Backhouse Park is a public space located to the south of Sunderland City Centre. Forming a natural marker between Ashbrooke and Hendon, the park is known for its sloping valley like shape with the Hendon Burn stream having carved its way through it.
It’s easy to assume the history of a park is unremarkable, yet Backhouse Park has quite a story behind it. Named after the 19th century Quakers who once owned the land, it was donated to Sunderland authorities in 1923 and thereafter called “Backhouse Park”. But there is much more to it than that.
The land the park is now situated on dates back to the Middle Ages. In 2013, an archaeological survey found that the upper left hand side of the park bares the marks of a pattern of medieval farming known as “Ridge and Furrow”, a pattern of ploughing whereby land was divided up into a series of strips and the soil was turned over annually, leaving a pattern of small ridges in the field.
Unless the land was drastically upheaved or built on, many of these medieval patterns have became a permanent feature of fields, and such survives in Backhouse Park. As a farm, it is hypothesized that it was a property of the nearby township of Tunstall, which was part of old Bishopwearmouth. The survey found considerable evidence of these ridges, although some of them have now been covered by trees. The Hendon burn stream would have made it a very useful place to grow crops.
By the early modern era, the area of Backhouse Park and the surrounding valley had gained the nickname of the “Valley of Love”, as its view was one of the most romantic areas in Sunderland (no Hendon housing estate existed then) with a clear view of the sea. At around this time, the land was acquired by the Backhouse family in 1835, who built a house on it (known as Ashburne House) and a small garden. This created the Park in its present form, then known as “Ashburne Park”. A small art college also operated in the house.
The park soon became condensed as the town of Sunderland and the suburb of Hendon rapidly grew up around it. From being a wider extension of a spacious valley, Backhouse Park is now an enclave of natural beauty within a wider span of housing. But also, we learn from this it is a snapshot into the past. Next time you are in the park see if you can spot the Medieval farming patterns to its upper left hand side. Sometimes the past is hidden in plain sight!