Some unusual variations on show in town

Beechfield (left) & The Willows.'Picture Roger Hawkins
Beechfield (left) & The Willows.'Picture Roger Hawkins

There are three basic types of town house, at least two of which go back to Roman times: Courtyard houses, garden houses and strip houses. Today we look at garden houses and strip houses, and at some rather unusual variations on them here in Morpeth.

Garden houses are for the rich so there were only ever about a dozen of them. Two of the finest, Southgate and The Kylins, have gone. I was in Southgate only once and don’t remember much about it, but when Castle Morpeth Borough Council moved into The Kylins, the remains of the kitchen garden were clear to see, with greenhouses built against a south-facing wall, and on the opposite side of the house, a green ‘room’ surrounded by a dense hedge.

A more modest example is Greystoke, in Howard Road. Enjoy it while you’ve got it. It may not be there for long.

The garden house normally stands in the midst of its garden, which in turn is surrounded by a wall or hedge. You enter by a gate, and, if the size of the grounds permits, approach it by a curved drive, known as a sweep.

Morpeth, however, has something different. The two red-brick houses next to the library in Gas House Lane – Beechfield and The Willows – are garden houses in the grand style. But, as with all of Morpeth’s back-to-front houses, everything is the wrong way round.

What you see from the road is ugly and in need of a make-over. Not so the garden front. There you have battlemented roofs, miniature gables and fine ranges of windows, and the gardens are beautiful, with green lawns and ornamental trees.

Wouldn’t it be a great thing for Morpeth if this unusual and distinguished matching pair of houses could be saved and new uses found for them?

Alec Tweddle researched their history for his Town Trail for Morpethians, No. 8. They were built in about 1855 by two friends. Nicholas Wright, a timber merchant, built Beechfield House, and George Brumell, solicitor, The Willows. Each house had three reception rooms, five bedrooms, a bathroom, two kitchens, and stables and other outhouses. “The owners,” says Mr Tweddle, “made use of their roomy houses and extensive ornamental gardens for external activities. At The Willows in 1895 were held the Amateur Orchestral Society Garden Party and Concert, as well as Morpeth Flower Show; in 1896 a Military Band Concert took place.”

At Beechfield, ‘in 1910 the Boys’ Brigade held a dance; in 1911 an al-fresco concert was given with the YMCA Male Choir, Bates’ Band and T.Payne and his violin; in 1915 parties of ladies knitted comforts for the troops; and in 1919 a dance was organised on behalf of the Golf Club.’

The county council bought the two properties in 1930. After a period of indecision, when they were both nearly demolished, The Willows was used as a centre for the unemployed, with classes in carpentry, hairdressing, etc, as well as jumble sales, concerts, whist drives, boxing and keep-fit, and the garden was divided into allotments. During the war, ‘Beechfield was used as a First-Aid Centre and Air-Raid Precautions Headquarters (in a reinforced room on the ground floor), while the Red Cross took over The Willows, holding garden parties there to raise funds for their Association and for parcels for Prisoners of War, and for giving home nursing lectures.’

After the war they were used by the Employment Committee and School Grounds Department, and in 1952 became the County Library headquarters. In 1958, the coachhouse, wash-house and cottage belonging to Beechfield, which stood where the front of the library is now, were demolished to widen the road. The library itself was built in 1966.

The sheltered bungalows behind The Willows are more recent. This very pleasant development, also called The Willows, was opened by the Chairman of the Regional Health Authority in 1995. Its gardens, complete with a family of mallard ducks, make a calm and peaceful retreat, overlooked by the splendid garden fronts of the two houses.

Strip houses were for tradesmen. Roman York had them, and in the medieval period the same thing was known as a burgage plot. In either case the most valuable part was the street frontage, where you had your shop.

When Morpeth was founded, it was laid out in burgages. And, just as in a market you want your stall to be well forward, so in medieval Morpeth the houses were built right up to the building line, which they still are in the main streets to this day.

A new kind of the strip house appeared in the late 19th Century – the terraced house. Whether from habit or economy, some developers still built right up to the building line. Howard Terrace, the south side of Howard Road for those not familiar with Morpeth’s peculiar geography, is an example. The houses are commodious, but have no front garden.

Those on the Thorp Estate (Hood Street to Thorp Avenue) are in most cases smaller, but do have front gardens. This is as it should be. They are purely residential so privacy is more important than fronting onto the street.

Then, at about the same time, something rather odd began to happen. In fact, two rather odd things. One was the propensity of builders in this area to build single rows of houses rather than whole streets, and the other the provision of long front gardens – the reverse of the traditional burgage plot. Greystoke Gardens is a classic example. This beautiful terrace stands on the north side of Howard Road. It has its own numbers, which have no reference to those of Howard Terrace across the street, nor to the rest of Howard Road. And instead of the house being up-front, or just set back a little way, it’s at the far back, leaving only enough room for a comparatively small drying area behind.

This is found very frequently in Morpeth, most notably in the Middle and East Greens. Residents and postmen there will know exactly what I mean. Some streets are perfectly ordinary, with odd numbers one side and even the other. But others are just terraces, each with its own street name and its own series of numbers, neither of which bears any relation to the one on the other side of the road or footpath. And they all have long or at least good-sized front gardens. It was clearly the intention of the builders that the principal entrance should be on the garden front. But what you have is really a back garden – in most cases a very lovely one – with a front door. I suspect that residents use the ‘back’ more than the ‘front’, but the people in Crawford Terrace have arrived at the best solution of all. They have a front door both sides.