THE oldest walnut tree in the North-East has been discovered growing quietly in a garden, as it has done for the last 300 years and more.

It is behind the hall of a copper mine king in Middleton Tyas, near Scotch Corner, and with a girth of 550cms, it overshadows the previously known “champion” trees of the area by more than a metre.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The 300-year-old West Hall walnut tree, by Rodger Lowe

The 300 year old walnut tree at West Hall, Middleton Tyas

There are two main types of walnut tree in this country: the English walnut, which originates from Persia, and the rarer black walnut, which comes from North America and has an extremely hard shell.

The one in the grounds of West Hall, Middleton Tyas, was discovered by tree hunter Rodger Lowe, of Teesdale Heritage Trees of Staindrop, and is an English walnut.

“I was splitting some firewood at the hall when the owner casually said ‘we’ve got a big tree in our back garden’, and not expecting anything large, I went and had a look,” says Rodger.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Rodger Lowe of Teesdale Heritage Trees harvesting seed from the UK champion crab apple

Rodger Lowe of Teesdale Heritage Trees of Staindrop

The English walnut’s posh name is “juglans regia”, which may translate as “Jupiter’s royal acorn” because for millennia, man has believed that the walnut possesses godlike properties.

Dioscorides, a 1st Century physician with the Roman army, wrote how walnuts with honey made a cure for poison; walnuts with honey, onion and salt would save anyone bitten by a dog, and, in a breakthrough that could change the world, how a paste of burned walnut kernels ground up with wine and oil and applied to the head would cure any patch of baldness.

The tree is also prized for its timber, with its buttress roots especially popular for making firearms' stocks out of.

“The mighty tree at West Hall is believed to be more that 300 years old and still retains a full canopy despite the ravages of time,” says Rodger. “The farmhouse was built in 1705 and the tree must have been planted rather than self-sown, so it is likely the tree was planted as part of the original garden design.”

It must have been planted, then, by the Hartley family, who owned the village’s largest houses and were starting to exploit the copper reserves on their land. Their West Hall is currently on the market for £1.5m.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

The walnut tree at West Hall, Middleton Tyas, has probably been growing there since the hall was built in 1705

Darlington and Stockton Times: West Hall, Middleton Tyas, is on the market for £1.5m

West Hall at Middleton Tyas is currently on the market for £1.5m

Walnut trees prefer warmer climates than the North-East. Europe’s largest walnut is believed to be in the Galicia region of Spain where it has a girth of 9.05m, and the oldest walnut is also in Spain, in Castille, where it was planted around 1500.

Before the West Hall specimen was identified, the biggest in the area was at Stanwick St John (4.72m girth), followed by Scruton, near Bedale (4.02m), Gainford (3.87m), Ovington (also 3.87m) and Cotherstone, where one with a girth of 3.65m grows in a private garden.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Ovington walnut tree grows in a field to the west of the village, near Cockshot Camp - an earthwork which is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort

The Ovington walnut tree grows in a field to the west of the village, near Cockshot Camp - an earthwork which is the remains of an Iron Age hillfort

There is one black walnut veteran tree in the region. It has a girth of 5.3m and is in the grounds of Danby Hall, a 14th Century country house near Middleham.

“The new find in Middleton Tyas not only takes the North Yorkshire crown for a single stemmed walnut, but probably all Yorkshire’s too,” says Rodger, who has been recording veteran trees for 15 years. “It is believed to be in the top 10 largest English walnuts in the country, which is impressive given its northerly location.”

There is more to the tree than just marvelling at its size and girth – it could have a part to play in re-treeing our countryside.

“We will be trying to beat the squirrels to its nuts this season to bring along some new trees for the future,” says Rodger.

“We have already lost 100m elms to Dutch Elm Disease, and now most of our heritage age trees are ash but now we are going to lose millions and millions of them to Ash Dieback. Teesdale and the Yorkshire Dales are going to look radically different.

“Walnut is being considered as an alternative hedgerow tree, with successful establishment of a row at the Clow Beck Centre near Croft.”

Will the offspring of the 300-year-old West Hall veteran come to plug the gaps in the countryside?

Darlington and Stockton Times: Not only does West Hall have a veteran tree, but it has a sundial. Its motto, "maneo nemine", probably translates as "I wait for no one"

Not only does West Hall have a veteran tree, but it has a sundial. Its motto, "maneo nemine", probably translates as "I wait for no one"

THE West Hall walnut has seen the boom and bust of Middleton Tyas. West Hall belonged to the Hartley family, who had owned land around the village since the 16th Century. As a sapling, the tree would have known Francis Hartley, who owned the hall until his death, aged 35, in 1728.

West Hall then came under the ownership of Francis’ brother, Leonard, the head of the family who had built himself East Hall in 1713.

Copper was found in quarries around the village, but the Hartleys weren’t mining for it in 1742 when a rival landowner, Sir Ralph Milbanke, of Halnaby Hall at Croft, burst into East Hall and found three tons of copper ore concealed in the cellar and buried in the kitchen garden.

Sir Ralph had fallen out with Leonard over land usage. Leonard had threatened to shoot Sir Ralph’s dogs; Sir Ralph had threatened to shoot Leonard’s servants. Sir Ralph waited until Leonard was away at Nottingham races before – probably illegally – forcing his way into East Hall and “discovering” the ore, which he alleged was stolen.

Tyas was awash with villagers being blackmailed or bribed to testify for one landowner against the other, but the case against Leonard was never copper-bottomed enough to come to court.

Having got away with something, Leonard devoted himself to legitimately mining the copper in his land. He sunk scores of shafts around the church, and by 1850 Tyas looked like a Wild West boom town. Up to 400 immigrants flooded in, from Derbyshire and Cornwall, and, fuelled by the village’s 20 pubs, the illegitimate birth rate soared to ten per cent.

The copper seam was said to be the richest in Europe. But it was patchy, and it was troubled by water, and soon a couple of horse engines and a steam engine had been built to pump out the shafts – the remains of a stone engine house can still be seen beneath the church. Momentarily, it was a lucrative industry: in one summer alone, 400 tons of copper was mined and sold at £52 each (that’s at least £10,000-a-ton in today’s values).

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Middleton Lodge on an Edwardian postcard. It was the Hartley's third mansion after West Hall and East Hall

By finding copper, the Hartleys had struck gold: not only did they own and enlarge the West and East halls, but in 1770, Leonard’s son, George, commissioned leading York architect John Carr to design Middleton Lodge for him – it is now an extremely elegant “award-winning hotel, restaurant and wedding venue”.

Yet the boom was a short-lived. When the steam engineer Matthew Boulton visited in 1783, he noted that work had stopped in most of the shafts and that it was “not a practical proposition” to restart it.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

The Church of St Michael and All Angels in Middleton Tyas is surrounded by grassy bellpits, shafts and spoilheaps which are the remains of the copper industry that briefly flourished 150 years ago

Indeed, a new vicar had arrived and ordered that the ugly spoilheaps on the way to the church should be levelled and so today, St Michael’s is approached by a long avenue of trees.

The fields all around still bear the fascinating pockmarks and the mansions still give the nod to a time of great prosperity. If the West Hall walnut could talk, it would be able to tell the whole story.