When you get to a certain age and you’ve always enjoyed getting out and about, it becomes ever more difficult to find hidden gems. You’ve done things time and time again and although your favourite places are still enjoyable, you yearn for something new.
A friend who’d spent his working life as a gardener and who now passes the Summer visiting stately homes and the like recommended Thornton Hall as one of the most beautiful gardens he’d come across. This is recommendation indeed because his own garden is so unique and colourful and he’s a person who knows what he’s talking about. He’s turned his own plot into a three dimensional wonder, in fact it’s more interesting than most gardens many times its size. The arches, gazebos, pergolas and arbours positively groan under the weight of blooms and the scent wherever you sit is divine. So when he says a garden is good, it’s time to jump in the car and go check it out.
Thornton Hall is very easy to find, it lies just a couple of miles outside of Darlington which is one of the main railway stations in the north of England. Those who didn’t want to come by car would probably find the taxi fare from the station to gardens very modest indeed. If you do drive there, the car park is free and it would make a delightful place to picnic. It’s lush, well maintained lawn and the view is panoramic and very British, sheep grazing in the fields, military rows of vegetables t’other side and hills in the distance that break up the horizon nicely.
Thornton Hall is privately run and only opens on about eight days during the Summer, the vast majority of them being Wednesdays. We wondered if this would mean it was thronged but it took about two minutes to pay our admission (£6) and there were always available seats scattered around the gardens and the food was served quickly in the canteen.
The courtyard at the front of the house is beautiful and gives you a real taste of things to come. Thornton Hall is Grade 1 listed and a photographer relative who went with us couldn’t get enough of the façade and very attractive fountain in the centre. The Hall was constructed in 1550 which makes it one of the oldest buildings in Darlington. It’s old enough to have been a victim of the window tax of 1696 and it’s thought provoking to see the upper windows largely bricked up to this day.
The gardens themselves I would estimate cover about one and a half football pitches. And my friend was absolutely spot on, they’re simply gorgeous. The borders are deep and packed, the lawn is verdant and the statues, twisted logs and other quirks among the plants extremely complementary. And as a lover of water features I was delighted to see tranquil ponds in both of the main gardens.
Most of the shrubs, flowers and plants we would no doubt have in our own gardens. It was the sheer abundance of them that I found impressive at Thornton Hall. Ladybird poppies with hundreds of stems, hostas of every variety and in their dozens, lupins that I’ve never seen bettered. And arranged in perfection by gardeners who truly know their stuff. I would say these people go beyond just being green fingered, they’re also artists, they have an eye for putting colours and shapes together that produces a synergy. The individual parts are fantastic, collectively they really do make 2 + 2 equal 5. Hats off to them.
We broke up our two and a half hour stay with afternoon tea. I have slightly mixed feelings about the refreshments which are looked after by an outside caterer. The website says the tea is served on a three tiered cake stand. It is ……….. but they only use two of the tiers. That to me is silly and misleading. Thornton Hall frowns upon you taking your own food in and I wouldn’t like to rely on refuelling in the canteen if I arrived with an appetite. It’s £6.50 per person and you need a minimum of two people. The pot of tea just about gives you two cups each which is fine. The slab of carrot cake was definitely adequate. But the sandwiches ! The old joke comes to mind – “how did you find them”? I moved a spoon and there they were. I would have much preferred to pay more and had something less ‘bite size’. I would doubt more than one small slice of crustless bread was used to make each round of sandwiches and nice though they were (salmon and smoked ham) I could easily have eaten ten as opposed to the two on offer. I know it’s afternoon tea, not lunch or dinner, but it was the smallest offering I’ve ever had at an attraction. £6.50 isn’t a fortune when you’ve parked for free and the admission is reasonable. Just be warned that filling up here if you arrive hungry isn’t the best course of action. Adding a scone cost £3, we thought it should have been included on that empty third tier!
We’d arrived late at Thornton Hall due to a hospital appointment running late and we were a bit concerned we’d have to rush seeing the second garden. But the family who own the Hall and garden are laid back and friendly in the extreme. Come 4pm, ‘shotting out time’, we still hadn’t seen it all. But once we saw the Manners having a well earned lager in the middle of this jewel we knew they wouldn’t be calling in the bouncers. We were still there at 4.30pm, leisurely taking in the alpine section which was a real bonus for me. The alpines are at the highest point of Thornton Hall and you get a majestic view of the surrounding countryside from here. Even after outstaying our welcome we were pleased to find the plant sales were still up and running as we left. It’s always helpful to see a plant in situ and then be able to buy it with confidence. The prices were extremely reasonable and most people seemed to be taking advantage of this opportunity.
We went as a foursome and all of us agreed a return is an absolute certainty. We were slightly too early to see the huge variety of David Austin roses in bloom but that’s no bad thing. Leave something for next time is a favourite expression of ours. I would thoroughly recommend these gardens on several fronts, easy to get to, very reasonably priced, not at all challenging for those with mobility issues and above all, absolutely beautiful. We came away with so many ideas and aspirations after seeing Thornton Hall. Quite simply, once seen, you wish you lived there.