“ Contact: Crook Hall & Gardens, Frankland Lane, Sidegate, Durham / Tel: 0191 384 8028 „
Crook Hall is a grade 1 listed Mediaeval hall and gardens within walking distance of Durham city centre. It's famous for it's gardens, and although I do enjoy being outdoors in beautiful surroundings I'm unable to give much information on the types of plants and the kind of detail garden lovers will enjoy as I'm not much of a gardener myself, but I'll do my best to describe it.
Once through the gate, admission is paid at a shed in a garden in which the central feature is a maze. It's planted with cotoneaster and is at about waist height for adults. It looks more simple than it is and it's certainly tricky enough for children to find fun. On my last visit it was raining quite heavily and wood chips had been put down to stop it becoming a slippery mess.
Past here there are a couple of gardens to see before entering the hall. These are called the Secret Walled Garden and the Walled Garden. Climbing plants cover the walls, roses climb up arched trellises, the Secret Walled garden has a bench with the perfect view of the Durham skyline with Durham Cathedral and Castle prominent. The last time I visited I sat here at dusk and felt that it could have been absolute perfection if it wasn't for the fact that there were noisy children, (including my own), running around the garden looking for treasure hunt clues. I'll have to try one of their Summer evening champagne receptions sometime; private bookable events for groups with a talk and question and answer session, before having the chance to explore the hall and grounds for themselves with champagne in hand, sounds good to me, but you need to ring up for prices.
The hall incorporates three eras of architecture; Mediaeval, Jacobean and Georgian. Originally built around 1208 the main hall was restored in the 1980's although one of the wings has been lost to time. Additions were made in the Jacobean era in 1671, and and in 1720 the Georgian House was added. Of course, no good historic building comes without it's own ghost and in this case it's the White Lady who allegedly haunts an ancient wooden staircase. It is a fine building, although not as big as you might expect. It feels more like a house than a hall.
Nonetheless, it's the kind of place with unexpected nooks and crannies, there's a turret room above a spiral staircase, a balcony over the hall which leads to another small room, and all sorts of interesting items dotted around.
The owners have made an effort to make this an interesting attraction for children, so there are several child friendly features, for example on the balcony a note dares visitors to sit in the haunted rocking chairs and an old chest offers another scare, (a mirror).
~The Tea Rooms~
Tea can be taken indoors in one of two rooms or outside in the courtyard. The courtyard is lovely in the right weather, and the rooms are cosy, but there isn't much indoor seating, which is problematic in bad weather. It's a touch pricey, but not extortionately so. Food is served on pretty china crockery, although there are plastic cups for children. One of the tea rooms also has a small shop where souvenirs can be bought.
Some of the gardens are quite recent in design while others have been kept the same for centuries. Special features in the recently designed Cathedral Garden include a Lleylandi topiary cut into arched shapes, whilst the flower beds are meant to represent stained glass. The silver and white garden was created to celebrate a silver wedding and is planted... in silver and white. The Shakespeare garden contains plants which were around in the Bard's day and there are some nice statues in here. There's also an orchard full of old apple trees, a woodland and solar wing garden and a small vegetable garden. At the border of the land is the moat pool and ponds area. There are some nice fish in here and it's a good place to sit on the grass and relax if it's sunny.
There's nearly always something going on at Crook Hall. A list of events that have taken place over the past year includes; fairy tale week, a theatre production, pottery exhibition, art in the garden, bring a teddy day, ghost hunt... the list goes on. There are lots of days aimed at families where the staff get dressed up and there are treasure hunts.
As well as these public events, Crook can be hired for meetings, private group tours and weddings.
~The Halloween Experience~
I last visited on Halloween 2010, for which they did three themed days. We had booked our tickets in advance which was probably just as well for them as the weather was horrendous. I'd had a chat on the phone to one of the staff about Halloween when I bought the tickets and she'd said that most children and plenty of adults attended in fancy dress, so we joined in with the spirit of things and set off; Witch, Zombie and Witch's Cat.
We headed straight for the house where the ghost of the White Lady was hovering about doing ghostly things at an upstairs window. Inside, a witch was entertaining guests in the turret room. This was the best part of the day for my little one. We had to wait a little while in a queue, but there was another 'witch' keeping the children entertained and the corridor was spookily decorated, it felt like a visit to a grotto. Once inside children were invited to search inside the witch's cauldron which was filled with wiggly stuff, to find her an eyeball to eat. Once said eyeball was found, children received a prize - just a Halloween pencil, but the experience was thoroughly enjoyed.
More prizes were to be had in the treasure hunt. A spooky word was hidden in each of the gardens, one in the centre of the maze. Once all words were written on a sheet it could be exchanged for a prize. It was a bit too much for a tired, wet and cold three year old witch's cat who was recovering from a cough, so we sent the zombie out to get most of the clues while we sat in a comfy chair by the huge open fire in the house. After a trip to the tea rooms, we decided to skip ghost stories by the pool as we were all a bit weary so went off to collect our prize for the treasure hunt from a selection of what looked like pound shop reject items, my daughter was quite happy with a plastic spider, a sweet and a witches wand.
It was a fun experience and prices were the same as normal so it was worth a visit.
if it wasn't for the fact that the staff make such an effort with child friendly events, this would be the kind of place enjoyed more by adults or people who appreciate old houses and like gardens. It's quite an odd little place actually, very pretty, but not that peaceful as there are always events and activities taking place. It's best visited in nice weather in order to appreciate the gardens, as lovely though the hall is, it doesn't take long to see.
I was surprised upon visiting the website, (http://www.crookhallgardens.co.uk/), to see that it is still a family home. It's a very atmospheric place and although not spooky when full of visitors, I think I'd find it scary to be alone there at night.
I've visited twice, and would have visited a few more times if it was cheaper as it is in quite a decent central location for me, but for what it is, I think the asking price is bit steep. I might buy a season ticket one year when my daughter is a little older, but it doesn't seem worth it at the moment.
For a one off visit though, I would recommend this if you're in the area. If you have a family I'd suggest going on a themed day as you get to see the house and gardens plus enjoy whatever else is going on too. Various interesting and unexpected features pop up all around the place; statues, fountains, even a gravestone, (for Peter the Peacock). Added to this the unusual architectural mix and individualistic gardens give Crook an idiosyncratic style. I'm sure there can't be anywhere else quite like it.
Prices and Opening Times
Season tickets and group discounts are available. Season tickets are £17 for adults, £15 concessions and it's £39 for a family season ticket.
Crook Hall is open daily between April and September from 11am to 5pm. They also do private bookings as mentioned, and various special events including 'a traditional Christmas' theme throughout December. Special events may not be included in the price of a season ticket. Disabled access is described as 'difficult' on the website, (due to the historical nature of the building), a number is given to ring for advice.
Parking - There is a pay and display car park on site. Unfortunately Durham is not a good place to find cheap parking and it's nigh on impossible to find it for free so it's worth noting that you will pay for parking as well as for admission.