Gareth Dant-Hurworth and Croft, pollitical Divide

PUBLISHED: 14:47 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013

Attractive Hurworth village

Attractive Hurworth village

Hurworth and Croft offer tranquil retreats a short drive from the urban conurbations of Tees Valley. But it wasn't always so peaceful, as Gareth Dant recalls

Hurworth and Croft offer tranquil retreats a short drive from the urban conurbations of Tees Valley. But it wasn't always so peaceful, as Gareth Dant recalls
Cast your mind back to the late spring of 2001. Election fever was building, with the then PM Tony Blair seeking a second term for the Labour government. For the first time in modern history, the two main party leaders represented adjoining constituencies, with only the River Tees between Croft and Hurworth, just south of Darlington, standing between a promontory of Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency and the Richmond, North Yorkshire, stronghold of then Tory leader William Hague. The noble bridge crossing the Tees between Croft, on the Richmondshire side, and Hurworth Place, facing it on the County Durham banks, became a favourite focus for news and picture editors: a symbolic emblem of two sides facing each other across an ideaological and political divide. Big-name journalists more often seen reporting from war zones were despatched north to the banks of the Tees. Standing in the middle of the bridge, where the fourth of seven arches marks the boundary between Yorkshire and Durham, they delivered earnest appraisals of the opponents' prospects. Soon afterwards, the Blairs were able to put the bubble wrap back in the loft, and Mr Hague resigned. Having spent a fair amount of time beside, on and even in the River Tees, it was a delight to be able to get that little bit closer once more. Its waters swollen by receding snow and recent heavy rain, the river was looking pretty broody, but far from full spate that day. As well as providing the very visible border between two counties, the Tees separates the Hurworths (Hurworth Place and Hurworthon- Tees, which merge into a pretty big, drawn-out settlement as you climb the hill to the latter) from the village of Croft-on-Tees. The successor of the old Great North Road, the main Northallerton to Darlington A167, skirts the village before it veers across the river, but there is quite a lot more to the settlement, off that beaten track. These days, Croft is probably best known for the motor racing circuit, built a mile or two up the road on a former RAF aerodrome, but it was once famed for its spa. Supposed health-giving waters were first noted there in the 17th century, and by 1713 the sulphurous spring water was apparently sold in London as a cure for ailments and diseases. A railway station at Croft Spa - long since closed - served the settlement, as did an inn, formerly known as the Croft Spa Hotel and nowadays simply The Croft. The other, fairly significant claim to fame for Croft is associated with St Peter's Church on the banks of the river. The father of Charles Dodgson, pen name Lewis Carroll, was Rector here and Archdeacon of Richmond from 1843 to 1868. Young Charles was 11 when the family moved here. It's said that Carroll's Cheshire Cat in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was inspired by a carving in St Peter's. The tomb of Dodgson's parents lies alongside the church. The old rectory is one of several impressive large private houses around the village of about 500 residents, who have their own primary school. Up the road is Clow Beck House, a B&B born of agricultural diversification that regularly picks up tourism industry awards. Across the river from Croft is a far less fortunate hostelry. The Comet, which we used to look out for as children in the run-up to Christmas because it always had Santa's sleigh parked precariously on its roof tiles, has seen a succession of tenants in recent years. The climb up the hill from the river and over the East Coast main rail line takes you through and out of Hurworth Place. On the right is a building site and large hoarding. Back in late December it was unusual for being one of the few construction sites in the era of the credit crunch with work still going on. The hoarding announces a major development for the area. Rockcliffe Hall, set to open at the end of the year, describes itself as the region's newest luxury country house hotel, golf and spa development. It will have 61 rooms. The early 19th century estate was bought by Quaker banker Alfred Backhouse in 1851.With the help of Victorian Gothic revivalist architect Alfred Waterhouse, to whom he was related by marriage, he set about improving the estate, building the tenbedroom hall in 1863 and the nearby Grange in 1875. The latter is now Hurworth Grange Community Centre. A century later, the estate was bought by the Brothers Hospitallers of St John of God and converted for use as a hospital. After they left, years of neglect followed for the hall and the rest of the site, until Middlesbrough Football Club bought the estate in 1996, building a new training complex for its players, which opened two years later.
Ten years on, the club bought adjoining farmland and announced plans for the region's first five-star golf complex with one of Europe's longest courses. Set in almost 300 acres, the course is surrounded by a horseshoe of the Tees, with three new lakes and eight beautiful reed beds and wetlands. Almost 37,000 trees are being planted. With the golf course and clubhouse set to open in June, applications for golf club membership are now being taken. Venturing further along the road and past the Scurfield monument to George V, Hurworth's magnificent village green opens out in front of you. Lined with a mixture of glorious large homes and smart terraced cottages, it's a lovely spot. But in a grim interlude in its history, it is said to be the final resting place of as many as 1,500 Great Plague victims. Bodies from nearby villages were apparently ferried across the Tees for burial in huge lime pits in the green, the site marked by three large dips. The epidemic almost wiped out the 750-strong local population of Hurworth, leaving just ten per cent to survive. Further along, the Green is also home to Hurworth House - a small independent school, the recently-refurbished Bay Horse pub, and All Saints' Church. As the road narrows again, visitors will find a thriving fish and chip shop and two further pubs: the upmarket Otter and Fish and Emerson Arms. The latter gets its name from the village's most famous son, eminent 18th century mathematician William Emerson.

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