THERE has been a King's Head in the centre of Darlington ever since the king lost his head in 1649. The King's Head has been celebrating its 125th anniversary – a landmark for one of the town’s finest landmarks.

The existing building opened on June 1, 1893, and was hailed as a “temple of luxury”. It is the crowning glory of both Darlington town centre and of the career of the architect who designed it, although how much of it he would now be able to recognise as his own handiwork must be open to debate as the great fire of 2008 all but destroyed it.

The presence of a King's Head in Darlington is first noted when it was put up for sale in 1661, the year after Charles II was restored to the throne following his father's beheading in 1649. This was the start of the coaching era, and the King's Head grew into Darlington's premier coaching inn, with the Great North Road running outside its front door.

When Isabella Stephenson was the landlady in 1762, it took three days to travel from London to Newcastle via Darlington – "provided no material accident happens".

The Royal Mail coaches ran between the George and Blue Boar Inn in Holborn and the Bull and Post Boy in Newcastle. The southbound coach arrived at the King's Head at 10am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday; those heading north called at 1pm on the same days. The fare for the six passengers inside was three pennies per mile.

By 1825, the hotel had coaches called Highflyer, Wellington, Express, Telegraph, Red Rover and Hero all calling daily, as well as the Royal Mail, and local coaches running out to Stockton and Barnard Castle.

The coaching trade enabled a large number of ostlers, stablemen, drivers and blacksmiths to work in the yard behind the hotel, where 80 valuable horses were stabled.

But another mode of transport was stirring in 1825 – the railway train.In fact, the King's Head had played an important role in the infancy of the railway, because within its walls on May 12, 1821, was held the first shareholders' meeting of a new concern called the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company.

The landlord in 1825 was Richard Scott, and he was one of the first private individuals to run a coach, called the Reliance, on the new railway, but even he cannot have seen – like a department store manager standing at the dawn of the age of online shopping – how the new era would transform his business.

Railways brought the coaching era to a juddering halt, and the last Newcastle to London horse-drawn coach left Darlington in October 1852. Without the intercity travellers, the King’s Head was relying on just the local coaches – it needed to find a new market.

In 1875, it was sold for £14,000 (about £1.5m in today's values), but when it was put back on the market in 1889, there was only a bid of £6,200 (£750,000) for it. It was withdrawn from the auction, and eventually sold privately to R Fenwick and Company, brewers of Sunderland, who offered £7,000 (about £850,000).

In December 1890, Fenwick's tore down the centuries-old King's Head. "The removal of this unimposing block of buildings, together with the tobacco shop adjoining, will be hailed with great satisfaction by the people of Darlington," reported the Darlington and Stockton Times. "It opens out what has always been considered a very unsightly and the most dangerous part of Northgate for both conveyances and pedestrians."

The new hotel – “a temple of luxury” – was set back about 6ft to make the entrance to Northgate wider, It was designed by Memories’ favourite architect, GG Hoskins, responsible for many of Darlington’s best buildings, from the library to the technical college to mansions like Elm Ridge. Middlesbrough Town Hall, recently restored, was his biggest contract, but the King’s Head must surely be his best.

It opened on June 1, 1893, with a grand ceremony, involving civic dignitaries, followed by a smoking concert.

It is 150ft long and 70ft high, made of red bricks from Grosmont, in North Yorkshire, and "tawny red" terracotta made by the Burmantofts works, in Leeds. On the first floor are "four spacious and elegant bay windows". The second floor windows all have balconettes and above them is a "richly moulded and billeted cornice with a deep enriched frieze in low relief". The top floor has a balustrade parapet and is finished with light green Westmoreland slates on the roof.

Nowadays we sneak into the King's Head through the unbecoming Priestgate side-entrance, which was added in 1967. In GG Hoskins' day, guests strode in through the dramatic door in the middle of Prebend Row and were ushered into a world of opulence.

"We pass through very beautifully designed wrought iron gates into a porch elegantly fitted up with a high and elaborate polished walnut wood dado, the panelled framing being filled in with mirrors," wrote the Echo's reporter 110 years ago.

"From this we reach the vestibule, and passing which we find ourselves in the spacious hall; the whole of the floors of these parts, as well as the corridors, are laid with marble mosaic pavement of a chaste pattern with effective bordering."

Off this spacious hall was the hotel reception, a grill room, buffet, smoke room, bar and large, general lavatory. All of this has gone now, wiped away as the Prebend Row shops have become deeper and deeper. But it must have been something in its day. An 1894 visitor wrote how he walked under an "elegant glazed awning stretching over the street" into the porch with the mosaic floor.

"Then we arrive at the great central hall, a lofty chamber, handsomely decorated, and paved in beautiful marble mosaic," he said. "In this hall are the hotel offices, elegantly fitted up in pitch pine and ornamental glass.

"Even the general lavatory on this floor is a marvel of complete fitting, being fitted up with solid royal rouge marble, the walls lined with glazed tiles, and fitted with massive mirrors, and the whole equipment being in the perfection of sanitary work."

Once the visitor was flushed out from the magnificent toilet, he walked up the grand staircase "which from its beauty and spaciousness claims the admiration of all who have seen it".

On the first floor he found the ballroom which doubled as a banqueting hall and was overlooked by an orchestral gallery.

"This without question is the architect's chef d'oeuvre of the building and is justly entitled to the admiration so unanimously bestowed upon it," enthused the Echo on opening day.

The 1894 visitor was enraptured. "This is one of the finest chambers of its kind in the kingdom, magnificently decorated, sumptuously furnished, and with the decorations in white and gold, and the massive chandeliers available for gas or electric lighting, the whole presents a strikingly effective picture," he said.

"Ornamental pottery, vases, etc, of the choicest Doulton ware, with ferns, palms, and other ornamental plants grace every available corner, and the walls, richly lined with embossed paper, harmonising with the rich patterns of the carpets, while all around are costly mirrors and valuable engravings, which make up a scene of impressive splendour."

Also on this floor was a coffee room, a general drawing room, two sitting rooms, a commercial room, a writing room, and a large billiard room.

Still today the restaurant and cocktail bar that look out of the elegant bay windows over Prebend Row maintain a feel of opulence. They, though, are a tantalising reminder of the original grandeur of the whole hotel. The 1894 visitor concluded: "The creation of this colossal and comfortable palace is of great importance to the town.

"The hotel has been erected on a truly palatial scale, reminding one of an ocean liner on land, and every corner and cranny of it hums with absolute contentment, comfort and homeliness."

Since it opened 110 years ago, the King's Head has undergone numerous reorganisations and enlargements at the hands of uncountable owners, but two dates stand out.

In 1965, its then owner, Whelmar Hotels, bought part of the Darlington Co-op in Priestgate behind the hotel. It rebuilt the old shop as a new wing, which included a new main entrance. This enabled shops to spread along all of the grand Prebend Row frontage, meaning that the archway to the stables and the impressive, glazed entrance canopy were lost.

And the drama of entering Hoskins’ “temple of luxury” was also lost, as guests now checked in at the frighteningly functional 1960s’ entrance.

The other big date is, of course, August 12, 2008, when the biggest fire for a generation ripped through the hotel. It took 60 firefighters six hours to bring the blaze under control, but the top floor was gone, and all but 23 of the 85 bedrooms were usable.

No one, amazingly, suffered major harm, and when after four years and £8m, the protective tarpaulins were removed, it appeared – even more amazingly – that Hoskins’ masterpiece had also escaped serious injury.

It reopened on October 4, 2012, as the Mercure Darlington Kings Hotel – back in the heart of Darlington although, once more, the king had lost his head.