A look behind the scenes at Lambton Estate as it opens its grounds to the public
Lambton Estate has thrown open its gates to the public for the first time in 40 years – but what else is going on behind the walls?.
Around 15km of new footpath has been created as part of an ambitious plan to restore the estate to its former glory.
The scheme was granted planning permission more than four years ago and includes the construction of a community hub including retail and leisure space, and a significant increase in office accommodation.
The work has been funded by the building of new homes on the estate.
Miller Homes is building the first development and interest has been high, as Calum Gillhespy, of estate managers GCS Grays, explained.
He told the Echo: “Miller Homes has permission for 100 market homes and six affordable ones.
"What is encouraging is that since the restrictions have been lifted, they have sold more than they did before.”
Calum believes the surge in interest may be a result of the coronavirus lockdown, with people looking for somewhere they can work from home and still get out and about in the case of another wave of infections.
"They are big houses – most have room for a home office – and they have access to the park, which is fantastic,” he added.
However, increased interest in the houses means the clock is ticking on the rest of the project.
Work to restore the estate – including the castle itself, the listed stable and byre and the imposing Lamb Bridge – was a condition of planning permission being granted in the first place, and the timetable is tied in to the sale of the new developments.
Calum continued: “We have to find a sustainable use for the castle, stables and byre prior to occupation of the 150th house, then we have to have implemented that prior to occupation of the 300th house.
"We would expect that to be in about five years’ time.
“We have to bring the castle, stables and byre back into use. They, along with the Lamb Bridge, are the biggest projects.”
Other work will include improvements to around 67 estate properties, including the homes of former staff.
The aim is to return the estate to how it would have looked when it was first laid out in the early 1800s and restore the original sight lines.
"There were originally three estates – Lambton, Harraton and Biddick – then, through marriage, the three were unified over a number of years,” Calum explained.
The original Lambton Hall, on the other side of the river, was demolished and the new one built on the site of Harraton Hall.
Unlike many stately homes of the time, where the grounds were laid out after the house had been built, Lambton was developed the other way around.
Calum continued: "The estate was designed on the picturesque principle. The landscape was designed and then the buildings were put into it.
“There is a landscaping plan to return the estate to its picturesque origins and estate staff have been working on that for a number of years.
“Very much the ‘money shot’ of the time was coming here in your horse and carriage, crossing the Lamb Bridge and having your first view of the castle.
"The aim is to reopen the bridge to vehicular traffic."
That, however, will present its own challenges.
The valley sides are falling into the river, slowly compressing the bridge and forcing it to rise in the middle.
Monitoring is under way to measure the extent of the problem and is expected to continue into next year.
Funding will come from the development of more houses on the estate, as well as increased office space and the creation of a new community hub to serve people living and working on the estate.
"The plan is to have more office space and a community hub with a cafe and retail space,” Calum revealed.
"The plans are for a building which will have retail space on the ground floor, a separate cafe and two floors of office space. We will be hoping to submit a planning application for that later on this year.
“There will be about 750 people employed on site and what we want is to build a real community hub for the estate. It is very much independent retailers, rather than chains, that we want.”
Calum is hopeful the scheme will get planning permission on the basis of the progress of the work so far.
"We have got a good relationship with the council because we have delivered what we said we would do,” he added.
Part of that has been transforming the estate’s former stud farm into a new base for Northumbria Police’s mounted division, which includes an office, kitchen, bathroom and shower, and stabling for nine horses.
Force dogs from both Northumbria and Durham Constabulary are also trained on the estate.
Pc Joanne Watson is impressed – and so are the horses.
She added: “They can stay outside overnight and be proper horses. They come back from patrol and go straight out into the field, which they love.”