THE North-East's own version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is to be straightened - thanks to a £4m National Lottery grant.

Work began yesterday on the first phase of a multi-million pound scheme to restore one of County Durham's most important 18th Century parklands to its former glory.

Durham County Council announced it has received further vital funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to enable it to start work in earnest on a ten-year scheme to restore the Georgian gardens at Hardwick Park, near Sedgefield, to their former glory.

One of the key jobs, which the grant of just over £4m will fund, is to correct the tilt on the park's own leaning tower so that the stone-built structure can be saved and rebuilt to its full height.

The landscaped gardens at Hardwick were created in the 1750s by acclaimed architect James Paine, but many of the features he designed and built now lie in ruins or are partially lost to a tangle of undergrowth.

The large ornamental lake disappeared in the 1860s and a mock-Gothic tower is now only half its original height and leaning about four inches from the vertical.

As part of the restoration project, the council wants to rebuild the tower to its full height of 50ft.

Hardwick Park project officer Catherine Grezo said: "It would be neither safe nor practical to rebuild the tower without correcting the lean or providing proper foundations.

"So, as happened with the famous bell tower at Pisa, we have called in specialist engineering consultants to advise us on the best way forward.

"Our solution will be different to that being employed at Pisa, and will involve the injection of precise amounts of special structural resin into the ground directly beneath the sagging wall."

Other aspects of the first phase restoration will be to excavate and restore the ornamental lake, and restore the Temple of Minerva, the Gothic seat, the Grand Terrace and the circuit walk.

A heritage resource centre, car park and new entrance are also included in the first phase work, together with measures to conserve and enhance the park's ecological value.

Park is a classic of its age

THE park at Hardwick Hall was created between 1754 and 1757 and was considered to be one of the finest examples of 18th Century design in County Durham.

The owner and rebuilder of Hardwick Hall, John Burden, spared no expense in achieving his ambition of changing his 150 acres of estate into a park containing all the fashionable buildings of the day.

Celebrated architect James Paine was appointed and the buildings he produced included a banqueting house, temple, grotto, bath house, Gothic seat, Gothic ruin and rustic stone bridge over a newly-created serpentine lake, in which stood a statue of Neptune.

Durham County Council bought the site, excluding the hall, in a severely dilapidated condition, in 1972.

The authority began restoring the park with grant aid from the Countryside Commission, but repeated approaches over the years to a number of specialist bodies and local businesses for help towards the cost of restoration were unsuccessful.

It was only when the park won Conservation Area status ten years ago that grant aid from English Heritage allowed the council to turn its attention to rebuilding the Serpentine Bridge.

Now, the injection of millions of pounds from the National Lottery will enable the complete restoration of the parkland.