This attractive market town in north east England is a sight for sore eyes.
It’s situated in the lush green countryside of Teesdale, County Durham, just north of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Barnard Castle town has soft grey stone buildings which add to its charm – weavers’ cottages, farmhouses, shops and former wool and carpet mills. The clear waters of the River Tees flow contentedly around its feet.
‘Barney’ has a special place in my heart. It was the location of our annual family summer holiday, which I always looked forward to with great excitement as a young child. As soon as we drove through the town and over the old County Bridge, I knew we were nearly at our destination: the East Lendings Caravan Park, which still exists today.
The roads leading to the caravan site were only wide enough for one car, and had high hedges on either side. We had to drive at a snail’s pace in case another car came towards us. When this happened, it would require a tricky manoeuvre of edge-to-edging and hedge-brushing. This was definitely one of my early experiences of slow travel! But these last-minute delays to our arrival only served to heighten my sense of anticipation.
The caravan site is situated in a perfect spot south of the river. I used to love fishing for tiddlers with my Dad, and exploring the woods. Being country-born himself, Dad always knew the names of the wild flowers, butterflies and birds we encountered, few of which I had ever seen at home in Tyneside.
This area of County Durham is in the north Pennines, so the river has to navigate its way through the rolling hills and moors. As a result, there are some stunning gorges and waterfalls to see in Teesdale, such as High Force and Low Force. It’s great hiking country – the 92-mile Teesdale Way passes through the area.
The ruined castle dates back to Norman times. It was founded by Guy de Balliol, a Picard baron, on the site of an earlier fortification. Guy’s nephew Bernard subsequently extended the castle, which became known as ‘Bernard’s Castle’ – hence the name of the town.
Over the centuries, the castle has been fought over and seized by various people including the Bishop of Durham and members of the aristocracy. It was eventually sold into private hands in 1626, and was subsequently abandoned by its owners who decided to live in nearby Raby Castle instead. English Heritage are the current custodians, and the castle is open to the public.
Various well-known literary, artistic and public figures are known to have visited Barnard Castle. Charles Dickens spent time in the town while carrying out research for his novel ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ in 1837. The Morritt Hotel, which now occupies the building in which he stayed, has commemorated the event by naming its bar after him.
Other literary visitors include William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Daniel Defoe and Hilaire Belloc. In more recent times, American author Bill Bryson has declared himself a fan. He described a stopover for a beverage at the Old Well Inn as ‘most congenial’ and told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle that he considered Durham’s dales to be as beautiful as Yorkshire’s. “The Durham Dales are sensational and ought to be much more famous than they are.”
‘Barnard Castle’ by J.M.W. Turner
The artist J.M.W. Turner visited Barnard Castle at least 3 times and painted this mixed medium work in around 1825. The original is now held at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA. Turner made other sketches in later years to illustrate the ‘Rokeby’ volume of Sir Walter Scott’s Poetical Works, although they were not included in the final version. Some of these drawings are in the Tate Gallery in London.
“The moon is in her summer glow,
But hoarse and high the breezes blow,
And, racking o’er her face, the cloud
Varies the tincture of her shroud;
On Barnard’s towers and Tees’s stream
She changes as a guilty dream…
(From Rokeby, by Sir Walter Scott).
Inspired by Turner, another British artist – Philip Wilson Steer – visited the town some 70 years later. His painting, completed in 1896, shows the town from the south bank of the river, focusing on the bridge and the carpet mills. It now hangs in the Bowes Museum.
In May 2020, a famous (or should we say infamous) visitor was Dominic Cummings, political adviser to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His 260-mile drive to Durham, and subsequent family outing to Barnard Castle, sparked controversy when it was alleged that he had broken lock-down rules. The UK government had advised everyone to stay at home as part of the country’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid19. Mr Cummings’ response was that he wanted to ‘test his eyes’ to make sure they were still good for driving. I think he chose a splendid venue for his eye test.
Barnard Castle has received numerous royal visits over the years. Edward VII is known to have stopped by. The Queen, Prince Philip, the late Queen Mother and Prince Charles have also visited on various occasions. But then, the British royal family has a special connection with the town. They are related to the founder of its rather grand museum.
The Bowes were one of County Durham’s most influential and aristocratic families. John Bowes, son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, founded the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. The Queen Mother, whose maiden name was Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, is the great-great granddaughter of John’s uncle.
The Bowes Museum
The museum was purpose-built by John and and his French wife Joséphine, a Parisian clockmaker’s daughter. John, a successful businessman, and his wife, an actress and artist, were great lovers and collectors of art. They were also philanthropists, and were keen to leave a legacy to the local people which would introduce them to art and culture.
They decided to build a suitable showcase for their collections, in the style of a French château. Sadly neither of them survived long enough to see the building completed. Their work was continued by the trustees of their estate, and the museum opened in 1892.
I used to love going to the museum with my parents and looking at all the gorgeous objets d’art and paintings. I particularly remember the Canalettos, which made me want to go to Venice to find out whether there really was a city with water in its streets instead of roads.
The museum’s exhibits include paintings by European masters and one of Britain’s most extensive collections of ceramics. Visitors can also enjoy the ever-changing programme of temporary exhibitions, some of which have included items from the Queen Mother’s own collections. Bill Bryson described the museum as ‘an absolutely fabulous institution.’
Other attractions in the area
Just beyond the East Lendings site, following the river a little further east, are the rather beautiful ruins of Eggleston Abbey. You can reach the abbey on a very enjoyable circular walk from the town.
Other outings we enjoyed during our family holidays were to the towns of Reeth and Richmond – both just over the border in North Yorkshire – and my own favourite, Raby Castle near Staindrop. This stunning fortress is almost 1,000 years old. The land on which it stands originally belonged to the Viking king, Canute.
The castle as it appears today was built for one of Durham’s most wealthy and powerful families, the Nevills. It’s surrounded by beautiful parkland which is roamed by red deer. The estate includes a 5 acre ornamental walled garden dating back to the 18th century, a children’s adventure playground and a wonderful collection of vintage carriages. Visitors can hire bikes to enjoy the extensive grounds.
If you feel like exploring more of Durham’s dales, Middleton-in-Teesdale is an attractive market town to visit on the way to the impressive waterfalls of High Force.
How to get to Barnard Castle
Barnard Castle’s station was a victim of the infamous Beeching cutbacks which decimated Britain’s railways in 1964. So the best way to reach the town as a ‘slow traveller’ is by train to Darlington, then bus. Darlington station is on the main east coast line from London King’s Cross to York, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
If you are interested in north east England, you might enjoy my post on Northumberland.
My post on Steam railways of England includes information on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which passes through the Yorkshire Dales.
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