Halloween weekend this year was a total wash-out. With rain bucketing down from dawn til dusk and thick clouds stopping any chance of daylight from appearing I found myself in a house in County Durham with my family who were visiting from Wales.

We had a Halloween party to prepare for the restless kids but we’d forgotten the decorations. I drove into Darlington where, in the midst of this depressive domestic chaos, I found myself falling in love with the town.

Despite growing up in North Wales, I’ve found myself lucky enough to have travelled far and wide, particularly across the north of England. Hexham, Goole, Barrow, Beverley, Seaton Carew, Scarborough, Halifax, Stockton, Poulton-le-Fylde, Grimsby - my work in a former life saw me visiting these places and more in between before I’d even reached 20 years of age. Some were gems, some were dumps.

Driving into Darlington on Halloween I came to the realisation that I had no idea whether it was a gem or a dump. If you had to stamp your passport for each town you visited I could have filled twenty passports with stamps from Northern towns, but somehow I’d never had a reason to come to Darlo.

Read more: How Strep A patients were treated in this County Durham hospital

My wipers struggled to cope with the deluge, but even through the misted windscreen I could see that Darlington has a way with architecture that gives the town a charm that is completely unrivalled - something that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody talk about.

The Northern Echo: Darlington has its own version of the view of Durham Cathedral from the surrounding countryside.Darlington has its own version of the view of Durham Cathedral from the surrounding countryside. (Image: A flag flies at half mast over Durham Cathedral. Picture: NORTH NEWS)

For visitors to any town the journey into it is the most important part of creating a first impression. Driving through the countryside on the approach to the city of Durham you can see the Norman cathedral tower poking its head above the hills and trees. It’s a view that’s barely changed in a thousand years, and retains the awe that a building of this scale would have had on the lowly peasants when it was built. 

Darlington’s version of this is like an architectural practical joke, visible from North Road, just south of the Salters Lane roundabout. Looking towards the town from here the silhouette of a tall, square tower is flanked on each side by two blocks. 

It’s only on getting closer that you realise Darlington’s homage to Durham cathedral is the office block, Northgate House.

The Northern Echo: Darlington's buildings tell a story of contrast.Darlington's buildings tell a story of contrast. (Image: The Northern Echo)

Despite currently being empty, Northgate House exists in a tiny triangle with sides of fifty feet which perfectly sums up the story the town’s architecture tells of its history. 

Northgate House represents the twentieth century buildings which are dotted about the town. Many towns and cities in the UK are completely over-ridden with this sort of thing because of post war rebuilding in the wake of wiped out town centres, but luckily for Darlington they appear here about the place like a seasoning - accenting the history that pre-dates them.

Some of them, like the East Street car park, are plain offensive. The scarcity of buildings like this highlights their ugliness, and there’s charm in the novelty of these buildings that’s created by the wider context of the town.

The Northern Echo: Joseph Pease's house - a listed building - is now a kebab shop.Joseph Pease's house - a listed building - is now a kebab shop. (Image: The Northern Echo)

Opposite Northgate House is the ramshackle, bodged together run of shops including two units dedicated to the beautifully-named “Kitt Pongo & The Hogman”. A portico covers what is now three separate units each in separate states of repair, including an almost dilapidated kebab shop which also happens to be a listed building, and perhaps one of the most important buildings in Darlington’s history - Joseph Pease’s house.

Meanwhile the former technical college, an enormous late Victorian brick construction with ornamental terracota features and buttresses dominates things at the start of North Road. While this sort of grand building might appear once or twice in a town the size of Darlington, Darlo itself is blessed with dozens of ambitious buildings which reflect architectural tastes which straddle either side of the Victorian age.

The Northern Echo: The William Stead pub, a former warehouse, alongside the Northern Echo's iconic offices.The William Stead pub, a former warehouse, alongside the Northern Echo's iconic offices. (Image: The Northern Echo)

The contrast in buildings side by side in Darlington can also be seen with The Northern Echo’s offices. Dominating, red brick architecture, all smooth and straight lines complemented opposite by what’s now a Wetherspoons housed in a smaller red brick building with curves and corners and features (though staff here could definitely not tell you about the interior). The former demands attention through its scale and simplicity, the latter competes by showing off. Individually they’re OK, but together they’re brilliant.

Read more: In pictures: The building of the iconic Northern Echo office

A lot of towns and cities in the UK suffered when they cleared slums and rebuilt after the Second World War because the planning powers were granted to incompetent local councillors who wouldn’t defer to architects or town planners.

Anybody who’s tried driving into Leeds will be familiar with how infuriatingly it’s laid out, keeping you stuck in an endless loop of one-way roads. Visitors to Birmingham will know how the heart and soul of the city’s old centre were carved up by fly-overs and internal ring roads.

The Northern Echo: Darlington's police station is devoted to functional purposes, not aesthetic ones.Darlington's police station is devoted to functional purposes, not aesthetic ones. (Image: The Northern Echo)

The river Skerne forms a natural border to the east of Darlington town centre, so the introduction of the St Cuthbert’s Way ring road alongside it in the 1970s wasn’t cutting through any part of the town that had already been built. In fact, it’s a natural border marking the line between the old market town and the newer civic buildings - the magistrates court and police and fire stations.

These modest post-war buildings seem almost embarrassed of themselves, coyly sitting on the edge of the town and devoting themselves to functional purposes rather than aesthetic ones.The Northern Echo: St. John's church appears to float above the railway bridge from the bottom of Parkview.St. John's church appears to float above the railway bridge from the bottom of Parkview. (Image: The Northern Echo)

From here the view up Parkgate offers another Darlington architectural illusion, as the stunning St. John’s Church appears to float on top of the railway bridge in front of it. As you walk towards it, the huge tower and looming presence gives the same effect as Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral does, also sitting atop a hill. The optical trickery in Darlington is smaller than in Liverpool, but the effect is the same.

While St. John’s is a Victorian rendering of Norman architecture, the stunning St. Cuthbert’s - which bookends the opposite end of Parkgate - is the real deal, having originally been built in the early twelfth century.

Despite the French origins, St. Cuthbert’s couldn’t look more English, even without being crowned by four St George’s crosses. 

The Northern Echo: St. Cuthbert's Church appears quintessentially English, despite its Norman origins.St. Cuthbert's Church appears quintessentially English, despite its Norman origins. (Image: The Northern Echo)

Up Tubwell Row the Market Hall clock tower screams for your attention. The scale and design are so out-of-this-world to British eyes - clock towers just don’t look like this in this country. It looks like it belongs in Belgium, almost like it’s a Victorian impersonation of the medieval belfry of Bruges, or the spires and clock towers of Antwerp.

The low countries’ vibe is enhanced by the open space that surrounds the Market Hall on all sides, these open public spaces being so common in Europe.

Read more: Pictures from a summer holiday in this North East town in 1913

What Darlington has in its town centre layout is something that is rare in the UK, and that is open space that doesn’t require payment to be there. Town centres and high streets are extractive in their nature - get in, spend money, get out. But Darlington’s open spaces (which would be improved with a bit more greenery and shelter) allow people to exist in public without them having to pay for the privilege of doing so.

The Northern Echo: Darlington's Market Hall clock tower wouldn't look out of place in Belgium.Darlington's Market Hall clock tower wouldn't look out of place in Belgium. (Image: The Northern Echo)

Walking along the High Row there are more hidden gems - Clark’s Yard, Buckton’s Yard and Post House Wynd are typical of what’s been lost in British towns since 1945. The Shambles in York is clean, polished, and sanitised for tourists, while these little winding alleys in Darlington are comparatively rough around the edges, full of life and home to independent businesses.

Statues are raised in honour of people who are deemed worthy of celebration. There is no doubt or debate to be had about the place of Joseph Pease in Darlington’s history, nor of the need to appropriately commemorate him for his role here.

As one of the largest owners of collieries in the North East, Pease undoubtedly became personally wealthy off the backs of the suffering of countless others, but his vision for radical reform - abolishing slavery, removing bishops from the House of Lords, and work which lead to legal protections for animals against cruelty - saw him as being way ahead of his time in terms of his politics.

The Northern Echo: Joseph Pease's statue in Darlington.Joseph Pease's statue in Darlington. (Image: The Northern Echo)

His establishment of Darlington as a railway hub, and being involved in the building of the East Coast Main Line have kept Darlington more relevant than other places in the UK to this day.

There’s a reason the UK Treasury is relocating jobs to Darlington and not Richmond, and it’s because of the infrastructure that Pease built. What better person for today’s residents of Darlington to pay tribute to with a prominent statue in the town centre?

All town centres are suffering with dwindling numbers and empty retail units, and Darlington isn’t immune to these problems. Compared to other towns, though, Darlington has a massive advantage in the beauty of its buildings and the way they interact with each other, the town’s incredible history, and open urban space which invites people to exist within it, to be a part of the town and to not just pass through.


If you want to read more great stories, why not subscribe to your Northern Echo for as little as £1.25 a week. Click here

The charm of Darlington is in its contrasts, and while the new DL1 development which houses the cinema, hotel and restaurants to the south of the town centre currently exists as a novelty, be warned that further functional blocks like this being built without thought will kill the town’s character. Ask the people of Cardiff what they think of their city centre and heed their concerns. Darlington is special, it’s time more people knew it.