It is terribly sad news that Crook Hall and Gardens is being forced into liquidation by the corona crisis – sad for the family who have devoted their lives to it, and for people who love local history. This is a whizz through 800 years of this unique, and beautiful, property’s haunting past


The Northern Echo: Sidegate, an ancient Durham street that was once a side entrance to the citySidegate, an ancient Durham street that was once a side entrance to the city

Crook Hall is on a forgotten hillside to the north of Durham, squeezed between the East Coast Main Line at the top of the rise and the curving River Wear at the bottom. An ancient track called Sidegate runs into the cathedral city on the rocky promontory in the distance. This way in was never very important; it was just a side entrance. Sydgate is first mentioned in 1217 as being owned by Gilbert de Aikes, of Aykley Heads


The Northern Echo: The Old Hall at Crook Hall dates back to about 1300The Old Hall at Crook Hall dates back to about 1300

Peter del Croke died. He may have left Crook and acquired the manor of Sydgate in the previous century, and in the 1300s built a manor house – Croke Hall – there. It was a “hall house”: four walls and a roof with a fireplace. Everybody slept together in the large hall, enjoying the warmth of the fire. Over time, the landowner demanded privacy, so most hall houses were divided into rooms. Crook Hall, although much altered, retains its original early 14th Century character: In its Grade I listing of the property, Historic England says it is “the only domestic open hall known in County Durham”.


The Northern Echo: Sir John Coupland made his name capturing King David of Scotland in battleSir John Coupland made his name capturing King David of Scotland in battle

On October 15, 1346, Crook Hall was home to a warlike Northumbrian knight, John Coupland. The following day, he was at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, looking for trophies, when he spotted a reflection in the River Browney of someone hiding beneath Aldin Grange Bridge, near Bearpark. It was the defeated King David of Scotland, and he put up a hell of a fight, knocking out two of John’s teeth, as he was dragged out. The capture of this ultimate battle trophy made John’s name – but his warlike manner made him many enemies. On December 20, 1363, a group of brigands murdered him on Bolton Moor.

Perhaps it was violent John who bricked up a soldier in the hall at Crook Hall. The soldier died, although his icy hand has been felt on the back of many modern visitors…


John, cowherd of Billingham, made a fortunate marriage to a relative of Richard Kellaw, who was bishop of Durham from 1311-16, and started 300 years of residency by the Billingham family.


Cuthbert Billingham fell out with everyone in Durham, including his mother and sisters, and in revenge, “violently cutte downe the pipes of the conduit from Framwell Meadow and stopped the course of the water and cleane taken it away!”. His ancestor, Thomas, had in 1450 allowed the city’s principal supply of water to cross his land, going to the pant in the Market Place.

For all his fury, Cuthbert was thrown in jail until he restored the water supply.

Cuthbert’s niece is said to be the “young and comely” White Lady who haunts the old hall, her footsteps creaking down the old stairs, particularly on St Thomas’ Eve (which is the day before December 21, the shortest day)…


The Northern Echo: The Jacobean wing of Crook HallThe Jacobean wing of Crook Hall

Lawyer Christopher Middleton acquired Crook Hall and gave it to his son, James, as a wedding present. The Middletons added a Jacobean extension – a lintel over a door has the initials JM and the date, 1671, plus a bull’s eye. However, the third generation of Middletons wracked up such debts that on his death, the family had to sell the property.


The Hoppers of Shincliffe became the new owners and added the Georgian wing: one of Crook Hall’s most interesting features is the timeline of architecture it exhibits.


The Northern Echo: Canon James Raine, who occupied the hall in Victorian timesCanon James Raine, who occupied the hall in Victorian times

Canon James Raine, the noted Durham historian famed for his investigations in St Cuthbert’s tomb, leased Crook Hall and it became a cultural centre. William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, visited, as did the writer John Ruskin. The diminutive Polish count, Józef Boruwłaski, regularly came over and was popped on the mantlepiece so he could see what was going on. Raine died at Crook Hall on December 6, 1858.


THE new owner was John Fowler, who used the hall for bottling beer. The nature of Crook Hall was changing: once it had been farmland on the edge of the Bishop of Durham’s Frankland Park, but now Victorian industries were encroaching, inspired by the mainline which opened above it in 1857.

The gasworks by the riverside, which had been started in 1824, continued to grow so that a terrace of houses, Gas Cottages, was built in Sidegate for its workers. Its coal came down a tramway that spurred off the mainline near Crook Hall.

The Northern Echo: Sidegate in the 1950s.Sidegate in the 1950s.

In the 1860s, Crook Hall Colliery (also known as Durham Main) was opened near the tramway. It was never a huge concern, employing 150 men at its peak in 1900 and closing in 1924.

The colliery, though, was surrounded by quarries and brickworks, whose scars can still be seen on the hillside.

More houses were built for the workers. They were called Lovegreen Street, apparently named after the ferryman who operated a boat across the Wear directly beneath Crook Hall. Lovegreen Street was demolished in the 1960s and its site is now a car park behind the riverside Radisson Hotel – many visitors to Crook Hall have parked in the Lovegreen Car Park.

To compound the non-rural nature of the area, shortly after 1900, Barkers Haugh sewageworks was built on the riverside on the eastern side of Crook Hall, although the house itself continued to be the centre of a farm.

It was almost as if the industry threw a protective ring around the hall, preventing it from being lost to the developers.


THE principal of Houghall Agricultural College, John Cassels, and his wife, Muriel, moved into Crook Hall. Muriel was responsible for laying out the gardens, respecting the integrity of the elderly walled kitchen garden but opening out amazing views to the cathedral.


AFTER lying derelict for a few years, Crook Hall was taken on by Mary and John Hawgood, who effectively rescued it. In 1995, when Mary was mayor of Durham, they moved on to a property in Castle Chare which features the most amazing rococo plasterwork in the county (its story was told in Memories 214).


The Northern Echo: Crook Hall became a popular wedding venue in recent decadesCrook Hall became a popular wedding venue in recent decades

CROOK HALL was taken on by Maggie and Keith Bell, who gradually turned it into a wedding venue and tourist attraction, which ensured this amazing piece of local history was open to the public. Sadly, they told The Northern Echo last week that the coronavirus pandemic had hit their business too hard, and they would be going into liquidation with Crook Hall eventually being put up for sale. We have to pray that any new owners treat it as sympathetically and respectfully as it has been treated in the last 40 years, and that it doesn’t end up being shut off from the public.