DARLINGTON is to get a new public park, which is going to preserve a centuries old pleasure ground and will include four fairly modern specimens of a redwood tree that is critically endangered in its native China.

It is great and exciting news, but it comes with a compromise: 44 executive homes are to be built just outside the pleasure ground’s old boundaries with the loss of a number of important trees.

Campaigners and botanists had feared that one unique tree, a Grand Fir, which stands head and shoulders above all the others and may be a product of a wealthy Victorian game of oneuptreeship, was facing the chop. However, the developers have this week told Memories that the tree will not be coming down.

Darlington council granted itself planning permission a couple of weeks ago to build, in conjunction with Esh Homes, the homes on the “Blands Corner Triangle” of the Blackwell Grange estate which wraps itself around the hotel.


Three-quarters of a million pounds from the house-building is to be used to restore the Georgian parkland that was created by the Allan family.

The Northern Echo: Blackwell Grange in the 1850sBlackwell Grange, surrounded by the trees, in the 1850s

The parkland first took shape between 1690 and 1710, when George Allan, a wealthy salt dealer from Yarm, cannily withdrew his investment from the South Sea Company before its bubble burst and lost many investors their fortunes. He used his surviving fortune to build the Grange as Darlington’s pre-eminent mansion with grounds to match, perhaps laid out by fashionable designer Capability Brown.

An old track, called Mill Lane, provided the southern boundary of the parkland, beyond which were fields that had been tilled for centuries – their ancient ridge and furrow undulations can still easily be seen, and stumbled over, in what is now called the “Blands Corner Triangle”.

The Northern Echo: The feature fishpond on the Blackwell Grange estate dates back 300 yearsThe feature fishpond on the Blackwell Grange estate dates back 300 years

Close to the boundary, at the estate’s lowest point, a rectangular feature pond was dug more than 300 years ago, and archaeologists hope that some of its original stonework may lie buried. The developers are about to investigate – they need to get going before any great crested newts begin breeding in the spring.

A spokesperson for Esh Homes told Memories: “As part of the parkland restoration, the original fishpond will be increased by approximately one third of its current size and it will be enhanced with rushes, reeds and pond flowers. We are currently unaware of any remaining stonework in the pond. However, if we uncover stones during our intrusive works, we will consider a plan to retain and reuse.”

The Northern Echo: Looking up the drive to Blackwell Grange Hotel where probably three of the famous avenue of lime trees planted in the 18th Century surviveLooking up the drive to Blackwell Grange Hotel where probably three of the famous avenue of lime trees planted in the 18th Century survive

In the decades after the pond was dug, an avenue of lime trees was planted on the driveway leading up to the mansion, and it appears that three of them survive on the approach to today’s hotel.

Then on January 19, 1790, James Allan died. He had inherited the Grange in 1785 and, as Borough Bailiff, was effectively Darlington’s first citizen. The Victorian historian William Longstaffe described him as “the crossest and sternest man who ever lived”.

Longstaffe also says he died on “a day rendered memorable in the annals of the parish in consequence of a terrific storm, which tore up trees by their roots, and shook the Grange and Darlington to their foundations”.

The terrific storm gave his successors the opportunity to redesign the parkland to suit their early 19th Century tastes. Over the previous 100 years, pleasure gardens had become less formal and more naturalistic with strategically placed clumps of trees creating vistas.

The pond still appears to have been central to the design, and maps show that it had a new feature added nearby which was simply labelled as “bath”. Although bath-houses were fashionable on big estates, the “bath” is very small – surely the Allans could not have had an outdoor plunge pool, and if there was a very fancy birdbath, it won’t get a mention on a map, so what could it have been?

As the 19th Century wore on in Darlington, the Quaker industrialists rose to prominence, and their modern mansions had gardens stocked with the latest, rarest plants which rivalled the Grange. Indeed, the Anglican Allans often found themselves in opposition to the puritanical Quakers.

The Northern Echo: "The Victorian carriage shed" at Blackwell Grange is more of an agricultural building."The Victorian carriage shed", as it is known locally, or the "greenkeepers shed" as it is also called, on Carmel Road is due to be demolished. The Giant Fir is behind it

Which brings us to the Giant Fir that stands beside Carmel Road. It is next to a Victorian out-building which is due to be demolished, and it is by the ancient ridge-and-furrow fields which are to have executive homes built on.


Memories stumbled across the ancient undulations to have a look at it on Tuesday. Storm Isha had just blown through and it was as if the trees were holding their breath ahead of the arrival of Storm Jocelyn – a long horizontal carcase of a veteran tree felled by Storm Arwen a couple of years ago by the drive a reminder to them all that one day they too must topple.

The Northern Echo: Darlington's only giant fir which Memories has learned this week is no longer at riskDarlington's only giant fir which Memories has learned this week is no longer at risk. It has a younger Corsican Pine growing through it. Behind it is an artificial tree that is really a mobile phone mast

The Grand Fir has a beautiful outline and stands much taller than all the other trees – its only rivals in terms of prominence are the two fake trees just over the road that are, in fact, mobile phone masts.

The Grand Fir was discovered growing on the west coast of America in 1830 by the Scottish botanical explorer David Douglas who sent the first seeds back to Britain.

The Northern Echo: Botanist Fal Sarker, with the pectinate leaves of Darlington's only giant fir at BlackwellBotanist Fal Sarker, with the pectinate leaves of Darlington's only giant fir at Blackwell

“Because of its magnificent shape, it got its name Abies grandis – the Grand Fir,” says Fal Sarker, a field botanist with the Darlington & Teesdale Field Naturalists Club who has studied all the trees of Blackwell. “When the cones are up in the tree, it looks like a fantastic candelabra. It is the only one that I have found in Darlington.”

The Northern Echo: The Giant Redwood trees in Darlington’s South Park. Picture: STUART BOULTONA Sequoidendron Giganteum in Darlington's South Park

It appears to be a contemporary of the specimen trees planted by the nature-loving Quakers: in South Park are a pair of Sequoiadendron Giganteums (Giant Redwoods) planted in 1863 which are in the British Tree Council’s Top 10 trees in the country; the Backhouses’s Rockliffe mansion at Hurworth was famed for its pinetum and collection of oaks while the Peases’ Pierremont attracted excursionists from across the region to see its exotic shrubs.


“Perhaps there was a competition between them,” says Fal. “At the time, trees were the treasure of an estate. The Quakers had the Sequoiadendrons but the Giant Fir would have marked Blackwell out as something different, something special.”

Campaigners and botanists were concerned that it was to be one of 44 important trees in the Blands Corner Triangle that are to be sacrificed to the house-builders, but Esh told Memories this week: “We can confirm that the Giant Fir – situated behind the greenkeepers shed on Blackwell Lane – will be retained and become part of a rear garden for one of the new homes.”

There are many other tree treasures in the new park, but the other stand-out ones come from a different era. The Allans’ time at the Grange came to an end in 1953 when Sir Henry Havelock-Allan died and the mansion and estate were bought by Darlington council for £37,000. Rather than allowing houses to spread across the green acres, the council allowed golfers, and the parkland evolved so that it was no longer so much about the fair views from the mansion (which became a hotel in 1967) but more about the length of a drive down a fairway.

The Northern Echo: The four dawn redwoods with the Blackwell Grange Hotel behind themThe four Dawn Redwoods with the Blackwell Grange Hotel behind them

Yet four specimens of Metasequoia glyptostroboides – Dawn Redwood – have been planted in a clump close to the mansion in this recent period.

In arboricultural terms, this tree is the missing link between two conifer families, Taxodium and Redwood. Botanists knew this deciduous redwood had once been common across much of the planet from fossils that dated back 100m years, but they presumed it had been wiped out in the Ice Age.

But then, in 1941, a traveller in central China spotted people leaving offerings at a shrine beside a tree known as the “water fir” because it liked moist soil. On examination, it turned out to be the missing link and its seeds were sent to Kew Gardens.

In Hubei in China, its main home, only 5,371 specimens were counted in 2009 meaning that in the wild it is critically endangered, but it has taken so successfully in estate gardens in the west that it was hailed as “the tree of the century” for its extraordinary comeback from extinction.

“The four trees here have been deliberately planted close to the house so the people inside could see that in winter when it loses its leaves, its bark turns a beautiful reddish colour – which is how it got its name ‘dawn redwood’,” says Fal. “It really does need to be protected.”

There is only one other Dawn Redwood in Darlington. It is beside the former Arts Centre in Vane Terrace with a “save me” notice on its trunk. It was a seed from Kew planted about 60 years ago by Ada Radford, a founder of the Durham Wildlife Trust, a member of the naturalists’ field club and the head of biology when the Arts Centre was a teacher training college.

It is the same size as the Blackwell four, so it is guessed that they come from the same biological experiment – how else could they have come from China and ended up on a municipal golf course?

The Northern Echo: Scenes on Carmel Road in 2018 that caused outrage in the town

The creation of the new parkland is partly a response to the “butchers gate” of 2018 when townspeople were shocked by the wanton felling of mature trees at Blackwell Meadows for housing.

“We are delighted by the saving of the Giant Fir and thank Memories for your involvement,” said Michael Green, a campaigner with the Parkland Heritage Network which was formed out of the shock, “but we are still very disappointed that about 44 category A and B trees, as identified to be retained by the council’s own ecology officer, are going to be cut down.

“I think that when the felling happens, there will be an outcry.”




The Northern Echo: The protest at Carmel Road South, Darlington, against the felling of tghe trees.....Picture by Paul Norris.