The market town of Darlington is rooted in Medieval times, but was built up in the 19th century by two families wealthy Quaker families, the Peases and Backhouses.
They spearheaded projects like the Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825), the first public line in the world to use steam locomotives, and donated monuments like the clock tower and market hall, which remain centrepieces of the town.
The lush South Park in Darlington is also Victorian, and was the first urban park to be planned in the North East of England.
There’s much to see without leaving the borough, at the glorious Raby Castle, endowed with a serious art collection, and around the countryside, which is peppered with Iron Age, Roman and Medieval sites.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Darlington:
1. Raby Castle
Ten miles to the northwest, Raby Castle needs to be seen if you have a car.
It’s one of the northeast’s outstanding Medieval castles, built by the powerful Neville family in the 14th century.
In the early 15th century Raby Castle was the birthplace of Cecily Neville, mother of kings Edward IV and Richard III. The castle is still a private home, belonging to the Vane family but welcomes visitors Wednesdays to Sundays in the summer.
The interiors are a journey through the ages, from Medieval to Victorian.
The Vane family has accumulated an astonishing array of art, by Old Masters like van Dyck, Luca Giordano and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The castle has adorable walled gardens, a 200-acre deer park and a fine collection of horse-drawn carriages at its coach house.
2. Head of Steam
Darlington’s captivating railway history is recounted at this museum at North Road station, on the route of the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
The museum goes into depth on the North Eastern Railway (the forerunner to the current East Coast Main Line), covering the rail industry in Darlington and the story of the Stockton Darling Railway.
The obvious must-see is George Stephenson’s Locomotion No.
1, which pulled the first train on the line on 27 September 1825. This is one of four locomotives on display, the newest dating to 1919, while there’s a highly detailed model of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, interactive exhibits and restored period architecture in the entrance hall and ticket office.
3. South Park
Darlington takes pride in its municipal park, straddling the River Skerne just south of the town centre.
South Park was landscaped in 1853, and as with a few projects in Darlington at this time, funding was provided by a Quaker family, the Backhouses.
When complete South Park was South East England’s first Victorian Park, and has just been given a multimillion pound Heritage Lottery Fund renovation.
The park has an aviary with parrots, a bandstand hosting performances all summer, a lake, cafe, updated play areas and a skate park.
The formal flowerbeds have also been enlarged with new rose, rock and sensory gardens.
The castle-like Park Lodge is a delight, and close by is a cannon from the Siege of Sebastopol (1854-55) in the Crimean War.
4. Market Hall
Alfred Waterhouse, who designed London’s Natural History Museum and Manchester Town Hall, was the man behind Darlington’s Town Hall, which opened for trade in 1863. The market is open every day except Sunday and is somewhere to shop for fruit and vegetables, flowers, locally reared meat, cheese, pastries, jewellery, vinyl, fabrics and hardware.
Some of these stalls have been in the same families for more than 50 years , while there’s a friendly cafe out front on the square.
The hall has free Wi-Fi and in 2018 was scheduled for a refit to help it meet the needs of 21st-century shoppers.
5. Clock Tower
Soaring over the market hall, the neo-Gothic Clock Tower is Darlington’s main landmark.
It was commissioned in 1864 by Joseph Pease as a gift to the town, and takes its design cues from the Italian Gothic with alternating bands of brick and stone, four turrets and pointed arcading beneath the clock.
The clock face was the work of the York-based instrument firm T. Cooke & Sons, while the tower’s original bells were cast at the foundry of John Warner & Sons in Stockton.
This also produced Big Ben for Elizabeth’s Tower at the Houses of Parliament in London.
6. St Cuthbert’s Church
One of the most significant Medieval churches in the North of England, St Cuthbert’s was begun in 1180 and mostly completed around 1240. If you’d like to take a peek inside, the church opens every day from 11:00 to 13:00 between Easter and September.
You won’t regret it, as there’s a load of historic detail to see.
The font is made of Frosterley marble and was fashioned in 1375, on a base from 1200. The oak cover is the tallest on any font in the country and was carved in 1662. The nave roof has the oldest roof beams in County Durham, dating to the 13th century, while from the same period is contemporary stone depiction of Henry III, who visited Darlington in 1260. Finally the misericords in the choir are 15th century, and in one strange image there’s a bearded man asleep, wearing only his boots!
Also in borough, Piercebridge is a village about six miles up the River Tees from the centre of Darlington.
As well as a picturesque piece of rural County Durham, Piercebridge has riveting ancient history as the site of a Roman fort and bridge.
The excavated remains of the fort are in the village green and open to visitors.
Across the Tees, on the south bank you can examine the ruins of the Roman bridge, safeguarded by English Heritage.
the course of the river has changed so much since Roman times that the bridge now sits a full 90 metres from the water.
8. Darlington Hippodrome
For a bit of light entertainment in the evening look no further than the opulent Darlington Hippodrome.
This theatre was built for music hall performances (similar to vaudeville) and partly funded by the Italian impresario Rino Pepi who was a prominent figure in live entertainment in the North of England at the time.
The building, with a brick and limestone facade and a saddle roof like a Chateau, was completely restored in 2016-17. The programme at the Darlington Hippodrome is diverse, staging ballet, opera, plays, musicals live broadcasts from events like the Last Night of the Proms, comedians, tribute acts and Christmas pantomimes.
9. Tees Cottage Pumping Station
When it was up and running in 1849, the Tees Cottage Pumping Station transformed how water was supplied in Darlington.
In a town that up to this time had relied on collected rainwater and wells, the engines pumped clean plentiful water through pipes from the River Tees.
In and around this grand neo-Gothic hall there’s a beam engine (1904) and gas engine (1914), as well as Lancashire boilers dating to 1902, a miniature railway and a blacksmith’s shop.
The Tees Cottage Pumping Station is a real industrial-age wonder, but opening times are irregular so it’s worth checking their website before making plans.
10. Thornton Hall Gardens
Like the Tees Cottage Pumping Station, these sensational gardens only open on specific dates in the spring and summer months.
But you can call ahead to arrange a visit all through June and July.
You’ll know why you made the effort when you see Thornton Hall, a splendid manor house constructed in the 16th century.
The two walled gardens have been preserved in the Elizabethan style, with rare perennials and surprising trees and shrubs in mixed herbaceous borders.
The gardens are rick auriculas, roses, clematis and tulips, and have a separate kitchen garden as well as ornamental and wildlife ponds.
Moments along the road from Piercebridge is a farm on the site of an abandoned Medieval village.
Between the 1200s and 1500s Ulnaby was a toft village, made up of small, densely packed farms (tofts). It’s not hard to see the indentation the streets, houses and their plots made on the land.
Ulnaby was abandoned when the land was turned into pasture instead of arable farms, while its manor house was replaced by hall, now part of Ulnaby Hall Farm.
The farm offers guided tours of the site of the village, and if come with kids there are tractor rides on weekends and a “kiddies’ corner” with a play area and animal paddock home to ponies, donkeys and guanacos.
12. Walworth Castle Birds of Prey
The Grade I-listed 16th-century Walworth Castle is a stately Renaissance mansion built in the 16th century to resemble a Medieval castle.
Over the last century the house has been a prisoner of war camp in WWII and a boarding school, but is now a hotel.
In the grounds is a nature preserve for birds of prey, open Friday to Monday.
You can come for the visitor centre, looking around the aviaries at falcons, hawks and owls, and watching flying displays (two are scheduled each day). Birds of prey experiences are available, like owl encounters, falconry courses and hawk walks.
13. Paddock Farm Water Gardens
A garden centre with a twist, Paddock Farm doubles as a visitor attraction for its six lovingly designed water gardens.
Awash with streams, ponds, waterfalls, fountains and other water features, each of these tranquil gardens has its own character and has been created to inspire gardeners.
The big draws are the Mediterranean and Japanese gardens, with herbs and terracotta pots in the first, and sturgeon, koi and a Buddha in the latter.
There’s also a walled Gothic garden with gargoyles and a nature pond inhabited by ducks.
For littler visitors there’s a playground, and you can pick up a treat or light meal at the tearooms.
14. Stanwick Iron Age Fortifications
In the North Yorkshire countryside not far west of Darlington you can see the earthwork remains of a once epic fort.
This was the powerbase and trading hub for the Brigantes tribe, which held sway in Northern Britain in the centuries before the Romans arrived.
The site is managed by English Heritage, and you won’t need much imagination to picture what these ramparts would have looked like over 2,000 years ago.
Even now, the earthworks are up to five metres tall and encompass more than 700 acres, completely surrounding the village of Stanwick St John.
15. Drinkfield Marsh Nature Reserve
Lying between residential and industrial areas is an eight-hectare wildlife reserve around a lake favoured by wildfowl in the winter months.
Later, in spring an array of birdlife breeds and nests on the banks of the lake, including little grebes and reed warblers.
There’s a willow pier running through the reedbeds and out onto the water, offering a complete “duck’s eye” view of the habitat.
You can also follow a tangle of walking trails through the reserve’s scrub, woodland and wildflower meadows, using interpretation boards for insights about the marsh’s wildlife.