Keith Bell has an admission to make. ‘It sounds silly, but we didn’t realise the extent of the grounds when we moved in,’ he says. It was 21 years ago, and Keith and his wife Maggie were looking for larger premises for their management consultancy. They became the owners of Crook Hall and Gardens, a Grade I-listed building granted to Aimery, son of the Archdeacon of Durham, and passed to Peter del Croke, who gave the property its name. But Keith and Maggie overlooked the gardens bit.
‘Six acres is a lot of ground,’ Keith recalls. ‘We looked at it and thought: “My god, what are we going to do?”’
They enlisted the advice of a horticulturalist from a local college. His advice? ‘He said the best thing would be to put it all to lawn and that way you’d at least have a chance of looking after it,’ Keith says. The couple considered it, then decided to ignore the advice. ‘As some of these grounds have been here for centuries; it seems a bit sad to do that.’
But six acres of grand gardens don’t look after themselves, and can be a costly business. Keith opened the gardens on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours every week. ‘Opening hours are extended now, and seems like we’re open every day of the year,’ Keith jokes.
For Ann Tulloch, who oversees the garden with a colleague and half a dozen volunteers, that requires a lot of work. ‘It’s a whole year-round job,’ says Ann. ‘Where do I start?’ Many of the flowers displayed at Crook Hall are grown and propagated by Ann in the gardens’ greenhouse. ‘We’ve got quite a big greenhouse but it’s never big enough,’ Ann says.
And because the gardens are open throughout the whole year, not just for a three-month period at the height of summer when the flowers are at their finest, Ann’s plant selection is different to many other gardens. Cosmos are commonplace at Crook Hall because they are hardy annuals. ‘They’re so easy to grow and germinate,’ says Ann. ‘Before the flower comes, there’s beautiful leaves and if you keep deadheading it they’ll keep going all season.’
Crook Hall’s gardens are constantly evolving (at one point in the 1960s it was part of a working farm) – all while keeping the character of the home and its 800-year history. It keeps visitors coming back for more year after year. ‘Children and adults have memories of large gardens,’ says Keith, ‘either through stories that have been read to them or through grandparents they visited years ago. The thought of wandering round an interesting garden, rather than just an expanse of lawn, is very attractive to people.’
The gardens are split into individual rooms, including the Shakespeare Garden (focusing on plants and flowers that were grown in the time of the Bard, the history behind them and how they got their names) and the Silver and White Garden, which is filled with snowdrops and crocuses in spring, then taken over by white hyacinths, Dusty Millers and delphiniums as the year progresses.
It’s the latter garden which Ann is walking through as we speak, calling out the various flower varieties as she passes them, and which is the favourite of both Ann and Keith.
But there are plenty of other areas of interest. ‘We’ve carefully designed and engineered it so that each has their own distinct character,’ says Keith. That includes some where the flora and fauna take second billing to the wildlife.
‘A lot of people come in and aren’t even interested in the flowers; photography’s their thing,’ says Ann. As a result she’s developed a buddleia walk, a small area to encourage butterflies that can then be snapped by the passionate photographers.
In all, Keith estimates that his gardening team put in 100 hours each week simply maintaining the garden. ‘You have to,’ he explains. ‘If you’ve got members of the public coming in, you can’t compromise on the standard. I think we could employ twice as many and still be busy.’
As well as the regular visitors, the garden is home to a steady stream of brides and grooms, who carry out their nuptials here, which brings its own challenges.
‘The garden is used for weddings throughout the year which means that we’ve got to have something in addition to the plants,’ explains Ann. ‘You’ve got to have urns full of flowers. I have to have something in the greenhouse ready to use so the next bride has something pretty to look at. You’ve got to keep colour going all the time.’