We first see Middlesbrough’s Avenue of Trees in the work of Kip and Knyff published in 1707 though possibly drawn in the late 1690s. It’s a picture of extraordinary modern wealth stamped right across the landscape; a newly-built brick manor house facing south with formal gardens and fish ponds in front of it – and stretching out towards the viewer at the front of the engraving a double row of trees, pacing across the grassland one by one.
Its inclusion in the book ‘Britannia Illustrata’ depicting an epic 80 best-of-the-best gardens in England of the time is testament to the newly acquired wealth of the owners, Sir William Hustler (knight) and his wife Anne, not least because it cost £10 to be included.
It was a new age of change. The landscape around the Hall had been huge open arable fields and wildflower rich pastures dotted with scrub open to all to walk across was now being Enclosed – divided by hedges into individual private farms in pursuit of a richer, more comfortable life; for some but not all. There is, in one of the rooms in the Hall, a painting of the Hustlers with Dame Anne carrying a then fashionable and rare guinea pig and the ceilings of the Hall are noted for their skilful decorative plasterwork. It is the only Grade 1 listed building in Middlesbrough, although technically it has been longer in the village of Acklam than it has the new upstart town of Middlesbrough, in which it is now a suburb.
We next see the Avenue of Trees in the vast 4 m high oil painting of the manor of Acklam dated 1716 which can be found in the Dorman Museum http://www.dormanmuseum.co.uk/galleries/the-lordship-of-acklam-plan/ – the gardens have changed slightly, or rather aged as gardens do, and there is less money now to look after them so they are less elaborate but the Avenue remains, striding out as two lines of equally spaced single trees across the arable fields until it meets Low Lane, then the main route into the area for anyone visiting.
Puzzlingly, when we next see the area on the OS maps from 1853 the Avenue is halved, stopped at what is now Acklam Road making us wonder if it ever did reach right down to Low Lane. Was that map in oil-paint a big fib?
If we look closely and know what to look for, we can see there is evidence in the map to prove it did reach Low Lane. That short hedgerow at a different angle to the rest of the hedgerows making a tiny field is only there because Lord Hustler acquired the land so the Avenue could reach Low Lane. You can see how it lines up with the end of the remaining trees of the Avenue.
No point being rich if visitors don’t know exactly how rich, and that initial glimpse of the Avenue was like putting up a signpost saying my land starts here and don’t you forget it.
And the Avenue of Trees is still there today – much beloved of the many local people who walk their dogs. In the recent past it was usually found heaving with a mass of children migrating randomly towards one of the four secondary schools in the immediate area, only that was a time when we walked to school and before the schools were surround by high security fences.
None of the trees left now are original, nor are any placed in exactly the same places they were in 1680 after the Hall was built: The Avenue of Trees that it was originally is now no longer there and hasn’t been for more than a century, only the idea of domination over the landscape remains as intended, planted, felled and replanted, and that is reduced by more than half.
The original bits – still there if you know what to look for – are a wildflower, pignut, that would have grown exactly there when the area was a medieval grazing moor, and bracken, a creeping fern which would also have lived in the area for far longer than the any of the trees or even the idea of an avenue. Any gorse (whin) or broom around will be direct descendants of those once found in Broom (yes actual field name, now a 1940s housing estate) or nearby Whinney Banks (ditto but currently being rebuilt) and you won’t be surprised to know that none of these local plants are protected, celebrated or even noticed for what they are.
The Avenue of Trees is now part of an official conservation area but protected alongside the trees is an idea; that we should value the changes a wealthy landowner made to the landscape, marking out his territory at a time when common land was divided up amongst the wealthy into private hedged fields and so preventing ordinary people from roaming freely as they once could across an open medieval landscape rich in wildflowers. And the trees we see today that bring that idea to life aren’t even authentic, not even the progeny of the originals but, on the whole, different species entirely. The pignut is genuine, the bracken, the gorse and the broom are too, but everyone is aspirational now and trees and more trees are still seen as better and more important than the wildflowers that have always been present through the ages, a direct link to the landscape of Acklam’s medieval past.
I mean, we can actually value both but we don’t, do we?
The changes to Acklam Hall, the current one plus its medieval timber-framed predecessor, and the surrounding landscape have mirrored the ups and downs of landowner finances over the last 1000 years and, as such, that of England: It is currently a restaurant, with rooms in the attic rented to small businesses, and surrounded by a newly-built housing estate, though the view from the first-floor windows remains of an Avenue of Trees, just not the original Avenue of Trees.