THE cream of Britain's architects are bidding to design a heritage resource centre for a nationally important historic landscape.

In all, 73 consultants expressed interest in designing a new building for Hardwick Park, near Sedgefield, which is to be restored to its 18th century splendour by Durham County Council.

A competition, organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on behalf of the county council, has whittled down the entrants to a shortlist of six practices who have until November 22 to come up with their designs. An exhibition of their submissions will be held at County Hall, Durham, and in Sedgefield. The winner will be chosen in December.

Hardwick Park is a Grade II* listed landscape and is on the Register of Parks and Gardens on National Importance. The county council has successfully bid for support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and has already received £750,000, with another £4m to be released.

It plans to carry out almost £5m worth of work in the first phase between 2003 and 2006, including restoring the 17 acre main lake that disappeared 150 years ago.

County archaeologist Fiona Macdonald said: "Over the course of two or three weeks, we will be cutting trenches across the dam that held the lake to provide vital clues about its original construction. We will be searching for evidence of a complicated mechanism that allowed foaming water to gush down the face of the dam.

"The Grand Terrace, which was an area for promenading, will also be investigated."