NEXT Saturday, Darlington Historical Society is holding a historic walk in the park – in Darlington’s pioneering South Park.

The park is pioneering because it was the first municipal park in the North East, and it is historic because so many of the town’s treasures have ended up there.

Here’s a quick timeline of the park’s creation, and the arrival of some of its treasures, to get you up to scratch before the walk:

The Northern Echo:

Love is always in the air in Darlington's South Park: this picture was taken beneath the Park Lodge clocktower

1633: James Bellasses, of Owton, Hartlepool, gave “four beast gates on Bracken Moor” on the edge of Darlington to be let out to farmers with the proceeds going to support poor linenworkers who lived in the town centre. The “beast gates”, or grazing fields, occupied 20 acres of soggy land next to the River Skerne off Grange Road. The area became known as “Poor Howdens” because of its charitable status and it consisted of the thin strip of land which is now the terrace above the showfield.

1849: With linenworkers dying out, the town’s leaders planned to turn the fields into “a park or a pleasure ground…for the free daily use of all classes of society”. The only municipal parks in the north were in Sheffield (opened 1841) Liverpool (1842). Sunderland (1857), Gateshead (1861), Middlesbrough (1865), Newcastle (1873) and Stockton (1893) all came later.

1851, November: The Borough Surveyor George Mason and the Park Superintendent John Morrison drained the land and planted a few shrubs and trees to break up “the bareness of the aspect”. Joseph Pease, whose statue stands in High Row, donated 100 tons of slag from one of his Teesside blast furnaces to create the first paths. It was called either Bellasses Park or the People’s Park, and access was via a narrow path off Grange Road.

The Northern Echo: From Grange Road overlooking the boating lagoon towards Park Lodge with its observation tower between 1880 and 1901

1853: Park Lodge was built – perhaps on the site of an older farmhouse. It had a tower with an observation platform so spectators could watch people walking on the slag paths.

1854, July 27: Darlington Recreation Society held the first known event in the park: 500 people attended a sports afternoon and to hear Mr Woodhams’ band – some of them even decided to “trip the light fantastic toe”.

The Northern Echo: Harry Donner, cleaning his car in Lakeside in the early 1970s. Behind him is Edward Pease's 1840s Butter Market from the Market Place. It was the first piece of bric-a-brac to be moved to the park, in 1859, and then went as a folly to grace the high

Harry Donner, cleaning his car in Lakeside in the early 1970s. Behind him is Edward Pease's 1840s Butter Market from the Market Place. It was the first piece of bric-a-brac to be moved to the park, in 1859, and then went as a folly to grace the high land above "Skerne Park". It was destroyed by vandals soon after this picture was taken

1859, November: The first piece of historical bric-a-brac arrived: the butter market. This open structure had been placed in the Market Place by Edward Pease in the 1840s “for the protection of the market women”, but with the covered market being built, it had become obsolete and courting couples had even been seen in it, so it was removed to the park.

1860: A cannon, captured at Sebastopol during the Crimean War and intended by the government to be a war memorial, was controversially dumped in the long grass of the park by the pacifist Peases who didn’t agree with the war.


1863, March 10: Large crowds marched from the Market Place in a snowstorm to witness the first official ceremony in the park: the planting of a pair of giant redwood trees to celebrate the royal wedding of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and the Princess of Denmark. The sequoias were given by Alfred Backhouse of Rockliffe, Hurworth, and have featured in the Tree Council’s top 10 most remarkable trees in the country. Coronations and mayoralties have since been commemorated by tree planting.


1870: The John Fowler Monument, dedicated to the inventor of the steam plough who married a Pease, was moved to the park from the grounds of the Pierremont.


1875: The Fothergill Fountain, dedicated to the founder of the Darlington Total Abstinence Society, was moved from Bondgate – where it overflowed and churned up the mud street – to the park.


1878: Following the financial collapse of stockbrokers William and Robert Thompson, who owned Polam Hall, the council bought their Little Polam Estate for £3,800 (£350,000 today) and began “ridding the land of an abundance of nettles and thistles and transforming the wilderness into a pleasure ground”. This became the showfield, and workmen also dug out the ornamental lake.

1880: The River Skerne was straightened and its water level raised by 3ft by dam at Parkside, enabling a boating lagoon to be created beneath Park Lodge and the river to be used for “wild swimming” races. Victoria Embankment was built.

1882: A temporary bandstand was built, and there was a row over whether the band should play dance music on a Sunday.

The Northern Echo: The opening concert at the bandstand by the lake was held on Tuesday, July 4, 1893, and was attended by 3,000 people. The bandstand is Walter MacFarlane & Co of Glasgow's pattern number 279 which cost £250, much of which had been raised the

Tuesday, July 4, 1893: 3,000 people gathered to hear the first concert performed in the bandstand in South Park. Picture courtesy of Darlington Centre for Local Studies

1893, July 4: The new bandstand was opened with two bands under the baton of conductor James Hoggett playing a polka called Kiosk he had composed for the occasion. The £250 bandstand had been made at Walter Macfarlane’s foundry in Glasgow, and was paid for largely by iceskaters who, during the hard winters, had paid to skate on the frozen ornamental lake.

The Northern Echo: Schoolboys drag their brother in his pram across the frozen lake in South Park in January, 1962

The Northern Echo: A parliament of experts gathers to watch the bowls outside the tea room in South Park in 1972

A parliament of experts gathers to watch the bowls outside the tea room in South Park in 1972

The Northern Echo: Reuben Blewitt and Annie Rissetto, pupils at Skerne Park Primary, skip through Darlington's South Park in 2012. Picture: Tom Banks

1901, September 4: The Potts Memorial Clock was started in Park Lodge tower, as a replacement for the observation platform. It is dedicated to Darlington-born William Potts who created the north’s largest clockmaking company.

1901: A 12-ton boulder from the River Tees at Winston was placed at the Victoria Embankment entrance in memory of naturalist Dr Richard Taylor Manson.

1902: The first aviary opened, to house a pair of African kites. Three monkeys and 14 canaries were added in 1905, and, much later, Peter the Park Penguin took up residence.

1908, June 4: The rustic tea pavilion opened.

1924, Apr 22: George Loraine, Darlington’s first Labour mayor, opened Skerne Park: a 22 acre lake opposite Blackwell Grange that 250 unemployed men had spent three years digging out. The 1880 lagoon was filled in, and the 12m boating lake, with the Skerne running through it, “sparkled with almost Venetian splendour”.

The Northern Echo: The Pierremont Vase in fine spouting form in 1930

1925, June 10: The Pierremont Vase, a 20ft high fountain with 21 jets of water, was moved from Henry Pease’s former mansion of Pierremont to the park’s Tropical Corner.


1927, June 26: As the Parkside project was completed, mayor John Snaith opened the golden gates for the first time.

The Northern Echo: Roger the dog asking for an ice cream from the Ianarellis' stand in South Park, Darlington

Roger the dog asking for an ice cream from the Ianarellis' stand outside the South Park gates

1930, Dec 23: The boating lake had become so choked with sludge brought by the Skerne from south Durham’s coalmines that James Stephenson drowned in a mudbank.

1933: A two acre extension on Grange Road completed the boundaries of the park, with unemployed men again set to work creating rockeries among the natural springs.

1952, June 26: The Grange Road extension was completed when a rose garden named after WG Chandler, who was chairman of the parks committee for many years, was opened. It had 542 roses in it.

1954: The battle against the coal sludge was lost and the boating lake was filled in with the Skerne running unhindered between grassy slopes, as it does today.

2004: Darlington council spent £3.9m of National Lottery money restoring the park.


The Northern Echo: A classic view of the park in 1896

A classic view of the park in 1896

The walk on Saturday, June 3, will be led by Chris Lloyd and starts at 2pm beneath the Park Lodge clocktower (there is shelter beneath the lodge veranda should it be raining). Everyone is welcome, and Darlington Historical Society suggests a donation of £2-a-person.

The Northern Echo: The Northern Echo's centenary is celebrated in the floral display beneath Park Lodge in 1970

Carpet bedding beneath the clocktower celebrates the Echo's 100th anniversary in 1970


The Northern Echo: Fun with snowballs in South Park, January 3, 1961

Fun with snowballs in South Park, January 3, 1961