Whether you have arrived here from above, through the former Old Durham Farm, or from below from the River Wear, Pelaw Woods or via Maiden Castle Sports Centre, we would like to offer you this QR-code guided tour, on behalf of the Friends of Old Durham Gardens.
To begin, we suggest you walk into the orchard in the lower garden and stand at the far end, by the old riverbank trees on the main axis of the gazebo and steps to get the full panorama of the gardens and hear something of their history. If you have arrived through the Farm, walk down the south side of the gardens, then in through the five-bar gate. When you are in position, read on.
Old Durham is older than the City of Durham. It takes its name from a 2nd century Roman villa or farm that stood on the low-lying ground, south of the gardens. It’s claimed to be the most northerly villa in the Roman Empire! Its ruined bath house must have still been standing in Norman times for it to acquire the name – it was called ‘Old Durham’ in the 12th century. In 1268 there was a manor house here and by 1443 the manor came into the ownership of Kepier Hospital, a wealthy hostel for pilgrims to Durham Cathedral that is still standing today. We don’t know the precise position of the medieval manor house. After the dissolution of the hospital, the whole estate was bought by John Heath I in 1569. It was bequeathed through his family, with Old Durham eventually passing in 1630 to John Heath IV, the man who laid out the surviving gardens here.
Precisely when John Heath IV’s work at Old Durham began is unknown, probably soon after 1630, when he was still living on the peninsula, but he was at Old Durham in 1648. The gardens were most likely completed before he died here in 1665, when he put his initials and date on the door of the gazebo in front of you. The estate passed to his only daughter Elizabeth and her husband John Tempest I, MP for Durham. The gardens probably developed to their fullest extent in the latter part of the 17th century and the early decades of the 18th century. The sketch
shows the garden as it may have appeared around 1730. The manor house lies east of the northern upper garden (now private land). The gardens probably developed from here, south and west over many decades.
The Tempest family lived at Old Durham until 1719 when they moved to Sherburn Hall but still used the gardens into the 1730s on their visits to the city. But by 1748 they were leased as a commercial nursery and by 1776, the manor house had gone. In 1794 the gardens passed by marriage to the Vane-Tempests and in due course, early in the nineteenth century, to the Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, the Marquises of Londonderry. Old Durham became a very small part of a hugely wealthy family’s estate, so it preserved its 17th and early 18th century design without ever being improved.
In the mid-late 18th century the gardens were used for summer music concerts, when (in 1787) it was said that ‘This sweet retirement has become a place of public resort, where concerts of music have frequently been performed in the summer evenings, and the company regaled with fruit, tea, etc’. In the 19th century the commercial nursery continued beside the well-established Pineapple Inn – the white house you can see to the left of the central gazebo. In 1918 both gardens and pub were sold, but by 1926 the Pineapple had lost its licence, but continued to hold dances there between the wars. After the Second World War the gardens gradually fell into decline and disrepair.
In 1985 the City of Durham Council bought the gardens and began an annual conservation and restoration programme over the next fifteen years. This work included three years of archaeological excavation to aid the restoration work. In 1998 the gardens were finally planted up with contemporary 17th and 18th century fruit trees, shrubs and plants, based on the writings of North Yorkshire gardener, William Lawson.
In 1998 the national importance of the Gardens was recognised by their inclusion on English Heritage’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. After the completion of the Garden restoration in 2000, annual maintenance of the Gardens lapsed. In response the Friends of Old Durham Gardens was established in 2010 to arrest the decay, return the Gardens to their neat formality, promote their use and work closely with the new owners, Durham County Council, in jointly managing the site, so continuing to develop the Gardens for public enjoyment, maintaining a tradition that dates back almost 300 years.
Now, look at the sketch here of the gardens as they may have been in the early 18th century. Move to outside the lower walled garden, overlooking Old Durham meadow, where you will see another QR code affixed to a wall.