HEMMED between housing estates and hidden behind a tall wall and even taller trees, the gardeners of Hummersknott in the west end of Darlington, have been tending their allotments unseen by the outside world for 100 years.

They celebrate their centenary next Saturday (JULY 29) by throwing open their gates and inviting everyone to look behind the walls.

But the story of their land goes back much further than 1917 – in fact, standing amid their bountiful plots, you get a splendid view of the oldest secular property in Darlington.

It is Hill Close House, which stands on the highest rise in town – 200ft above sea level – with a strategic and spectacular view west towards Teesdale.

It once farmed nearly all it surveyed – it was in charge of 17 fields from Coniscliffe Road in the south to Staindrop Road in the north. It was the home of the Emerson family for centuries until George Allan of Blackwell Grange bought it in 1725. It was then described as “an elegant stone Tudor house which overlooks a parkland of beautiful scenery”.

William Longstaff, Darlington’s great Victorian historian, said it was “the only Tudor house of stone in the parish”. He enthused about its “enormous thickness of wall, deep-splayed mullioned windows and picturesque gables” and he remembered how “one of the room floors was paved with blue flints”.

Yet Hill Close was fading. Today it is less than half the house it once was.

And the Peases were rising. Joseph Pease, the head of the family and founder of Middlesbrough whose statue stands on Darlington’s High Row, acquired much of the land in the west end of town, including the Hill Close estate. In the early 1860s, he set young Mancunian architect Alfred Waterhouse to work building two mansions: Hummersknott, for his son Arthur, and Uplands, for his daughter, Rachel, whose husband had recently died.

Both mansions were complete by 1864 – the same year that Waterhouse was completing Darlington’s Covered Market and clocktower, Backhouses Bank on High Row and the magnificent Rockliffe at Hurworth (Waterhouse went on to become the greatest Gothic architect of his generation, and you will have seen his masterpiece, the Natural History Museum in London, on television recently as the skeleton of a blue whale has been hung in his entrance hall).

Waterhouse may even have laid out the parkland that Hummersknott and Uplands shared, with a walled garden as one of its central features, its walls built out of the same buff Peases brick as the mansions. The hothouses that leant against the walls were heated by hot water pipes, and today, beneath the floor of a shed, you can still venture into the subterranean boiler room.

Arthur Pease, the MP for Whitby and Darlington, was so keen on his 260-acre parkland that in 1895, he allowed it to host the Royal Agricultural Society’s prestigious annual show – the first royal show ever to be held in County Durham. More than 100,000 people attended, including the Duke and Duchess of York, the Shah of Persia and his Highness the Shahzada of Afghanistan. Perhaps they even tasted the exotic produce – the melons and the grapes – that grew in the walled garden that is now the allotments.

But now, the Peases were fading. Arthur died the following year, and his son, Sir Arthur, commenced the break-up of the huge, and hugely expensive, estate.

The walled garden was among the first to be turned over, and on May 1, 1917, the Hummersknott Allotments Association was formed to protect the interests of the gardeners who had already moved on to the site. The Peases’ agents were considering giving the land to the Boy Scout movement, presumably to help the war effort, but the allotment-holders were able to come to a deal.

For £30-a-year, they rented the 4.3 acres, and were so confident that they approached the military – the First World War was the last horsepowered war – for 100 loads of manure. Lost in the overgrowth around the allotment, are cast iron railings with a central gate through which the cartloads of manure would have been delivered.

In 1927, the Peases divided the Hummersknott estate in 11 lots – a mansion or farm in each lot – and put them under the hammer at the King’s Head Hotel.

Lot No 5 was the 4.3 acres of allotments, and the Hummersknott Allotment Association was able to raise a £650 loan from the Darlington Equitable Building Society at 5.5 per cent interest over 30 years, to buy it – the Association would have bid up to £700.

Now the Association, which has long since paid off its loan, has 117 gardeners on 73 plots with another 20 names on the waiting list.

It is these allotments which are open for public inspection on Saturday, July 29, from 12.30pm to 4.30pm. Admission is free. The Cockerton Band will play. The sun will shine, and there will be raffles, refreshments, home produce and a rare chance to see behind the Peases’ tall walls and peek at Darlington’s oldest non-religious building.

IN the 1927 sale blurb, Hummersknott was described as "probably the most attractive and desirable building estate which has ever been offered locally".

Lot No 1 was Tees Grange Farm, near the Tees Cottage pumping station, which was demolished long ago.

Lot No 2 was the Uplands mansion, which was commandeered by the Crown Film Unit during the Second World War, and demolished in the 1970s.

Lot No 3 was Hummersknott itself, which in 1930 became the St Mary’s Roman Catholic Grammar School for Boys. It is now at the centre of Carmel School, and Arthur Pease’s coat-of-arms can still be seen on the main elevation.

Lot No 11 was Hill Close House, overlooking the allotments. It fell derelict in the 1960s, but has since been beautifully restored.

Most of the remaining lots were building land, which is why the Hummersknott housing estate winds its way among the Peases’ parkland trees.

With thanks to Ted Lickrish for his help with this article