In the west of County Durham lies a small market town that is probably best known for its nearby French chateau. Now this might seem odd, but Bowes Museum is clearly an architectural import. It’s also clearly a palace rather than a castle, though back in the days of my distant French lessons the chateau and castle were given equivalence.

Barnard Castle
Barnard Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The town is Barnard Castle, and the fact that it and its name long predate the museum suggests that there’s more here for the inquisitive visitor, yet those who arrive from the east and park in the main thoroughfares will never see it.   Skip back a couple of decades and it was a different story, for before road improvements effectively bypassed the town, the main route from North East England across to the North West ran through here, and specifically an ancient bridge across the River Tees that permits traffic in only one direction at a time.  If you cross that bridge you are dominated by towering cliffs and the remains of large defensive walls.

The strategic importance of such a site made it inevitable that some sort of fortification would be built here, and the structure we see today harks back to the 12th century (though that was predated by defensive earthworks).   It’s also a pretty exposed spot so cloaks and roaring fires would have been a necessity when the wind was blowing down the Tees Valley.

William the Conqueror’s accession to the throne wasn’t quite as simple as defeating Harold in 1066.  In the years that followed he faced a number of rebellions, mostly from the north, where the population could be described as Anglo-Scandinavian as a result of a history of Viking settlements.  Culturally and linguistically this was a very different people.  William’s response, known as the Harrying of the North, was close to genocide with wholesale slaughter and famine resulting from his destruction of crops leading to the death of tens of thousands in the winter of 1069/70.  To survive the winter some resorted to cannibalism.

William Walcher, the first non-English Bishop of Durham, was appointed as the new Earl of Northumbria.  When he was murdered a decade later in a new series of rebellions, William II broke up Northumbria into smaller baronies, establishing Guy I De Balliol here as Baron of Gainford.  He was succeeded by his nephew Bernard who built the fortification and thus gave his name to the town.

From the floor plans the complex in its entirety was quite impressive, and even though few of the walls now remain, the spaces between the buildings and the large earthworks give a sense of scale.

From :Image:Shields.tar.bz2, by Lupin Raster v...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not all of this is Norman of course.  One of the castle’s later residents was non other than Richard III, who installed this oriel window giving views up the Tees Valley.  Though badly worn now, there are still traces of his wild boar symbol on the lintel above, together with the Yorkshire rose in the bottom left.

So if you’re visiting to see Bowes, take a short detour to see Barney’s Castle.  It may not have the art, but it certainly has the history.


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