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Hardwick Park, also known as Hardwick Hall Country Park, is in the borough of Sedgefield, County Durham, just off the A177. In the 18th century the Hardwick Estate was home to one John Burdon Esquire who employed a leading architect to design a fashionable pleasure park. Over time the park fell into decline but in 1999 local residents began a restoration project with help from lottery funds and the County Council. I discovered Hardwick Park last year after a recommendation from a relative and have since visited several times.
There's a sizable fee free car park at the entrance, as well as a visitor centre, a cafe and a children's play area, but the main body of the park is based around a circuit walk of about a mile long.
Visitor Centre, Cafe, Play Area
The visitor centre contains an exhibition room with information panels, films and leaflets about the park, as well as more engaging interactive exhibits such as a microscope with specimens, an animal sounds identifier and a model reproduction of the Serpentine Bridge found in the park. I liked how on one visit the member of staff in the visitor centre was keen to show us how good he was at rebuilding the Serpentine!
Behind the visitor centre is the toilet block. These are big but lack the coldness of many public toilets with lots of wood and a warm, clean, well maintained feel.
The cafe is reasonably priced, clean and the service has been both efficient and friendly on my visits, (although in summer the ice cream queue can get rather long, particularly if you arrive at the same time as a group on a school trip). The food is mainly light bites and snacks. You can get quiche and salad for around £4, soup and a roll was £2.70 and there are jacket potatoes, hot paninni, wraps, toasties and so on, as well as a selection of cakes and pastries. My Mum, who visited us for a week recently and ate out almost every day, claimed her toastie at Hardwick Park cafe was the best meal out she'd had all week! There's a small but delicious selection of ice cream flavours available. Tea for two is £2.05 and the cups are warmed, a lovely cup of tea. There are crayons and colouring sheets available to keep children happy.
The children's play park is small and aimed at preschool age children with a couple of swings, a train and a climbing frame/slide. The equipment is made predominantly from solid wood which looks nice and is in good condition. There's a bench and a picnic table in here too. It's in a fenced off area with trees and feels separate from the rest of the park.
All the facilities have disabled access and most areas of the park are wheelchair accessible. I have been around the park with a wheelchair user and there were no issues to speak of, there may be a couple of mild slopes, but nothing major. At a couple of points paths diverge into either a slope or an 'avoiding slope' path.
The circuit walk takes in a river and ornamental lake. There are a few different paths so that walks can be tailored for those who wish to take a short stroll rather than do the full circuit. There is also a circular route for cyclists and a horse riding route. You can stick to the main path or go wandering off through woods and minor footpaths, these include a boardwalk across the fen carr which is a nationally important habitat. An information board near the entrance shows a map of the available routes.
The first features to strike the eye are the statue of Neptune which stands in the river and the 'gothic ruin' nearby. I was interested to discover that this mock ruin re-used stone from a real ruin - that of 14th century Guisborough Priory, apparently it used to be common practice for stately homes to raid ruins for the building of follies. There are a variety of water birds around; coots, moorhens, swans and various types of duck, food can be bought for them in the cafe. Interesting features and tricks of perspective abound with ornamental buildings, sham ruins, and sculptures around every corner. There's a definite Alice in Wonderland feel to the walk.
The park was designed so that a fresh view would suddenly be sprung upon the visitor. This is particularly effective on a sunny day as the 'Temple of Minerva' suddenly appears on the other side of the lake. It's around the halfway point when the Hardwick Hall Hotel comes into view on the right. These days what was once John Burdon's stately home is open to the public for afternoon teas.
Whilst the bigger buildings and stonework are obviously part of the restoration project there are also other items of interest, sculptures and artwork which seem likely to be more modern additions. There are odd pieces of white painted furniture dotted around, such as a table and chairs with seats that decline in size, carriage steps leading to a door that opens into the air and an easel opposite a particularly paintable view. These all have quotes on them, but unfortunately several of them are showing signs of wear and being attacked by rust. Some wooden sculptures in the woods have fared better - an elf like woman and an intricately carved chair.
Other features include the Gothic Seat which stands on what is known as The Grand Terrace facing away from Hardwick Hall and looking out over the lake. There are plenty of benches along here to have a rest and take in the view. Then there is the dam with cascade opposite the remains of what was apparently meant to be a love nest; the Bono Retiro.
A couple of sites - the Bath House and Banqueting House, have not been restored although there are, (or perhaps given the current economic climate 'were'), plans to restore the Bath House as the next project, at a cost of around £750,00.
On the same side of the lake as the Temple of Minerva, most people go up close and peer in the windows, there's a picnic area and then the woods through which you will find the Serpentine bridge which leads onto a path back to the visitor centre.
There is a visitor code to ensure the upkeep of the park which includes the following: people are not allowed into the water or to fish; dogs are allowed but must be kept on a lead and cleaned up after; barbecues are allowed only in the Temple Field picnic area.
Various events take place in the park at different times of year; guided walks, children's activities, theatre - this year there was a performance of Snow White. The Council web page gives information on forthcoming events and activities. The park has Green Flag and Visit Britain rose marque awards.
I'm impressed with Hardwick Park, it's been well planned and thought out, brilliantly designed, although much of the credit for that must go to the original architect James Paine, I wonder what he'd make of the fact that the park is open to all and sundry two hundred years after he designed it?You may need blue skies to make the most of it, but Hardwick Park is a must add to any Durham visitor's itinerary.
Hardwick Park Sedgefield County Durham TS21 2DN Tel: 01740 621 505
The visitor centre opening hours are 10am to 4pm, the cafe is open later in summer, opening times for the park are listed as either 6 or 7am until dusk.