An area steeped in history
On the site of the present Hall Garth- hall in the field- stood the hunting lodge, primarily used by Anthony Bek, Edward I’s proud and ambitious Prince Bishop 1283-1310. The heavily forested hunting ground was convenient for the Bishops palace at Darlington. It is believed that part of a wall and an arch remain from this period. The house itself is 15th century. As you look at it from the front, the western part of its L shape is the oldest. This contains a beautiful 17th century staircase with twisted balustrade and a Roman Doric door case. The two gabled wings are respectively 18th century and 19th century and contain fine 18th century woodwork and delicately cast fireplaces. The two first floor windows in the 18th century wall are blocked up because of the window tax levied in that century. At the front of the house is the park with its tiny late 18th century Deer house and the next two fields, the ‘High Meadow’ and the ‘Redcar Field’, have the remains of a medieval ridge and furrow system.
On top of the hill there are one or two shallow pits dug out in the 19th century in search of sand and gravel. The River Skerne runs past these fields but supports no fish life because of bad pollution from the washings of local pits after the First World War. Dean Beck which flowed from Heighington into the Skerne partly encircled the house and was famous locally for it’s trout. An old fishmonger, Harrison of Tubwell Row, Darlington used to advertise ‘Hall Garth Trout’.
The earliest recorded resident of Hall Garth is William Wilson, gentleman of Durham 1684. Thereafter, it belonged to the Dalton’s of Acorn Bank in Westmorland. Mary Dalston married Mr William Norton on the 2nd January 1732 at Aycliffe church. Their son William married Dorothy Surtees, eldest Daughter and co-heir of Robert Surtees of Redworth, but died childless. Their youngest daughter, Mary, married Thomas Hodgeson and their surviving daughter Mary Boazman erected a tomb for her parents and infant sons in Aycliffe churchyard in 1812. Hall Garth was subsequently sold to the Rev James Robson, vicar of Aycliffe 1773-1805. The graves of the Rev. Robson and his young wife are also to be found in Aycliffe. On the death of the Rev/Robson, Mrs Elizabeth Porthouse, the window of the mill owner, purchased the estate. Mr Henry Pascoe Smith brought the property on the demise of Mrs Porthouse, and was responsible for laying out the grounds and turning the house into a gentleman’s residence. Mr Smith was a director of several local railway companies from the 1830’s onwards. One of his lines ran near the Hall Garth., but he had obviously taken care on his own land to keep it well away from the house. Some of the original stone sleepers used on the vey early railways were placed in the beck, under a waterfall.
The last family to live at Hall Garth were the Summersons. Thomas Summerson began work at fourteen years old in 1824, drilling stone block sleepers for the Stockton and Darlington Railway. By 1869 he had acquired the Albert Hill Foundry- renamed Tomas Summerson and Sons- specialising in railway fittings. Hall Garth saw four generations of Summersons from around the turn of the century to the 1970’s, hence the ‘Hugo’s’ restaurant- a family name- and the portraits of justices of the peace in what used to be the Justices room- each generation had a J.P. In a charming letter, Hugo Summerson describes the Hall Garth of his childhood- “The oak tree in front of the house known as the ‘Royal Oak’ was planted to commemorate the coronation of George VI and had a plaque at its base stating this.
A little further into the park are three lime trees known as the tree of sisters. We had heated garden walls where fruit trees flourished, a rose garden where my grandmother loved to sit and an orangery by the beck with lovely 18th century glass in its front windows. The pet’s graveyard was in the wood, complete with small tombstones and including the grave of a horse- my grandmother’s favourite hunter. Our playroom called the ‘Hawksley’ was above the carriage house in the stable block. Every room inside the house had a name. On the ground floor were the justice room, the drawing room, butler’s pantry, saddle room, loghouse, kitchen, scullery, cold storage- which had a large hollow area beneath, which was packed with snow through a small door in the outside wall- the white hall, dining room, and morning room. The first floor contained the day nursery, night nursery, pink room, blue room, grey room, green room, and west room. Above these were the servant’s rooms and attics”. He concludes with “my two brothers, my sister and I, had a very happy upbringing there, and it was a sad wrench to leave, but i was lucky enough to have been born there and to have lived there for so long”.
The factory would appear the have been empty, or part used for corn milling, for some years after this until 1884 when it burnt down. When fire was discovered, a messenger was sent on horseback to Darlington. But when the engines arrived the whole building was a mass of flames. It was re- built as a traditional cornmill shortly after this disaster- the only one remaining on the Skerne grinding flour by water power and mill stones. During the Second World War, the mill pond was filled and the machinery turned on electricity. But not long after the conversion it became disused and stood empty until the present day conversions.
With a house as old as Hall Garth there are bound to be ghosts- seen and unseen. The grey room at the top of the back stairs on the left is where you are most likely to hear one of them. In the middle of the night, a tremendous crash can be heard from what was the scullery below. On investigation, no one is there and nothing is disturbed. The most notorious ghost is that of a recusant nun who is said to be entombed in one of the walls. She walks the grounds one night a year, moaning and wailing. There is a carving of her in the cocktail bar and, if she is moved, strange things happen within the building- lights fuse, glasses smash, and fire alarms sound. Another strange occurrence is on the old staircase by the blue lounge. The grandfather clock, who’s mechanism has not worked for many years has, at 4 a.m. in the dead of night, sombrely struck eleven times.
The history of Hall Garth reflects the changes in English society through this millennium. From its early medieval beginnings as a dwelling for a Prince Bishop, to a country estate for the landed gentry, and on to a gentleman’s residence for the rich and successful pioneers of the industrial revolution. And finally, to a place of leisure and relaxation for all.