MOVES are afoot to get a Tree Preservation Order placed on a few sprigs of twigs which creep hopefully up one of Northallerton’s most distinctive buildings.
Once, these twigs formed a vine so large that it was regarded as the finest of its kind in England, and it was one of the most memorable aspects of the whole town. Today, the twigs have been cut down to size, and so it is the wonderfully inappropriate window above them which now catches the passerby’s eye.
The vine is on the side of Vine House which was, until 2008, the Rutson Hospital. Now the building is awaiting redevelopment, perhaps as a restaurant or hotel, and so the vine might welcome some protection.
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Its roots may go back to before 1600. It could even date to the Carmelite friary which owned this portion of the town until its dissolution in 1539. The friars were keen market gardeners who partly supported themselves through the sale of their produce.
In the 18th Century, the vine was regarded as “the most striking thing in the town”. Indeed, in 1723, when Lord Edward Harley was passing through – he was an MP from Herefordshire who held a lucrative sinecure in the Treasury as Auditor of the Imprests – he estimated that it extended “from the outermost branch on one side to that of the other an hundred and six feet and reaches up one storey”.
In Lord Edward’s day, the property was understandably known as Vine House and from 1720 to 1770, it acted as Northallerton’s court house. Then it became the home of a father and son who were both called Robert Raikes Fulthorpe – the son was a Northallerton MP and the father was a barrister who was said to be “more conversant with ladies than law books”.
Perhaps because the rakish Raikes Fulthorpe was so easily distracted, the vine started to suffer. It is said that in 1775, Sir Hugh Smithson was travelling along the Great North Road through Northallerton. He had been born in the town but had married into the Percy family and had become the Duke of Northumberland. He was so concerned by the state of the vine that he ordered his head gardener at Alnwick Castle to attend to it.
It certainly flourished, because in 1789, the vine was recorded as covering 137 square yards and its trunk had a circumference of 4ft. This led to it being proclaimed the largest in England.
Sometime in the 19th Century, the distinctive oriel window was hung from Vine House’s main bedroom. It is an unmissable addition, with a chequerboard lower pane, and an upper pane featuring a unicorn and a long quote from John Wesley. There seems to be no definitive history of this window – does anyone have any theories?
In 1877, with John Hutton, the Northallerton MP who lived at Solberge Hall, leading the way, Vine House became a cottage hospital, with no more than eight beds and run by a matron, Miss Emma Butler, assisted by volunteers.
One of the patients in those early days was Henry Rutson, a prosperous landowner from Newby Wiske, who suffered an eye complaint. After his treatment, he donated so generously to improve the medical facilities that Vine House became known as the Rutson Hospital.
In the first half of the 20th Century, still covered by its vine, the Rutson was extended, but in 1939 a new hospital was built behind it, on the site of the friarage, to receive casualties should the populous areas of Teesside be bombed.
With the coming of the NHS in 1948, the new hospital acquired the name “the Friarage”, and it developed, gradually consuming the Rutson’s services until the cottage hospital closed in 2008.
By that time, the vine had been brutally cut from the walls, and so it is a great suggestion that this famous rootstock should be granted some protection before Vine House is converted into its next incarnation – it is, indeed, a vine idea.