“AT the west end of the village of Gainford, there is a many-gabled mansion, known as the ‘Old Hall’,” began a long article in the Darlington & Stockton Times exactly 150 years ago this week.

The article told how the Jacobean hall, with its Scooby-Do silhouette of towering gables and sky-scraping chimneys, had long been a favourite subject for art lessons at the Gainford Academy on the green.

“It was sketched from every point of the landscape, and was picturesque in all,” says the article in the edition of February 4, 1871. “From the other side of the river, especially, it formed a fine feature in the general view of the village, and a close inspection of the edifice reveals its peculiarities of style.”

By happy coincidence, in March 2021, restoration work will begin on the hall which has been empty for five years and is on Historic England’s At Risk register. The work, by Raby Estates, is being funded by 79 houses which are to be built later this year in a field to the north of the hall.

“The builder of the hall was the Rev John Cradock DD, who in 1594 was appointed Vicar of Gainford and whose descent, and somewhat remarkable career, deserve attention,” said the D&S with great understatement.

Dr Cradock was one of the most controversial and possibly corrupt clerics of his day, arrested by his enemies mid-service in Durham Cathedral and perhaps murdered by his own wife who had become fed up with his intrigues – so a truly remarkable career.

Gainford Hall in August 1955 - it hasnt changed much since then

Gainford Hall in August 1955 - it hasn't changed much since then

The author of the D&S article traced Cradock’s ancestors back to the splendidly-named Hullerbush, near Barnard Castle, in 1415, after which the family acquired pockets of land all over the North-East. Cradock himself hailed from Baldersdale, in upper Teesdale, and went to Oxford University to study divinity. His first appointment was as vicar of Woodhorn in Northumberland but he acquired several other parishes, including Gainford, Heighington and Northallerton, which increased his income.

He may have intended to make Gainford his base and, according to the date over the door, began building the hall in 1600. It looks out towards the Tees across fields in which there are lots of curious lumps and bumps. These could be the remains of a castle, or manor house, that belonged to the powerful Bishop Anthony Bek, of Durham, in the late 13th Century.

Inside Gainford Hall last summer, taken by Jack Lawson on an open day

Inside Gainford Hall last summer, taken by Jack Lawson on an open day

Architectural historians are very excited by the lay-out of Cradock’s hall. It wasn’t just thrown up, as buildings tended to be in those days, but it appears to have been planned on paper. They speculate that it could have been designed by Robert Smythson, the master mason who worked on Longleat, the Marquess of Bath’s stately home in Wiltshire. Smythson is regarded as one of the first English architects and is known to have worked on many country homes.

Cradock moved into his new home in 1603 before the staircase and the upper floors were complete. In fact, he never got round to completing the hall. Perhaps he ran out of money, or perhaps his interests moved on…

In 1617, Richard Neile became Bishop of Durham. He had a large, conservative entourage around him – the Durham House Group – which held great influence over the church in London and which attempted to dominate life in Durham. Cradock became part of that group. He was a Justice of the Peace overseeing secular life and, in 1619, was appointed Spiritual Chancellor to the bishop. He was now living in Durham, and so Gainford was just one of his several residences, although perhaps the only one without a completed upper storey.

He was also deeply controversial. He was accused of extortion, speculation, fraud, taking bribes and forging an excommunication.

The D&S article tells how on May 28, 1621, the MP for Newcastle, Sir Henry Anderson, presented a petition to the House of Commons outlining Cradock’s misdeeds, particularly his habit of using his powers as a JP to break into people’s houses and ransack them. In one ransack, Cradock was accused of making off with goods worth £1,000 (that’s about £300,000 in today’s values).

How the D&S Times told the history of Gainford Hall in its edition in the first week of February 150 years ago

How the D&S Times told the history of Gainford Hall in its edition in the first week of February 150 years ago

As he walked the streets, children shouted at him: “Cradock! Cradock! You stink like an old haddock!”

Perhaps irritated by these childish jibes, at 9pm on December 22, 1625, Cradock’s sons attacked the house of his main accuser, solicitor John Richardson, in The Bailey in Durham. They slapped one of Mr Richardson’s men on the face with a ruler, drawing blood, and then kicked and punched him. They banged and crashed on the doors and windows, and “frighted” Mr Richardson’s wife.

Three of Cradock’s sons are believed to have been fined £50 each for the incident and imprisoned in the notorious London prison at Fleet. Their father somehow got them released.

Richardson bided his time for revenge. On January 19, 1627, as Cradock, dressed in his surplice and hood, was processing down the aisle of Durham cathedral, Richardson and a gang of legal friends – an attorney and an under-sheriff – jumped out from the pews and served writs upon him, calling him to court to account for his crimes.

They could have served the writs on him at any of his houses, or in the streets, but they clearly cooked up a plan to cause him maximum embarrassment.

But the plan backfired. Cradock had friends in high places, and Richardson was arrested for contempt of the holy cathedral.

The Bishop of Durham, said the D&S article, “evidently attached no importance” to the contretemps, as shortly afterwards Cradock was made vicar of Northallerton and so acquired another comfortable vicarage.

He didn’t get to enjoy it for long as he died on December 28, 1627, in his vicarage at Woodhorn. “His domestic life had not been happy,” said the D&S. “He died of poison, which it was suspected that his wife, Margaret, administered to him.”

Margaret, the mother of Cradock’s eight children, came from Wensleydale, and was arrested for murder.

“On being brought to trial, however, she was acquitted of the charge,” said the D&S, which finished its article by saying how Cradock’s sons had gone on to prosper – one, Thomas, became MP for Richmond and to this day, his home of Cradock Hall overlooks the church from the foot of Frenchgate.

Gainford Hall, without a wealthy vicar to finish it, didn’t really prosper, and it became the home of tenant farmers. It was largely untouched as the centuries went by, and in 1846, it was described as “dilapidated”. Fortunately, its owner, the Duke of Cleveland, had the renowned Scottish architect William Burn remodelling Raby Castle, and he did some restoration work at the hall in the late 1840s.

Because the hall has escaped for so long without successive owners lavishing a fortune on it and changing it to suit the fashions of their day, it is regarded as a remarkable survivor – even if it is on the At Risk register.

“Much of the restoration work involves the roof and we need to be doing that during the spring and the summer,” said Duncan Peake, the chief executive of Raby Estates, as he told Looking Back that work should begin in March. “As restoration works go on, we will look at future uses of the hall. It is a Grade I listed building and whatever future use has to be sensitive to the heritage significance.

“It is a building that is quite peculiar. The intention was to have a top floor in the attic, but that never got built.

“Residential is one of the obvious options, and a hotel or guesthouse is one option, but because of the internal arrangement that would be quite challenging: there’s no hallway, and every room on every floor links with another room.”

Although the application to build the new houses in Gainford has been controversial, it is great that at last the colourful Cradock’s 400-year-old hall – and its neighbouring dovecote – is going to be restored.