Surrounded by gentle dales and rolling moorland, Barnard Castle evokes happy memories of school trips on warm days in May. The imposing ruins of the castle high above the fast-flowing River Tees; running along the picturesque, cobbled streets in the attractive town centre; the view of the traffic coming up the steep bank below Market Cross; the memorable occasion when we started a punch-up with some pupils from the local public school, only to be forced into an embarrassing, ‘Eton Rifles’-style retreat-their age advantage having been somewhat overlooked due to our misplaced ‘big city’ bravado. I went back last year on a freezing afternoon in November to see if the place, known locally as Barney and recognized nationally as one of the 51 most historically and architecturally important towns in Great Britain, was still as I remembered. GETTING THERE Conveniently situated twenty minutes from the A1 and forty minutes from the M6, Barnard Castle is located in southern County Durham, about ten miles west of Darlington and two miles east of the Durham Dales. The A67 and A688 run through the town, while the A66, which branches off from the A1 at Scotch Corner, runs just to the west, from where you can turn onto the A67 at Bowes village. The nearest mainline railway station is in Darlington, from where there are hourly bus services. THE TOWN Starting at the octagonal Market Cross, given to the town in 1747 and used subsequently as a ‘lock-up’, a market for dairy produce and a town hall, The Bank, once the town’s main commercial street and still notable for several Victorian shop windows and the 16th-century Blagraves House, reputed to have housed Oliver Cromwell in 1648, descends steeply towards the River Tees and lush green fields behind you. Just to the left is St Mary’s Parish Church, founded in the 12th-century and featuring 15th-century renovations attributed to the Duke of Gloucester, the then owner of the nearby castle who would later become King Richard III. Also note the road running in this direction, Newgate, as it leads to the Josephine and John Bowes Museum. In front, the cobbled Market Place, which still holds regular markets, curves gently to the left until it meets the tree-lined Galgate at a right angle next to the main Post Office. Galgate, formerly the site of the town’s Gallows but now an attractive street full of ornamental grass plots, follows the line of an old Roman road that forded the river 120 metres upstream from the castle. The town’s Tourist Information office (firstname.lastname@example.org) is located in a rather grand building at the top of Flatts Road, to the left and a little behind the Post Office as you look at it from the corner of Market Place and Galgate. There are some excellent maps and leaflets inside detailing the town itself as well as nearby attractions in County Durham, North Yorkshire and Northumberland. A short distance from here, and just to the right of the church as you face it, a path leads down to the popular picnic spot known as Scar Top and the superb castle. THE CASTLE Constructed by Bernard Baliol, whose descendant, John Baliol, was later to found the famous college at Oxford University as a penance for assaulting the Bishop of Durham, the magnificent 12th-century castle is now a ruin managed by English Heritage. The castle, which played an important part in the defeat of the Northern Earls who rose against Elizabeth I in 1569, has a fine round tower and spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. There are excellent riverside walks at the foot of the castle (although some were closed due to mudslides when I visited). Barnard Castle is open all year (10am-6pm April to September, 10am-5pm in October and 10am-4pm (Wednesday to Sunday only) from November until March). Admission is £2.40 (concessions available). COUNTY BRIDGE Just b elow the castle, the River Tees once formed the boundary between Durham and Yorkshire. The centre of the lovely bridge here, which dates from 1569, was once a venue for illicit weddings as the ruling bishops of the counties on either side of the river could thus not raise any objections. There is another picnic area just to the left of the bridge, Flax Field, with great views of the river and castle. THE JOSEPHINE AND JOHN BOWES MUSEUM A mere 400 metres from Market Cross, the Bowes Museum is certainly a startling sight. The marvellous French-style chateau, slightly reminiscent of sections of the Palace of Versailles with magnificent grounds and an expansive driveway lined with Monkey Trees, looks truly extraordinary placed in such a typically English rural setting. Inside the museum, first opened in 1892, you’ll find three floors housing the finest collection of European Decorative Art outside of the Victoria & Albert Museum, the most important collection of Spanish paintings, including ‘The Tears of St Peter’ by El Greco, in the UK and a fascinating section on local history. My favourite exhibit of all must be the Silver Swan, which I always remembered as having a prime position at the foot of the staircase but has now been moved up to the second floor. The Swan, which dates from the 16th-century and was at one time coin-operated, is a true masterpiece with the metallic bird gracefully moving its head in time with the music before swooping to take a fish from the water and swallow it. The only fish eating swan in the world is now operated by a museum employee at 2pm and 4pm daily, with the performance seemingly being a lot shorter nowadays. Aside from the Swan, I’d highly recommend you pause to the left of the staircase on the ground floor to view the fifteen minute video-playing on a continuous loop- detailing the history of the Bowes Family and the museum. The gift shop and café are located to the right of the m ain desk as you enter. The Bowes Museum is open daily (with the exception of Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day) from 11am-5pm. Parking and admission to the grounds is free; admission to the museum costs £4 with discounts for children, pensioners, students and families. Further information is available on www.bowesmuseum.org.uk NEARBY ATTRACTIONS Where do you start? Perhaps with Egglestone Abbey, the beautiful ruin of a Premonstratensian Abbey located a few miles south of Barnard Castle. You’d certainly have to mention the nearby Rokeby Hall, the setting for Sir Walter Scott’s famous ballad ‘Rokeby’ and Raby Castle, a 14th-century fortress owned by the Nevilles prior to their part in the 1569 uprising, surrounded by superb grounds and a deer park and still lived in today by Lord Barnard (the Park and Gardens are open from 11am-5.30pm and the castle itself from 1pm-5pm from May to September, see www.rabycastle.com for precise details). Further literary connections are to be found in Bowes Village where W. Shaw, headmaster of Dotheby’s School and the inspiration for Squeers in Charles Dickens’ ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is buried in St Giles Church. Dickens visited the infamous Yorkshire School-brutal boarding schools renowned for their ill treatment of pupils-located in Teesdale to research ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ in 1836. While in Barnard Castle, a grandfather clock from Humphrey’s Store, now on display in the Bowes Museum’s Local History Section, inspired him to write ‘Master Humphrey’s Clock’. As Barnard Castle is known as the ‘Gateway to Teesdale’ it’s also worth noting that the nearby Durham Dales are home to High Force, England’s largest waterfall with a 21 metre drop at the end of an incredibly scenic wooded gorge, located four miles from the quaint town of Middleton-in-Teesdale, home to a 16th-century bell towe r affording splendid views over the dales on clear days. Forty miles of the Pennine Way are in Teesdale, passing white washed farm buildings and landscapes once painted by luminaries such as Cotman and Turner. RECOMMENDED WEBSITE www.afnu44.hemscott.net provides an excellent unofficial guide to local architecture and pubs in Barnard Castle.