Barnard Castle – The Teesdale Capital
Barnard Castle, on the Durham side of the River Tees is the ‘capital’ of Teesdale and one of the most attractive historic towns in the North. Known affectionately to locals as ‘Barney’, the town owes its origins to a Norman baron, one Bernard Baliol who built a castle here in the twelfth century between 1112 and 1132.
Bernard’s family were of high influence. His father Guy De Baliol who came to England at the time of the Norman Conquest was the Lord of Verney, Dampierre, Harcourt and Bailleul and became Baron of Gainford, Stokesley and Bywell on Tyne. Descendants of Bernard included Edward and John Baliol who were kings of Scotland and John Baliol, the founder of Balliol College, Oxford.
Barnard Castle was initially part of the Barony of Gainford (stretching from Coniscliffe to Middleton in Teesdale) which formed a westerly part of the Wapentake of Sadberge. The centre of power in the Barony was moved from Gainford in its relatively lowland setting to this new site at a place called Marwood where Barnard Castle was built.
Bernard Baliol was a close associate of King David I of Scotland and had acquired lands north of the Border as well as those in England. However, when King David invaded England in 1138 prior to the Battle of the Standard, Bernard Baliol along with Robert De Brus of Hartlepool met with King David as he camped near the Tees in an attempt to diffuse tensions but he failed to dissuade David from engaging against the English.
Later, when William Cumin, King David’s Chancellor usurped the Prince Bishopric of Durham, Baliol does not seem to have initially objected to the seizure of the bishop’s land. He may have thought differently when the Baliol lands were later raided by Cumin’s men.
The Wapentake of Sadberge which included Barnard Castle was acquired by the Prince Bishop, Hugh Du Puiset in 1189 but the Lordship of Barnard Castle continued to assert independence with successive Baliols often disputing the Bishop’s rights within their area of Sadberge. They argued that these were crown lands which formed an outlying part of Northumberland.
Bernard Baliol, the builder of Barnard Castle’s castle was succeeded by his son, another Bernard Baliol before 1167. He was in turn succeeded by Eustace Baliol and then by Hugh Baliol around 1212 who was a staunch supporter of the English King, John.
Hugh was succeeded by John Baliol around 1228 who, as a penance for assaulting and insulting the Bishop of Durham, Walter Kirkham, established Balliol College at Oxford.
John Baliol was succeeded to the family estates by three of his sons in succession: Hugh, Alexander and another John Baliol. It was this John Baliol who became King of Scotland in 1292 but his subsequent rebellion against the King of England resulted in the confiscation of the Baliol lands including those of Barnard Castle and Teesdale.
Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham and the Beauchamps, Earls of Warwick were subsequent owners of Barnard Castle before it passed to the Neville family. In 1569 at the time of the Rising of the North in which the Nevilles rebelled against the king, the castle was seized by the Bowes family of nearby Streatlam.
In 1626 the castle at Barnard Castle became the property of the Vane family, who were later styled in subsequent stages of their family history as the Earls of Darlington; the Dukes of Cleveland and the Lords Barnard. The 10th Lord Barnard gave the castle to the Ministry of Works in 1952 from which it passed to its present owners, English Heritage.
Today, Bernard Baliol’s castle at Barnard Castle is a ruin, but a very picturesque ruin situated on a high bank overlooking the River Tees. The castle has witnessed plenty of history and has been owned by many notable historic figures, including Richard III (who inherited it through his queen) as well as Henry VII; Warwick the Kingmaker and the Prince Bishop of Durham.
Horsemarket, Market Place, Galgate, Bridgegate, Newgate and Thorngate along with ‘The Bank’ are the main streets of the town of Barnard Castle which all grew in the vicinity of the castle and are lined by lovely stone-built houses that give Barnard Castle that typical ‘dales town’ appearance.
The term ‘gate’ in the street-names was used by the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and later the Normans, but has nothing to do with a gateway. It is in fact an old word meaning road or street. The element ‘gate’ can be found in the street-names of historic towns and cities throughout the North.
The Market Cross
Barnard Castle’s market place is at the centre of the town and the south end is dominated by a curious octagonal building called the Market Cross that now stands at the centre of a small roundabout. It was built by a Barnard Castle resident called Thomas Breaks in 1747.
At various times in history this building has served the purpose of a court, jail, town hall and butter market. A weather vane sits on top of the building marked by two bullet holes reputedly made by a soldier and a gamekeeper in a competition of shooting abilities.
The soldier, a man by the name of Taylor who served in the Barnard Castle Volunteers and the gamekeeper, called Cruddas, who worked for the Earl of Strathmore took aim from the Turks Head inn, some 100 yards away. They appear to have been equally matched in their aim.
A Magnificent Museum
From the market cross a road called Newgate leads us eastward past Barnard Castle’s parish church and onward to what is arguably Barnard Castle’s grandest attraction: the Bowes Museum.
Visitors are surprised to find this huge and magnificent building in such a small north country town. Built in the style of a French chateau, it has one of the most impressive collections of pictures, ceramics, textiles, tapestries, clocks and costumes in the north of England. Its exhibits include a famous life size silver swan which can delicately lift a fish from a salver and swallow it.
The Bowes Museum was developed from the collection of John Bowes, the illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore. Along with his French actress wife, Josephine, Bowes purchased most of the wonderful items displayed in the museum. Sadly both died before the completion of the building in 1892.
Blagraves, the Bank and Charles Dickens
Southward from the market cross the steep street called ‘The Bank’ descends into Thorngate which terminates at the footbridge across the River Tees. The most notable feature of The Bank is the seventeenth century Blagraves House.
Reputedly visited by Oliver Cromwell, it features the figures of musicians on its outside walls. Next door, at number 34 is another notable stone house with the date ‘1742’ above the door.
Northward from the market cross is the Market Place. Charles Dickens visited Barnard Castle in February 1832 and stayed here at the Kings Head (now a care home) of which he wrote:
“There is good ale at the King’s Head. Say you know me and I am sure they will not charge you for it.”
While in the town, Dickens visited the shop of a clockmaker called Thomas Humphreys, where a particular time-piece caught his attention. Enquiring further he found that the clock had been made by the clockmaker’s son, William who unwittingly provided inspiration for the Dickens novel Master Humphrey’s Clock.
Dickens was visiting Teesdale to undertake research for his novel Nicholas Nickleby and the material for this book was collected at the nearby village of Bowes.
Further to north the Market Place becomes Horse Market at the classically-fronted Witham Hall of 1846. Horse Market terminates at the junction with the broad Galgate at its north end opposite the entrance to the environs of the castle, off Flatts Road.
Historic industries and tourism
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century Barnard Castle was noted for its textile manufacture with industries including flax spinning, dyeing and weaving still thriving in the nineteenth century, although the town’s woollen trade had begun to decline by the 1790s.
In the early nineteenth century, carpet manufacturing and weaving was important at Thorngate while a mill operated by a Mr Ullathorne at the Bridge End was noted for making ‘shoe thread’. Notable former mill buildings can be seen in Thorngate where the main street of Barnard Castle descends towards the River Tees.
Today, Barnard Castle serves as an important centre for Teesdale and the surrounding area. It is the headquarters for the Teesdale Mercury newspaper founded in 1854 that serves the dale. Another newspaper, The Darlington and Stockton Times was also founded in the town in 1847 but relocated to Darlington the following year where it is still going strong.
Barnard Castle’s biggest employer is the pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline though tourism is also an important industry in the town with its castle, museum and the neighbouring natural attractions of Teesdale. The town is especially noted for its numerous antiques shops including that of TV antiques dealer David Harper.
At the northern end of the market place, near the castle, is a street called Galgate that runs north-east following the ancient course of a Roman road that ran from Stainmore to join Dere Street near West Auckland.
Before the castle was built at Barnard Castle, the area was the site of a town or village called Marwood that is thought to have stood in the Galgate area of the present town.
The name Galgate originates from post Roman times and is so called because it once led to the gallows where public hangings took place, (as at Gallowgate in Newcastle upon Tyne). A close called ‘Hanke Slave’ or ‘Hang Slave’ is recorded in old documents associated with this street.
Along the south side of Galgate beyond King Street near a red post box is the former home of the Durham historian and antiquarian William Hutchinson (1732-1814) whose ‘History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham‘ (1794) that set the standard and a model for the better-known work of Robert Surtees at the beginning of the following century.
Roman Road, Bridge and Startforth
Barnard Castle is linked to the village of Startforth over on the west side of the River Tees by Bridgegate and Barnard Castle bridge where there are good views of the ruined ‘Barney Castle’ overlooking the river on the opposite bank.
Startforth (historically in Yorkshire) has an Anglo-Saxon name and was originally Stradford or Stratford but the name changed in the sixteenth century. The name means ‘Street Ford’ – a reminder that a Roman Road once crossed the Tees here.
In Barnard Castle this Roman road leaves the town to the north by the street called Galgate and then continues as the A688 on its way towards Streatlam Park and Raby Castle.
Barnard Castle bridge of 1596 (with some rebuilding on the Yorkshire side following an eighteenth century flood) is quite a narrow bridge and a one-system operates under the control of traffic lights.
In the late seventeenth century a curate called the Reverend Alexander Hilton, who had trained as a bible clerk and who “having taken orders in no church” conducted illicit wedding ceremonies in the centre of Barnard Castle bridge involving the leaping over a broomstick.
Eastward, about a mile along the south bank of the Tees from Startforth are the pretty and extensive ruins of Egglestone Abbey, an English Heritage property which sit on a high green knoll overlooking the river close to the point where the Tees is joined by the Thorsgill Beck.
Egglestone Abbey should not be confused with the village of Eggleston (with no ‘e’ at the end) which is on the north side of the River Tees about five miles north west of Barnard Castle.
Established around 1196 by Ralph De Malton as the ‘Premonstratensian Abbey of St John the Baptist at Egglestone’ the monastery was populated by Premonstratensian canons (‘white monks’) from Easby Abbey in Swaledale.
The abbey was established with a small endowment and the canons were so poor that there was some doubt within the Premonstratensian hierarchy over whether the establishment should be a priory rather than an abbey.
The monastery retained its abbey status but the canons always struggled financially and suffered at the hands of Scottish raids, notably in 1315.
Following the closure of the monastery during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s the abbey site was granted to Robert Strelley in 1548 who turned it into a house. Later owners included Sir Thomas Robinson and the Morritts of Rokeby
There are significant remains of the nave of the abbey church on the south side of the monastery close to where visitors enter the site. The adjoining monastic buildings include the western range, kitchen, undercroft refectory, warming house and novices room. One notable feature at the centre of the church is the tomb (with its missing top) of Sir Ralph Bowes of Streatlam who died in 1482.
Close to the abbey is a tiny Packhorse Bridge across the Thorsgill Beck which enters the Tees here and downstream, a larger bridge of 1773 that crosses the River Tees, called the Abbey Bridge. Both bridges are of a single arch, the Abbey Bridge has battlemented parapets.
Rokeby and Greta Bridge
The River Greta which rises and flows through the Stainmore Pass in the Pennines to the west of Barnard Castle joins the River Tees at Rokeby just over a mile to the east of Egglestone Abbey.
Greta has a name that derives from the Viking word ‘Griota’ meaning ‘stony stream’. Pronounced ‘Rookby’, it was once the site of a village of Viking origin: ‘Hrocca’s Village’ but was later deserted following Scottish attacks upon Teesdale.
By the thirteenth century a family who took the surname Rokeby from the place and adopted rooks as their family emblem had come to own the land here, although one of their early homes was burned to the ground by the Scots following the Battle of Bannockburn.
In the reign of King James I, Rokeby passed to the Robinson family and one of these owners, Sir Thomas Robinson (1703–1777), an amateur architect, enclosed the grounds of Rokeby Park with a wall and built the present hall. It was constructed 1720-1730 in the neo-Palladian style of his architect friend Richard Boyle, the 3rd Earl Burlington.
Robinson, who was later a Governor of Barbados, owned Rokeby Park until 1769, when he sold it to the Morritts, the ancestors of the current owner. The artists, Turner and Cotman had a particular affection for this part of Teesdale and Turner’s picture ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ depicts the confluence of the Tees and Greta nearby.
Another artist, Velazquez, is famously associated with this area through his famous painting, the ‘Rokeby Venus’ which was housed at Rokeby Hall between 1805 and 1905. Today it can be seen at the National Gallery in London.
Across the River Greta from Rokeby Park near the Meeting of the Waters is a restored fourteenth century pele tower called Mortham Tower which is a private residence. It is a reminder that Teesdale was once part of the Border Country.
Rokeby Park and its hall is open to the public on assigned days and is entered by a gateway near the north west corner of the park. Part of the busy A66 cuts through the south side of the park where the old south entrance can be seen near the village of Greta Bridge.
Visually, Greta Bridge is a particularly pleasing place, where Charles Dickens stayed while researching Nicholas Nickleby. There was more than one inn at Greta Bridge in Dickens’ day but he possibly stayed at the surviving one, the Morritt Hotel. A former coaching inn dating to the seventeenth century, this served as a coaching stop on the route from London to Carlisle.
To the rear of the hotel are the clear outlines and earthworks of a Roman fort. Its Roman name is not known but was possibly called Maglona. The fort was situated on a Roman Road that departed from Dere Street near Scotch Corner and more or less followed the course of the present A66 to Greta Bridge.
The road then headed west to the Roman fort of Bowes (again more or less following the A66) before heading across the Stainmore Gap. The present nearby bridge across the River Greta at Greta Bridge was built in 1773.
Sir Walter’s Viking poem
In the early nineteenth century Sir Walter Scott, a friend of the Rokeby owner John Morritt, was a frequent visitor to Rokeby Hall and named his lengthy poem, Rokeby after the area. The poem includes verses with strong references to Teesdale’s Viking past such as the following verse with its romanticised Norse connections:
“When Denmark’s raven soared on high,
Triumphant through Northumbrian sky,
Till, hovering near, her fatal croak
Bade Reged’s Britons dread the yoke;
And the broad shadow of her wing
Blackened each cataract and spring,
Where Tees in tumult leaves his source,
Thundering o’er Caldron and High Force.
To Odin’s son and Spifia’s spouse,
Near Startforth high they paid their vows,
Remembered Thor’s victorious fame,
And gave the dell the Thunderer’s name.”
This verse from Rokeby refers to the Viking sounding Thorsgill Beck, which joins the River Tees west of Rokeby near Egglestone Abbey.
Whorlton, Wycliffe and Winston
From Rokeby, the River Tees passes through Whorlton, Wycliffe and Ovington to Winston on Tees. Whorlton, on the north bank was once connected to Wycliffe over on the south bank by a ford in distant times but today they are linked by a suspension bridge (currently closed) built by the Northumberland architects John and Benjamin Green in 1831.
The bridge has a span of 173 feet. For many years Whorlton was noted for its ‘lido’, a popular bathing spot in the river that is now closed to the public for safety reasons.
The village of Wycliffe over on the south bank is in fact a little downstream from Whorlton. This place gave rise to the surname Wycliffe of which the most famous bearer (barring a fictional TV detective) was the fourteenth century English theologian John Wycliffe who was born at Hipswell near Catterick. It is likely that John Wycliffe lived at Wycliffe as it was the family seat of the Wycliffe family who held the manor until 1611.
A later owner, Marmaduke Tunstall III (1743-1790) undertook much restoration and rebuilding of the impressive hall which is largely Georgian. Tunstall’s visitors at Wycliffe included the artists Cotman and Turner and the Northumbrian engraver, Thomas Bewick.
Through inheritance later owners included the Sheldons and Tunstall/Constable families. The house changed hands in 1935 and again in 2000 when considerable restoration was undertaken. It is a private house, not open to the public.
The next village we encounter downstream from Wycliffe is Ovington, which might be easily confused with a village of the same name in Tynedale (where there is both an Ovingham and an Ovington).
A notable feature of the village is the 60 feet high maypole. A tree on the green was felled especially for use as a maypole in 1897. However, owing to the maintenance costs of preserving the old maypole, a new one was erected in 2006. Sadly, this one snapped during a storm in 2015 and was subsequently replaced with a new one.
Nearby is a metal maypole sculpture of the year 2000 by artist Graham Hopper. Also close by, a bench has been constructed from the old maypole. The village pub in Ovington is called the Four Alls and has served Ovington for around 200 years.
In 1485, a murderer called James Manfield axed to death the chaplain of Wycliffe at Ovington and then fled north, where he stumbled into Kelloe church in Durham. The vicar there, a Roger Morland escorted him to Durham Cathedral where he was awarded the right of sanctuary.
Continuing downstream, before the river curves south west towards Gainford we reach the village of Winston which has a name that means the farm belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Wine or Wini.
This village, on the north bank of the Tees is home to a thirteenth century church with much exterior rebuilding by the nineteenth century Tyneside architect, John Dobson. The church sits on a high bank above the Tees and includes some interesting sculpture.
There is a 111 ft span single-arched stone bridge across the River Tees here that was built by Sir Thomas Robinson of Rokeby in 1763. It was once the longest single span stone bridge in Europe. In 1988 the bridge was flown under by a Spitfire pilot, Ray Hanna during the making of a TV drama.
Not far from the church, the village pub in Winston is called The Bridgewater Arms and has a rather unusual appearance for a pub. The building was in fact a former Church of England School and dates from 1851.
Downstream along the River Tees to the east of Winston is the village of Gainford and between these two villages on this north side the river, the Tees is joined by the Alwent Beck known in its upper reaches as the Langley Beck which forms the valley of Langleydale to the west of Raby Castle.
A former water mill called Alwent Mill, dating from 1792 is situated on the beck to the north of Winston. To the east of the beck is Selaby Hall, a Vane family property of Lord Barnard. Along with Raby it is one of the few Viking suffixed ‘by’ names north of the River Tees.
From Winston, a road leads two miles north to Raby Castle and the adjacent village of Staindrop. Cnut (or Canute) the Dane (c 994-1035), Viking King of England, Denmark and Norway, a self appointed ‘Emperor of the North’ owned a mansion and estate in the vicinity of Staindrop in the tenth century and this was likely on the spot where Raby stands today.
Perhaps at some point in his lifetime Cnut ruled his kingdom and Scandinavian Empire from this very spot. Raby Castle’s historic ‘Bulmer Tower’ the oldest part of the castle is said to incorporate Cnut’s mansion. Cnut was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark and was a war-like Viking in the way he seized control of England.
The name Raby is Viking-Danish in origin and means ‘settlement on a boundary mark’. There is an alternative theory that links the first part of the name to the roe deer which still inhabit the neighbouring park today. Raby certainly lies on the course of an old Roman road that leads west to Stainmore and Rey Cross – another boundary marker.
Raby Castle and lands around Staindrop village were returned to the Northumbrian Bishops of Durham by Cnut in the eleventh century as a gesture of goodwill. The lands had probably been taken by Cnut’s Viking predecessors.
Raby is one of the best medieval castles in northern England. In the years after the conquest the Raby lands passed into the hands of the influential Norman family called the Nevilles who were the most important barons in the Bishopric of Durham from the twelfth century onwards.
The famous Rising of the North was plotted by the Nevilles at Raby in 1569, with the help of the equally powerful Percy family of Northumberland. Support for this rising came from all parts of the North East:
Now was the North in arms: they shine
In warlike trim from Tweed to Tyne,
At Percy’s voice : and Neville Sees
His followers gathering in from Tees,
From Wear and all the little rills
Concealed among the forked hills-
Seven hundred knights Retainers all
Of Neville at their master’s call
Had sate together at Raby Hall.
The rising was an attempt to replace Elizabeth I with her cousin, the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, at a time when the people of northern England were mostly of the Catholic faith. Unfortunately for the Nevilles the rising failed and Raby was confiscated from the family by the Crown along with their other great properties at Barnard Castle and Brancepeth.
In 1626 Raby became the seat of the Vanes, Earls of Darlington and Dukes of Cleveland and the present owner, Lord Barnard is a member of this family. He is the owner of the vast Raby Estate which extends over a large area of south Durham. Farmhouses and cottages belonging to this estate can be found throughout the northern side of Teesdale and are easily identified by their attractive whitewashed exteriors.
Whitewashing goes back to the days when a Duke of Cleveland became stranded in a storm while out hunting in Teesdale. He was refused shelter at a local farmhouse which he had mistaken for one of his own properties.
The Duke was determined not to suffer such a humiliation ever again and ordered that from that day on, all buildings belonging to his estate were to be painted white for identification.
Raby Castle is said to be haunted by three ghosts. These are the headless Henry Vane the Younger; Sir Charles Neville and the first Lady Barnard, who is known as ‘Old Hell Cat’.
Streatlam : Seat of the Bowes
Streatlam, pronounced ‘Streetlam’ forms a neighbouring park to that of Raby and is named from a Roman road or ‘street’ which passes through the grounds of both Streatlam Park and Raby Park.
Streatlam Park was once home to Streatlam Castle, a grand mansion of the Bowes family. The original dated from around 1450 and built for Sir William Bowes who was in France at the time and sent home instructions to build the castle according to a French design.
Around 1720, a grand mansion was built by William Blakiston Bowes incorporating the core of the earlier castle. Later Bowes family members preferred Gibside near Gateshead although John Bowes of Bowes Museum fame resided here and employed the architects John and Benjamin Green to make alterations.
When Bowes died in 1885 the estate reverted to his cousin, the Earl of Strathmore and the subsequently neglected castle was sold piecemeal, gutted in 1927 and finally blown up in a Territorial Army exercise in 1959.
Staindrop is historically closely associated with Raby Castle that is about half a mile to its north. It is an attractive, yet narrow and exceptionally long village with a village green and several nineteenth century houses. The name Staindrop derives from ‘Staener Hop’ meaning stony valley from the neighbouring Langley Beck, a wooded dene on the north side of the village.
On Saxton’s map of County Durham in 1569 Staindrop is depicted, along with Bishop Auckland, Barnard Castle, Hartlepool and Durham as a town rather than a village or hamlet (as are Newcastle and Yarm just outside the county boundaries). Raby Castle is shown on the map too just across the Langley Beck to the north of the village.
The church of St Mary at Staindrop (once dedicated to St Gregory) is a sizeable and impressive medieval edifice with a core dating back to before the Norman Conquest and also emphasises Staindrop as a place of significance. Historically Staindrop (or perhaps Raby) was the centre of the early medieval district called Staindropshire.
The Langley Beck at Staindrop merges with the nearby Sudburn Beck south east of Staindrop to become the Alwent, Beck. West of Staindrop the beck forms a sparsely populated and pretty region of scattered farms called Langleydale. Like the upper parts of Teesdale it has the distinctive scattered white-painted farm houses that are associated with the Raby estate. The principal settlement of this extensive area is a hamlet with the inexplicable name Kinninvie.
To the north of Langleydale are several farms but no settlements until we reach the valley of the River Gaunless and its tributaries where we find Woodland, Copley, Butterknowle and Cockfield to the west of Bishop Auckland. The Gaunless Valley forms a more or less parallel course to Langleydale and is a little over a mile to the north.
Continue west along the road from Kinninvie for three and a half miles and we eventually reach the village of Eggleston above the Tees on the north bank of the river. Here, however we have left Langleydale and are heading deeper into Teesdale.
Our YouTube channel explores the Viking history of the River Tees.