NEXT month, there is a unique opportunity to look around the palatial residence of the “uncrowned king” of Teesdale which, in more recent times, became the tumbledown home of a one-eyed parrot called Horrocks.

The uncrowned king was Monsignor Thomas Witham who reigned for 50 years with great kindness, and was instrumental in bringing the railway, which whips around his home of Lartington Hall about four miles from Barnard Castle, to the dale.

And Horrocks the parrot, who may have been 50-years-old, lived with his eccentric owner, Olive Field, beneath an umbrella to keep the rain off as the roof decayed.

Now the hall has been restored into a “heart-stoppingly beautiful” private hire venue and on July 17, it is going to host a special evening of the Durham Victoria County History Trust, which is currently concentrating on the dale.

The history of Lartington goes way beyond the monsignor. A datestone above a door says 1635 when a small manor house was built on the site, and this was acquired by marriage by the Maire family in 1654. The Maires were interconnected to the Silvertops and the Lawsons – the great Roman Catholic families of the North-East – and Lartington, in its beautiful parkland, began to grow.

In 1811, its heir apparent, Henry Silvertop-Maire married heiress Eliza Witham. He adopted his beloved wife’s surname so he could acquire her estates at Cliffe, near Piercebridge, and Headlam, near Gainford, plus Hutton henry and Hardwick, near Sedgefield. Henry desperately needed these estates because he had managed to wrack up £105,000 in gambling debts (mainly horses, and that’s about £10m in today’s values).

As Memories 423 told, in the early 1820s, Henry was holding a lavish ball at Lartington to celebrate the victory of a horse, Doctor Syntax, that he had heavily backed. Unfortunately, news came through that the good Doctor had lost, and Henry had to flee mid-ball to John O’Groats to escape his creditors.

He settled in Edinburgh where he became a renowned geologist, and in 1833, when his mother died, he finally became solvent and returned to Lartington in triumph – with a large collection of fossils, rocks and 3,000 books in tow. He engaged Ignatius Bonomi, Durham Cathedral’s architect, to build a museum-sized wing onto Lartington.

Henry died in 1844, and the Witham Hall entertainment centre in Barnard Castle, is named after him.

Lartington was eventually settled upon Henry’s fourth son, the Reverend Thomas Witham, who was the Roman Catholic priest at Gainford. The pope gave Thomas dispensation to leave his flock and take over Lartington which he found “in a sad state, undrained and badly fenced”.

He spent £10,000 on drainage and built 25 miles of stone walls, and he gained a reputation for his generosity. He worked hard to alleviate the cholera epidemic which killed 144 people in Barnard Castle in 1849. Part of his solution was connecting the town to the prosperity of the railway age, even though the true monarch of Teesdale, Lord Barnard of Raby Castle, was implacably opposed to nasty, dirty engines coming clattering through the tranquil dale.

But the railway promoters won, and on July 25, 1854, amid great rejoicing, Thomas cut the first sod of the Darlington & Barnard Castle Railway, of which he was chairman. It is said that “upwards of 10,000 people” witnessed the sod cutting (Barney’s population today is 5,495 so everyone from miles around must have been present) and dancing was “kept up, with great spirit, until six o’clock the following morning” in the Ship Inn.

Thomas then joined Darlington’s Pease family in promoting the extension of the railway over the Pennines. He allowed the track to sweep round Lartington in a tight arc and he laid the foundation stone for the magnificent Deepdale viaduct on the edge of the village.

He also further enlarged Lartington Hall, engaging Catholic architect Joseph Hansom of York (famed for inventing the Hansom carriage) to create a ballroom, a chapel and a grand entrance with a porte cochere, and to lay out the formal gardens.

The D&S Times’ sister paper, The Northern Echo, was allowed a peek inside and returned so enraptured that only obscure French phrases would do to describe it. “The drawing room is a noble apartment which as a mise en scene was a revelation – a dream of loveliness,” it said. “The predominant colour is white and gold. Countless pictures adorn the walls, and the fretted gold of the picture frames makes a beautiful and artistic foil to the delicate white that looked more chaste and charming under the splendour of sunlight that suffuses the room through many stately windows.”

Pope Leo XIII was so impressed by Thomas’ work in promoting Catholicism in the dale that he elevated him to the status of “a right reverend monsignor”.

Thomas died in 1897 two days shy of his 91st birthday. The Echo described him as “one of the most interesting and admired personalities in the north” and said that “in his own sphere, the right reverend gentleman was indeed an uncrowned king”.

After a ceremony in his private chapel attended by 50 priests, his coffin was carried on the shoulders of the estate’s six oldest men to the mausoleum in the graveyard beside the hall.

The Silvertop family sold the hall in 1910 for £86,000 (£10m in today’s values) but immediately after the First World War it was sold on again for just £66,850 (£3.4m in today’s values). The new owners were Norman and Olive Field, whose wealth came from the Marshall Field department store in Chicago on which Selfridge’s modelled itself in the UK.

During the Second World War, the Red Cross used the ballroom at the hall as a convalescent ward which looked after 2,000 recovering soldiers. The grounds were used by the Army and tanks did such substantial damage to the monsignor’s walls and railings that the Fields were awarded £25,000 compensation, which Mr Field spent on a yacht.

In the beginning of the Fields’ reign, the hall must have been an opulent place – the two of them were attended by 35 servants – but after the war, it went into decline. Following Mr Field’s death in 1957, Mrs Field retreated into the remaining habitable core of the hall, dining in the ballroom under an umbrella because the roof leaked so badly.

Mrs Field sounds like a Dickensian character. She was a passionate huntswomen and she swore colourfully and regularly in a very deep voice. Her constant companion was a parrot named either Horrocks or Harris. The sources vary about its name, although they all say it lived to be 50, had only one eye and began each day by sliding down the bannister.

Mrs Field was killed in 1973 when her Rolls Royce was in a collision in Darlington’s Coniscliffe Road. Her chauffeur and lady companion were also killed.

While there is no mention of the fate of the one-eyed parrot, the hall was offered to the Disabled Drivers’ Association, a charity which had been founded in 1948 as the Invalid Tricycle Association to provide motorised mobility aids. With the roof collapsing daily, the charity turned the hall down as too great a liability, and demolition seemed inevitable.

However, former airline pilot Robin Rackham stepped in with his wife, Clare. As chairman of the Teesdale Civic Society, Mr Rackham had a great interest in old buildings, and began saving it. It did, though, need to make money to contribute to its own saving, and so the chapel became a squash court and the ballroom a recording studio.

In 2010, the hall was acquired by its current owners, Shona and John Harper-Wilkes who have made it “heart-stoppingly beautiful” venue which specialises in weddings.

It really is a beautiful place, and the Durham Victoria County History Trust’s evening will feature a talk by historian Caroline Hardie, who wrote the Statement of Significance for the hall, entitled The Changing Faces of Lartington Hall: Home of Elegance, Good Taste and the Occasional Rabbit. Surely the one-eyed parrot will get a mention, too.

The talk will be followed by a guided tour and a buffet.

The evening on July 17 starts at 5.30pm, with tickets £15 for non-subscribers to the trust. Places are limited. For more information and to book, email or call 01325-316749.