Once home to a succession of earls, Biddick Hall was chosen as the setting for the television period drama The Paradise – and now hopes to attract more private functions as a result. Sarah Foster finds out more
STANDING outside Biddick Hall, two things capture the attention: the stunning facade of the English country house and the beautiful white roses which adorn its front garden. A closer look reveals that some of the roses are plastic – a slightly bizarre concession to the exacting demands of television.
“When the television crews first came, the roses were in full bloom but by the time they came back to film they were dying back. They wanted to put the plastic ones in to recreate the look,” says Bob Duff, events manager at the hall.
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While such attention to detail may be normal in the world of TV dramas, it was all new to Biddick Hall. The hall was chosen, along with nearby Lambton Castle, as a setting for the BBC1 series The Paradise, starring Sarah Lancashire. Television crews began building sets last January and filming started in June.
Bob admits it was quite exciting.
“There could be up to 200 people here in a day,” he says. “You wonder how they are going to pull it all together. The great thing was I got my lunch every day. I just hope it gets re-commissioned.”
Landing a starring role in The Paradise was something of a coup for Biddick Hall. The family home of the Lambtons, it is currently owned by Edward, the Earl of Durham, who no longer lives there but divides his time between his estates in Northumberland, Italy and London.
Like any other stately home, the hall requires significant funding for its upkeep, so Bob is responsible for finding income streams.
He hopes that The Paradise will lead to further opportunities.
“We are registered with Northern Film and Media. TV companies get in touch with them to find them suitable locations,” he says.
“We’ve had 2,000 new people coming to our website on the back of Biddick Hall being on the television. Only a few weeks into the programme, inquiries shot up. We have two websites – Biddick Hall and Lambton Castle – but we can’t promote Lambton Castle because it’s not currently open to the public.”
In recent years, the hall has been opened to the public for hire for occasions like weddings, family parties and corporate events. It has the advantage of being private and secluded and guests can enjoy exclusive access to the whole house – something Bob is keen to promote – along with the fact that it is less than three hours by train from London.
Modifications have been made, like the addition of bathrooms and smoke alarms, but the hall has been left mainly unchanged. Bob feels it is important to retain the sense of it being a family home and has resisted it becoming too commercial.
“Everybody thinks of weddings, but it’s a slightly saturated market,” he says. “Here, people have the exclusivity and the privacy of a historical venue. The big thing that people want more and more is to put their own stamp on an occasion. We don’t mind what they do, within reason.
“We can cater for smaller events, but for a bigger function caterers have to be brought in.
If people are staying here, it’s fully staffed with housekeepers, cooks etc.”
THE hall can accommodate up to 16 in bedrooms which are straight out of a period drama, complete with four poster beds and embroidered quilts. In fact, the whole house has the feel of the family just having gone away for a few days, leaving you with free rein to do as you wish.
Everywhere there are portraits of long-dead ancestors and the decor is distinctly Victorian, with gilt and brocade and bold prints. It may be grand but the house is small enough to retain a sense of intimacy, and one of the living rooms, which is fairly plain, can be decorated to any taste, making it perfect for a wedding reception.
The sense of history is palpable, and the hall has certainly had its share of illustrious residents, including the first Earl of Durham.
“He was probably the most interesting of the Earls,” says Bob. “He attracted the Earldom because he was an ambassador to Russia and got on very well with the Tsar. He was also a great friend of Leopold, the first King of the Belgians.
He was sent to be a Governor General to Canada and a lot of what he did there was carried forth to become the Commonwealth.” Biddick Hall came into the ownership of the Lambton family after they united with the neighbouring Harratons through marriage.
Lambton Castle was built in the 1820s as a huge Victorian pile on the site of the former Harraton Hall and Biddick Hall was inherited from a French family after whom the hall was named.
In those days, the coal industry was at its height and it was through this that the Lambtons made their wealth, at one point owning a vast area of land bordering the River Wear. Now this has been reduced to a 1,400 acre estate including 60 properties, a business park, and land which is rented out for animal grazing.
Additional income is derived from shooting parties, timber from the woods and livery for horses.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the estate was home to Lambton Lion Park, a safari park which also had giraffes and baboons (there’s a wealth of stories, including one about baboons marauding on the A1). Now things are very much quieter and there is no prospect of the park returning due to a lack of profitability.
There is, however, a strong likelihood that Lambton Castle will be opened to the public, although Bob can’t specify when. “At the moment, we operate on an exclusive, private basis,” he says. “We will most certainly show people around but by appointment.”
Only one Lambton remains on the estate – Lord Durham’s sister Rose, one of five daughters born to Tony and Belinda, who was known as Bindy. Tony sidestepped the Earldom to become an MP, but resigned after he became embroiled in controversy when he was caught procuring prostitutes.
Like any house of its kind, Biddick Hall has seen its share of glory and ignominy, but Bob is hopeful that this will only add to its appeal.
He is keen to promote it outside the region as well as within it. “There are some beautiful parts up here but people always associate it with coal, ICI and big industry,” he says. “I feel that the North-East is a bit maligned because of its history and it would be nice to change that.”