Barnard Castle and Raby

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 and historic towns in the North. Known affectionately to locals as ‘Barney’, the town owes its origins to one Bernard Baliol who built a castle here in the twelfth century.

Ruins of Barnard Castle
Ruins of Barnard Castle’s castle above the River Tees : Photo © David Simpson

Bernard’s family were of Norman origin and of high influence. His father Guy De Baliol was the Lord of Verney, Dampierre, Harcourt and Bailleul and Baron of Teesdale, Gainford, Stokesley and Bywell on Tyne. Descendants of Bernard included Edward and John Baliol, kings of Scotland and John Baliol, founder of Balliol College, Oxford.

Today Bernard’s Castle is a ruin, but a very pretty ruin situated on a high bank overlooking the Tees. The castle has witnessed plenty of history and has been a home to many famous historic characters, including Richard III, Henry VII, Warwick the Kingmaker, and the Prince Bishops of Durham.

Horsemarket, Galgate, Bridgegate, Newgate and Thorngate are the main streets of Barney are lined by beautiful stone built houses, which give Barnard Castle its typical ‘dales town’ appearance. The term ‘gate’ 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 town of Barnard Castle
The town of Barnard Castle: Horse Market: Photo © David Simpson

The Market Cross

Barnard Castle’s market place stands at the centre of the town and is dominated by an intriguing octagonal building called the Market Cross which was built by a Barnard Castle resident called Thomas Breaks in 1747.

At various times in history this building has served the purpose of court, jail, Town Hall and buttermarket. 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.

Market Cross, Barnard Castle
Market Cross, Barnard Castle : Photo © David Simpson

At the northern end of the market place, a street called Galgate runs north-east following the ancient course of a Roman road that ran from Stainmore to join Dere Street near West Auckland. 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 Magnificent Museum

The market cross forms the centrepiece of a small roundabout at Barnard Castle from which a road called Newgate leads us into 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.

Bowes Museum
Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle Photo © David Simpson

Charles Dickens in Teesdale

Charles Dickens visited Barnard Castle in February 1832 and stayed at the Kings Head in the market place, 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.

Thorngate, Barnard Castle
Thorngate, Barnard Castle : Photo © David Simpson

Roman Road: Startforth and Streatlam

Barnard Castle is linked to the village of Startforth over on the south side of the Tees by Barnard Castle bridge where there are good views of the ruined ‘Barney Castle’ overlooking the river on the opposite bank.

Startforth 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 the town of Barnard Castle itself the Roman road follows the course of the street called Galgate and then leaves the town to the north as the A688 en route towards Raby Castle.

In fact the A688 departs from the Roman road’s course midway, at Streatlam where the course of the ancient road proceeds, virtually without trace, through the grounds of Streatlam Park. Streatlam, pronounced ‘Streetlam’ is named from the Roman road or ‘street’.

Streatlam Park was once home to Streatlam Castle, a grand mansion belonging to the Bowes family. The original castle dated from around 1450 and was built to the instructions of 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 to reside at 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.

Paintings and Poets: Rokeby and the Greta

The River Greta which rises and flows through the Stainmore Pass in the Pennines to the west of Barnard Castle joins the River Tees two miles east of the town near Rokeby.

Greta has a name that derives from the Viking word ‘Griota’ meaning stony stream. Rokeby was once the site of a village of Viking origin – ‘Hrocca’s Village’ – but was later deserted following Scottish attacks upon Teesdale.

Today the name Rokeby lives on in the names of Rokeby Park and Rokeby Hall, the latter an 18th century building that belonged to the Morritt family.

The artists, J.M.W. Turner and J.S. 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 at Rokeby.

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 are the remains of a fourteenth century fortified ‘pele’ tower, a reminder that Teesdale was part of the Border Country.

Sir Walter’s Viking poem

In the early nineteenth century Sir Walter Scott 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 Startforth.

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 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 14th century English theologian John Wycliffe who was born at Hipswell near Catterick.

The next village we encounter 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 (or was) the maypole tree – a tree on the green that was felled especially for use as a maypole. Sadly the pole snapped during a storm in 2015 and has been replaced with a new one.

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.

Before the river curves south west towards Gainford we reach the village of Winston (meaning the farm belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Wine). This village, on the north bank of the Tees is home to a 13th century church and a 111 ft span single-arched stone bridge across the river. Built by Sir Thomas Robinson in 1763, it was once the longest single span stone bridge in Europe.

Raby Castle

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.

Raby Castle
Raby Castle © David Simpson 2018

Perhaps at some point in his lifetime Canute 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 Canute in the eleventh century as a gesture of goodwill. The lands had probably been taken by Canute’s Viking predecessors.

Raby is one of the best medieval castles in northern England. In the years after the conquest Raby 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.

William Wordsworth : From ‘The White Doe of Rylston’.

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’.


Staindrop, historically closely associated with Raby Castle is an attractive, yet narrow and exceptionally long village with a village green and several 18th 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.

Staindrop. Photo © David Simpson 2018
Staindrop. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

Staindrop church.
Staindrop church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The Langley Beck at Staindrop merges with the nearby Sudburn Beck south of Staindrop to become the Alwent, a beck with a Celtic name identical to that of the Rive Alwin in Coquetdale, Northumberland.

West of Staindrop the valley of the Langley Beck forms a sparsely populated and pretty region of scattered farms called Langleydale where the uplands of Teesdale give way to the lowlands of the Tees Vale near Raby. The principal settlement of this extensive area is a hamlet with the inexplicable name Kinninvie. There is little else to see besides this, other than farms and open country until you reach the Gaunless Valley near Bishop Auckland to the north or Barnard Castle to the south.

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