TODAY, the gardens of Haughton-le-Skerne, “the Montpelier of the North”, will be open to visitors to raise money for the village church which celebrates its 900th anniversary next year.

Haughton, on the eastern edge of Darlington, has long had a reputation for being a healthy place to live, apparently because it stands on free-draining gravel and sand. Its inhabitants 200 years ago were so renowned for their longevity that the village gained a nickname linking it to the healthiest place in Europe.

The entrance to Haughton from Darlington, across a bridge over the Skerne, with St Andrew's Church on the left

Montpellier in the south of France, where residents enjoy a Mediterranean lifestyle of sun and wine, has the oldest medical school in the world and the oldest botanical garden – where health-giving herbs were discovered – in France. Therefore, a couple of centuries ago, whenever a builder was developing a new salubrious suburb, he named it “Montpelier”. There are Montpeliers in the US, Australia, Canada and South Africa, plus Bristol and Brighton. When Cheltenham opened up its first health-giving spa in 1808, it was in the town’s new “Montpelier” district; when Harrogate opened its first rejuvenating plunge pool in 1835, it was called the “Montpellier Baths”.

And so Haughton became “the Montpelier of the North”.

A plan, showing the gardens which are open in Haughton this afternoon

Indeed, so wholesome was it that in 1845, the artist William Bewick, his health shot to pieces by hanging around in the draughty Sistine Chapel, was recommended to live there by his doctors.


Bewick – who should not be mistaken for the even more famous wood-engraver Thomas Bewick from Northumbria – was born in Blackwellgate in 1795. By selling his artwork in the town, he amassed £20 which paid for him to travel to London to study and to win commissions.

In 1827, Sir Thomas Lawrence, president of the Royal Academy, helped fund his tour to Rome by giving him 100 guineas to copy Michelangelo's Prophets and Sybils in the roof of the Sistine Chapel. The copy was to be Sir Thomas’s gift to the Academy so every young artist could study the masterwork.

Haughton green in 1949

Bewick paid for scaffolding 60ft high to be erected inside the Vatican chapel, and then he climbed to the top of it to do his painting.

However, Pope Leo XII didn’t like the smell of the paint, and insisted that all the windows in the chapel should be kept open while Bewick was at work that winter.

By the time Bewick got home, he found Sir Thomas had died in his absence and his works were no longer eagerly anticipated. Sir Thomas’s executors sold them quite cheaply.

Then rheumatism set in, apparently caused by working in the chilly Roman winter with the windows open, and his doctors suggested he retire to the “Montpelier of the North”.

As his wife Elizabeth, who had the maiden name of Quelch, was also a Darlingtonian, this was no great hardship, and he settled in Haughton House, on the green.

Next to it is an old out-building, possibly once a granary, which became his studio, and for 22 years until his death, there he carried out his commissions for his local, wealthy industrialist clients.

William Bewick's doorknocker, drawn in 1904 by George A Fothergill, is still on his studio property overlooking the green

When he died in 1866, he owned much property at the east end of the village green, and he is buried in the churchyard. His studio is now a Grade II listed building because of its connection to him – it still has a doorknocker with his name on it.

In Bewick’s day, healthy Haughton was at its most fashionable, and many of the properties around its village green had been upgraded.

White Hall and Sundial Cottage on the left of this 1900s picture. They are two of the gardens open today

Two of those properties are among the five which are opening their gardens today. They are neighbours White Hall and Sundial Cottage.

White Hall dates back to at least 1542 but around 1791, it had its grand Georgian frontage put on.

In its garden is a ginkgo biloba tree. Fossils date the gingko back 290m years and once it covered the planet, but two million years ago, something changed and it retreated to the Far East.


Appropriately as one specimen still grows in the Montpelier of the North, its leaves are believed to have health-giving properties, and it plays a major role in Chinese medicine.

The Georgian frontage on White Hall means that it has grown into its neighbour, Sundial Cottage, which has at its core a medieval smallholders’ cottage. There is no evidence there has ever been a sundial on Sundial Cottage – the name may well be a Georgian affectation – but today a garden arranged as an accurate sundial, with a bush as a gnomon, has been laid out.

A mid 1960s view of Haughton green

The garden of Walnut, a modern cottage on the north side of the green, as well as the garden of Howard Cottage, an 1889 property at the Bewick end of the village, are also open tomorrow, along with the grounds of the gardener’s cottage of Butler House.

Butler House in Haughton-le-Skerne is Darlington's oldest residential building, here drawn by George A Fothergill, 1904. Its gardener's house is one of the gardens open to the public

Butler House, once the home of the rector of Haughton, is Darlington’s oldest domestic building, perhaps dating back to Rector Reginald in 1131. It gets its name because it was restored and enlarged by Bishop Joseph Butler – as a young cleric, he had been sent to live there but was so appalled by its derelict state, that he got transferred to Stanhope. When he became Bishop of Durham in 1750, he paid for its restoration.

It is opposite St Andrew’s Church which was begun in 1125 and so is Darlington’s oldest church. It, too, is open for visitors.

The gardens are open from 1.30pm to 5pm. Admission is £5, and tea and refreshments will be served in St Andrew’s Church Hall.

St Andrew's Church is the oldest in Darlington and is 900 next year

PEDANTS’ CORNER: Montpellier in France spells its name with two ls, but 200 years ago when the craze of naming places after it took hold, someone mis-spelt it so most places outside France are “Montpelier”.

Haughton School in 1970. It closed in 1971 and was demolished. Now a memorial garden is on its site

ALSO as part of the National Open Gardens Scheme, next Sunday, July 14, the Gardens of Carmel Road South in Darlington are available for inspection between 11am and 5.30pm.

Six gardens are taking part for the first time in the scheme. One is a newly laid out garden, and two are pretty large with great views over the Tees.

Admission is £6. Homemade refreshments are available in Dene Lodge, Linwood Grove, and the postcode DL3 8DR should get you there.

An Edwardian postcard looking east along Haughton green