DARLINGTON is one of the first of 100 places in the country to benefit from the Government’s £3.6bm Towns Fund, which aims to transform town centres.

It is going to spend the first part of its money on two yards running off High Row – Clark’s and Buckton’s – which are fascinating places, jammed with history and bursting with potential to become quirky, curious and atmospheric.

As part of the project, Darlington council is asking people to share their stories, videos, pictures and memories of the yards: did you meet your partner in one of the cafes or pubs; did your family ever own one of the properties; did one of your ancestors even sell ice creams in a yard?

Email stories@darlington.gov.uk

The yards evolved because in medieval times, the best houses in town faced on High Row with their gardens behind. There were alleys down the sides of the houses to reach the gardens.

Over time, as the wealthy people moved out to country villas, the lower floors of the High Row houses were converted into shops and cheap housing and workshops were crammed into the alleyways and spread over the gardens, creating the yards.

The yards are rarely straight because one alleyway grew west from High Row and another grew east from Skinnergate, and in the middle, a dog’s leg kink was needed to join them up. This is a “finkle”, which comes from an Old Norse word for elbow or bend.

While you’re thinking about your finkle-related stories, let’s have a quick walk through the yards…

Buckton’s Yard

TODAY, Buckton’s Yard is reached through a narrow alley between shopfronts on High Row, but once this was the garden access of a grand house that was probably owned by grocer John Buckton.

However, before it was Buckton’s Yard it was known as Colling’s Yard after the family of grocers who bought most of the property in 1768. It usually went by the nickname of “Gaping Goose Yard” because of the badly painted sign of the White Swan Inn, which looked as if the bird had a tooth missing.

The White Swan was somewhere on the north side of the yard. It was a favourite haunt of market traders who grilled their own steaks over the bar fire, using forks that were chained to the fireplace to prevent them being used as weapons in the regular fights.

Mr Buckton bought the yard in 1832. Although he had the politically incorrect nickname of “Nancy”, because of his unusual gait and his love of gossip, he was a pretty big player in early Victorian Darlington: he was a director of the Stockton & Darlington railway and he was elected to the first Board of Health (the first council) in 1850, the year in which he died.

He lived out at Harewood Hill, off Grange Road, rather than in the crowded tenements of his yard: in 1851, there were 59 people living in 10 houses there; in the 1860s, magistrates closed the White Swan because of the repeated bad behaviour, and in 1881, there was a brothel operating there. Little wonder that in court in 1882, the yard was described as "a low, slummy place".

Over the years, Darlington council has spent much trying to prettify the yards. Perhaps its first attempt was in 1900 when the houses in Buckton’s were closed for hygiene reasons and the people moved out. The properties then became warehouses and workshops, many of which can still be seen with large doors on upstairs floors hinting at some forgotten industrial usage.

The yard takes a sharp dog’s leg to Skinnergate, where you turn left and soon find the entrance to the next yard…

Clark’s Yard

The Northern Echo: Clark's Yard pictured in 1970.Clark's Yard pictured in 1970.

YOU enter off Skinnergate through a late 18th Century archway, with old metalwork jemmied into the brickwork for another forgotten use.

It was at this end of the yard where in the winter of 1745, the Duke of Cumberland’s Hussars were said to have been stabled while the English army – perhaps 10,000 soldiers – were camped out on the Green Tree Fields on the other side of Skinnergate. The hussars were a small group of German and Austrian fighters, and the English army was on its way to defeat the Scots at Culloden on April 16, 1746.

Today, perhaps appropriately, there’s a cycle repair shop called the Iron Horse here. During the last revamp of the yards in 1993, an ancient well was found going under the cycle shop. It was 27ft deep, lined with handmade bricks, and had 4ft of crystal clear, ice cold water at the bottom. The well had probably been closed off in the 1900 revamp.

The Northern Echo: Workmen discover the well during the 1993 renovation.Workmen discover the well during the 1993 renovation.

The 1993 revamp also replaced an old sewer. It was three metres deep and dated from 1780ish when it had been made of “sequential” tiles which are, according to sewer experts, very unusual outside London. A sequential tile has a tongue and groove on it so it slots into its neighbour, meaning there was no need for mortar which could have sprung a leak.

Having looked down to the sewers, we now round the yard’s finkle and look up to see a drainpipe header with “IP 1767” cast into it.

This was the rear door of a house built in 1767 by John Pease, and we are standing in his garden. His front door was onto High Row, above which is a more ornamental header bearing the same date and initials.

Mr Pease was born at Whitby in 1794 and, a Quaker, he was distantly connected to the other Quaker Peases in the town. Whereas they invested in mills, mines and railways, he was a grocer who invested in town centre properties.

There is a note in the Darlington Register of interesting events that says: "1758, William Robson, senior, of Darlington, bricklayer, George Waters, of Darlington, carpenter, both kill'd by the fall of an arch in building a cellar for Mr John Pease."

Mr Pease’s vaulted cellar is still down there, and apparently still lined with brick wine racks.

Mr Pease himself went bankrupt and so was disowned by the Quaker community, and he died in Ravensworth in 1794 – but his initials remain on the drainpipes looking down on the Quaker town.

His house was converted into light industrial premises. From 1874 until 1880, a weekly newspaper, the Darlington Telegraph, was printed there and you can still see the remains of a wooden hoist, jutting out from the wall, by which the rolls of newsprint were lifted onto the press.

However, it was usually wine and spirit merchants that occupied the house, perhaps attracted by Mr Pease’s cool, if costly, cellar.

WJ Clark – who gives his name to the yard – was in business there in the 1850s. He was taken over by W and T Forster in 1880 and in 1894, they sold out to James Swenden.

Mr Swenden was a chemist from London who came to Darlington to run a business on High Row. However, he sold his chemist’s shop in 1894, and it has passed through several hands until today when it trades as Rowlands Pharmacy with an old-fashioned shopfront.

Having got out of chemistry, Mr Swenden concentrated on bottling mineral water in the yard, and you can still find glass and stoneware bottles with his name on (please send us a picture if you have one). Even more fascinatingly, the well from which he drew his water is said to still exist in the barbers’ shop which now occupies part of Mr Pease’s house.

L If you can add anything to any of our stories, or tell us more about the yards, we’d love to hear from you. Please email chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk