Barnard Castle and the Bowes Museum

by David Murray on 7 February 2012

in Castles, Durham, Museums, Northern England, Rivers

Last weekend we paid an unscheduled visit to Barnard Castle. Our normal pattern when driving over the A66 between Cumbria and County Durham has been to fly past at 60 to 70 miles per hour on the way to or from somewhere or other. This time, however, a glance at the fuel gauge said quite unmistakably that we needed to pay a visit to Barnard Castle, at the very least to fill the diesel tank.

Bridge over the Tees at Barnard Castle

Bridge over the Tees at Barnard Castle

The town is on the banks of the River Tees, and its castle (after which, of course, the town is named) towers on a cliff above the river.

I must confess that before moving back north to live in the Eden Valley my only mental impression of Barnard Castle (the town) was of a pharmaceuticals factory. But there is far more to it than that. The centuries old town centre is well worth exploration and Barnard Castle (the castle) is full of history. It was founded by Bernard de Balliol in the 12th century. This was a time when control of the North of England shifted backwards and forwards between English and Scottish kings. Although descended from the Norman invaders of England, de Balliol appears to have given allegiance to King David of Scotland at least for a time. The castle eventually passed into the ownership of Richard III but after his death it was neglected and fell into ruins. Now the border lands are much more peaceful and the castle is in the care of English Heritage.

The Bowes Museum

The Bowes Museum - Barnard Castle - Teesdale

The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

On the outskirts of the town, to the east, is the Bowes Museum. This splendid building, in the style of an elaborate French chateau, looks as though it should have been the residence of an exceptionally wealthy local family. Actually it was built specifically as a museum by John Bowes, a wealthy 19th century aristocratic (albeit illegitimate) art collector and his wife Josephine.

The building was finished only after both their deaths, and now is managed by a charitable trust, housing nationally and internationally important collections of European fine and decorative arts from the Middle Ages onwards as well as hosting many major visiting exhibitions. We ventured only as far as the gates on this visit, but we’ll be back.

Barnard Castle again

Before we left I stopped to take another photograph of the castle. From the western side one gets a better impression of the sheer scale of the ancient fortress.

The Castle above the River Tees - Barnard Castle

This is somewhere we simply must revisit and explore more fully, and when I consider that we were little more than half an hour from home (even if over the Pennines) I ask myself why we’ve neglected it until now.

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