook Hall Gardens

With a round trip for me of about 550 miles and winter closing looming, there was absolutely no room for error with this mission. I had checked the opening hours about 100 times before I set off, so you can imagine my total horror when we arrived to find a very large CLOSED sign on the cafe. Luckily we quickly established that this was an error and the cafe was in fact open, so we piled in for our scones.
BUT! Before I get to the scones, let me tell you a bit about Crook Hall and its gardens.

The original hall was built in 1286!
It's gone now but the original building was constructed by Peter del Croke, who gave the place its name. 

The Medieval Hall dates from the 14th century!
The Medieval Hall that still stands today was built in the 14th century. The place was owned by a John de Coupland who captured David II of Scotland after the Battle of Neville's Cross, when a Scottish army invaded England. Over the years the hall has been used for various purposes - it was used as a beer bottling plant at one point. 

Crook Hall Medieval Hall

The Billinghams owned Crook Hall for 400 years!
In 1372 Alan de Billingham was given the living of the manor of Crook Hall and the family stayed here for almost 400 years.

The Mickletons extended in 1671!
James and Francis Mickleton inherited the place in 1668 and extended the house in 1671, adding a new wing. 

The Hoppers added the Georgian wing!
The Hopper family then extended again in the 1740s with the three-storey Georgian part of the house. The house was then either let to, or was owned by, several families including the Raines and the Cassels.

The gardens are arranged like rooms!
I always feel a bit mean visiting gardens in autumn or winter rather than in their moment of spring or summer glory, but Crook Hall Gardens were still lovely. There's a Cathedral lawn, with views up to Durham Cathedral, a Shakespeare garden, a pond, and a vegetable patch with an Elvis scarecrow in it. There's also a maze, which provided a bit of excitement.

Crook Hall maze
SJ and Cooper in the middle of the maze.
I think Cooper may have been expecting a prize.

Keith and Maggie Bell opened the gardens to the public in 1998!
I feel guilty saying this but until today I had never fully appreciated the people who take on National Trust properties before they become National Trust properties. Luckily for me, Keith Bell wrote a book about his experiences of buying Crook Hall and managing it for many years before it was sold to the NT.

The book is called Blood, Sweat and Scones: Two Decades at Crook Hall and it's a remarkably upbeat read about an experience that must have been absolutely awful at times. Imagine buying a house that includes a medieval hall, a 17th-century building and a Georgian building, plus a huge garden. The descriptions of costly roofing projects scared the life out of me, never mind the ghosts that inhabit the place. Yet Keith and Maggie opened the place to the public and even turned it into a wedding venue.

But what I find inspirational is that Keith and Maggie, like all the other people who stepped in to rescue buildings using their own money before the NT took them on, did so without knowing that the NT would eventually take over. The Jenners at Lytes Cary, the Lyles at Barrington Court, the Iliffes at Basildon many people that have loved a place so much they took on all the problems and the financial challenges that old buildings present. I could never do it, so I admire them all greatly.

The Crook Hall Gardens Scone

But let's move on to the all-important scones. I had brought a bona fide expert with me on this mission, as SJ's mum used to work in a bakery. I was a bit worried that I might have to adjust my scoring to allow for her professional insights but she was impressed with her cheese scone, as was SJ's dad.  

SJ and I both had a fruit scone. I think you will agree from the picture below that it was a beauty - big, golden and full of fruit. We had a lengthy debate though about whether they were fresh - mine was definitely warm and fresh but SJ was not so sure. We'd noticed that the container on the counter had condensation on it, which corroborated the freshness, but moisture can sometimes affect the taste of scones. 

Anyway. I loved my scone and gave it a 5. SJ gave hers a 4. The fifth member of our party, Steph, showed huge resolve and stuck with her banana (she didn't give it a score). 

Crook Hall Gardens Scone

I'll end with yet another big grateful thank you to SJ and Steph. They've accompanied me on several trips this year - Beatles' Childhood Homes, Claife Viewing StationAira Force, and Plas yn Rhiw - while in previous years, they've helped me to cover Fell FootWray Castle, Sticklebarn and Hardcastle Crags. This project has given me some great moments but the best moments have always been when other people have come along with me and SJ, Steph and Cooper have been excellent Sconepanions. 

Crook Hall Gardens Cafeteria

Crook Hall Gardens: 5 out of 5
Scone: 5 out of 5
Complexity of maze: 1 out of 5 (but it was still good)

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