This weekend, 20 gardens in the historic village of Croft will open their gates to the public to raise money for the parish church and to allow visitors to have a look at their plants and also to drink in their past of whiffy waters and fake castles.

Gardens in two of the village’s terraces are available for inspection. These properties were built to accommodate visitors who came to drink, and even bathe, in the eggy, farty water which can still be found gushing out of the ground at a constant 51 degrees.

The water’s alleged medicinal properties cured every malady that could possibly afflict man. An early 18th Century advert claimed it would be efficacious against, “ulcers, scrophulous tumours, nervous pains, deadness in the limbs, cramps, scurvey, jaundice, ricketts, loss of hearing, blindness, stranguary, bloody flux, surfeits, crapulas and asthma”.

The Terrace, where the gardens are open, was built in 1820

The earliest of the terraces, called The Terrace, was built in 1820, at the start of the spa boom, with South Parade and Monkend Terrace following in the 1870s as the railway age brought travellers from great distances to board in the guesthouses and bathe in the waters.

But it will be when next weekend’s visitors crunch down the gravelly drive to the 600-year-old Croft Hall that they come face-to-face with the start of the spa story.

Croft Hall in 2014

By the 15th Century, the hall was the base of the Clervaux family, whose forefather had invaded from France with William the Conqueror, but by the first half of the 16th Century, they’d run out of male heirs, so Elizabeth Chaytor married Christopher Chaytor, of Butterby, near Durham, and the surname of the owners of the hall changed.

However, the Chaytors have often fallen out over which one of them should own the hall. For example, in the 1660s, Agnes decided that she, rather than her brother Sir William, should have inherited it.

She was, complained Sir William, “allwaies studying ways to torment me” in order to gain possession of the hall.

Croft Hall on an Edwardian postcard

Her third husband, Sir Francis Liddell, of Bamburgh Castle and Redheugh, who had been a major in the Royalist army during the English Civil War, decided to take matters into his own hands and in 1664, he hired a gang of Newcastle colliers, dressed them up as soldiers and pretended to march them to Hull on the king’s business.

They just happened to be marching through Croft when Sir William was away in Darlington and so the fake soldiers captured the hall on behalf of Dame Agnes.

Sir William got a court order from York Assizes ordering their eviction and, with his brother Nicholas, he crawled into the hall through a cellar window and drove them out.

In the gardens of Croft Hall

Such antics got Sir William into great debt, which he passed onto his son, another Sir William. This Sir William tried to make money out of leadmining in the Yorkshire Dales and coalmining in his south Durham estate at Witton Castle.

“Horse racing and horse breeding were a constant source of hope, and his failure to sell his horses a constant source of regret,” said his biographer, MY Ashcroft.

With his cousin Anne pursuing him through the courts for money, he tried to get his eldest son, Henry, a lucrative army career, but that went wrong when the garrison of soldiers Henry was in charge of at Limerick in Ireland became involved in a drunken riot. Henry was dismissed and then drank himself to death, aged 31, in Croft.

Sir William Chaytor (1639-1721), who spent the last 20 years of his life in a debtors' prison trying to make money out of spa water

So many creditors were after Sir William that in 1701, he was arrested and thrown into the notorious Fleet debtors’ prison in London, where he remained for the last 20 years of his life, trying desperately to make money to get himself released.

His wife, Peregrina, moved down to London to be with him, so one of his tenant farmers, John Croft, moved into Croft Hall to manage the estate.

He “packed up crates and parcels of home brewed ale, pots of honey and other delicacies from the country to cheer the old man and despatched them by sea from Stockton,” says Ashcroft.

Throughout his imprisonment, Sir William thought the eggy, farty waters of home were his best hope of finding a fortune. In a field called “Stinking Pitts”, lame horses made miraculous recoveries when they stood in the sulphurous spring water, so bottles of it were sent to Sir William to distribute and sell in London. He drew up adverts to promote them, telling how they not only cured crapulas and cramps but also “vapours, historick and hipocondiack, gouty pains, sweld legs after fevers, venereal maladys, opens all obstructions, helps conception and causes chearfulness”.

Sadly, the people of London failed to fall for such quackery, and Sir William, still broke, died in the debtors’ prison in 1721.

His descendants, though, also thought there was money in water, and 100 years later, another Sir William struck gold: drilling down 26 fathoms (156ft) he hit an aquifer out of which the famous water gushed at such a rate, he was able to build a spa bath in which people could immerse themselves in it. This led to a large hotel and terraces of boarding houses as Croft soaked up the custom that the water brought.

Clervaux Castle, built by Sir William Chaytor on the edge of Croft in the early 1840s and demolished in 1950

Sir William was now so wealthy that he decided to abandon Croft Hall and go and live in a mock-Norman castle he had built in parkland just outside the village.

Clervaux Castle was constructed in the early 1840s to the designs of Ignatius Bonomi, the great Durham cathedral architect who also designed the Croft Spa Hotel. It had six square towers, 12 bedrooms and four reception rooms, and featured a main staircase apparently from Newcastle Mansion House and panelling from Ripon.

It looked mightily impressive, but it was a fake: for all its enormity, it was only one room wide.

Clervaux Castle, shortly before its demolition in 1950

And it must have been expensive to run. In 1931, another generation of Chaytors gave up on it and returned to Croft Hall. They offered to let the castle for £2-a-week plus rates, and then even rent-free, but no one was interested.

The army requisitioned it during the Second World War and when the family got it back in the late 1940s, it was very leaky. They put it up for sale, and although there were rumours that British Rail was going to turn it into a regional headquarters, it was sold to Baharie Bros of Sunderland who demolished it and used the stones to make roads.

Sadly then, its parkland is lost, but the wonderful gardens of Croft Hall, cherished by the Chaytors for centuries, are open along with many other horticultural highlights in this historic spa village.

South Parade, where gardens are open, was built to accommodate spa visitors

  • Croft-on-Tees Open Gardens on Saturday and Sunday, June 15 and 16, from 10.30am to 5pm. Lots of parking, and entrance by wristband to be bought from the village hall for £7 per person (children under 12 free). Refreshments will be available in the village hall, and there will be a Lewis Carroll exhibition in St Peter’s Church.


The old school in Croft, and the schoolhouse on the right, were built by the Venerable Charles Dodgson

CROFT-ON-TEES’ other great story is its connection to Lewis Carroll, the second most quoted author in the English language after William Shakespeare.

He moved into the village in 1843 as an 11-year-old boy when his father, the Venerable Charles Dodgson, became rector.

One of Mr Dodgson’s first acts was to have the first village school built at his own expense of £900 on a piece of church land.

It opened on October 7, 1845, with Mr Dodgson stipulating that the first teachers, Henry and Sarah Hobson, who lived in the adjoining schoolhouse, should teach the four Rs: reading, riting, rithmetic and religion. Sarah also taught needlework to the girls.

Villagers, though, were opposed to sending their children to school because they were more lucrative working in the fields, but Mr Dodgson won them round, and each of the two classrooms – girls and boys – had 60 pupils in it, three to a desk.

Parents paid 2d a week to send one child to the school; 3d for two and 4d for three or more.

The Venerable Charles Dodgson, father of Lewis Carroll, who built Croft school in 1844

The rector’s son, also Charles Dodgson but known to the world by his Alice in Wonderland penname, taught occasional lessons, and on New Year’s Eve 1856 performed a magic lantern show, including specially written songs, for 70 children in the school.

Since 1974, children have been taught in the modern school next door and Mr Dodgson’s old school has become a private home, but its gardens are open for the first time next weekend.

In the gardens, there is said to be a stone that has been worn away in two places by generations of schoolchildren sharpening their pen knives on it during breaktime – the top depression is said to have been made by the older children while the younger children copied lower down the stone. Times have indeed changed.