Darlington is to get a new public park, which is going to preserve a centuries old pleasure ground plus a unique tree, a Grand Fir, which stands head and shoulders above all the others and may be a product of a wealthy Victorian game of oneuptreeship.

The good news comes with a compromise: 44 executive homes are to be built just outside the pleasure ground’s old boundaries with the loss of a number of important trees.

Darlington council granted itself planning permission a couple of weeks ago to build, in conjunction with Esh Homes, the homes on the “Blands Corner Triangle” of the Blackwell Grange estate which wraps itself around the hotel.

Three-quarters of a million pounds from the house-building is to be used to restore the Georgian parkland that was created by the Allan family.

The parkland first took shape between 1690 and 1710, when George Allan, a wealthy salt dealer from Yarm, cannily withdrew his investment from the South Sea Company before its bubble burst and lost many investors their fortunes. He used his surviving fortune to build the Grange as Darlington’s pre-eminent mansion with grounds to match, perhaps laid out by fashionable designer Capability Brown.

Blackwell Grange in the 1850s surrounded by trees

Blackwell Grange in the 1850s surrounded by trees

An old track, called Mill Lane, provided the southern boundary of the parkland, beyond which were fields that had been tilled for centuries – their ancient ridge and furrow undulations can still easily be seen, and stumbled over, in what is now called the “Blands Corner Triangle”.

At the estate’s lowest point, a rectangular feature pond was dug more than 300 years ago, and the developers have been due to start work on it this week. A spokesperson for Esh Homes said: “As part of the parkland restoration, the original fishpond will be increased by approximately one third of its current size and it will be enhanced with rushes, reeds and pond flowers. We are currently unaware of any remaining stonework in the pond. However, if we uncover stones during our intrusive works, we will consider a plan to retain and reuse.”

The first period of the parkland’s history came to an end on January 19, 1790, when James Allan died. He had inherited the Grange in 1785 and, as Borough Bailiff, was effectively Darlington’s first citizen. The Victorian historian William Longstaffe described him as “the crossest and sternest man who ever lived”.

Longstaffe also says he died on “a day rendered memorable in the annals of the parish in consequence of a terrific storm, which tore up trees by their roots, and shook the Grange and Darlington to their foundations”.

The terrific storm gave his successors the opportunity to redesign the parkland to suit their early 19th Century tastes. Over the previous 100 years, pleasure gardens had become less formal and more naturalistic with strategically placed clumps of trees creating vistas.

The feature fishpond on the Blackwell Grange estate dates back 300 years

The feature fishpond on the Blackwell Grange estate dates back 300 years

As the 19th Century wore on in Darlington, the Quaker industrialists rose to prominence, and their modern mansions had gardens stocked with the latest, rarest plants which rivalled the Grange. Indeed, the Anglican Allans often found themselves in opposition to the puritanical Quakers.

Which brings us to the Giant Fir that stands beside Carmel Road. It is next to a Victorian out-building which is due to be demolished, and it is by the ancient ridge-and-furrow fields which are to have executive homes built on.

Looking Back stumbled across the ancient undulations to have a look last week in the company of botanist Fal Sarker from the Darlington & Teesdale Field Naturalists Club which has surveyed every tree in the parkland. Storm Isha had just blown through and it was as if the trees were holding their breath ahead of the arrival of Storm Jocelyn – a long horizontal carcass of a veteran tree felled by Storm Arwen a couple of years ago is a reminder to them all that one day they too must topple.

The Grand Fir has a beautiful outline and stands much taller than all the other trees – its only rivals in terms of prominence are the two fake trees just over the road that are, in fact, mobile phone masts.

Botanist Fal Sarker, with the pectinate leaves of Darlingtons only Giant Fir at Blackwell

Botanist Fal Sarker, with the pectinate leaves of Darlington's only Giant Fir at Blackwell

The Grand Fir was discovered growing on the west coast of America in 1830 by the Scottish botanical explorer David Douglas who sent the first seeds back to Britain.

“Because of its magnificent shape, it got its name Abies grandis – the Grand Fir,” said Fal. “When the cones are up in the tree, it looks like a fantastic candelabra. It is the only one that I have found in Darlington.”

It appears to be a contemporary of the specimen trees planted by the nature-loving Quakers: in South Park are a pair of Sequoiadendron Giganteums (Giant Redwoods) planted in 1863 which are in the British Tree Council’s Top 10 trees in the country; the Backhouses’s Rockliffe mansion at Hurworth was famed for its pinetum and collection of oaks while the Peases’ Pierremont attracted excursionists from across the region to see its exotic shrubs.

“Perhaps there was a competition between them,” says Fal. “At the time, trees were the treasure of an estate. The Quakers had the Sequoiadendrons but the Giant Fir would have marked Blackwell out as something different, something special.”

Campaigners and botanists were concerned that the Grand Fir was to be one of 44 important trees in the Blands Corner Triangle that are to be sacrificed to the house-builders, but Esh told Looking Back: “We can confirm that the Giant Fir – situated behind the greenkeepers shed on Blackwell Lane – will be retained and become part of a rear garden for one of the new homes.”