The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Barnard Castle’s must-see neighbour
Near the town where Dominic Cummings tested his eyesight, Raby Castle is not to be missed. Amanda Hyde takes a tour
The castle’s eccentric characters include hunter William Harry Vane who seems rarely to have been painted off a horse
On market day in the pretty town of Barnard Castle, the High Street was busier than ever. Residents threaded their way between tourists on the pavements while stalls selling “posh cheese”, pansies and freshly baked bread jostled with cars for space on the cobbles. Behind it all, the medieval fortification from which the town derived its name looms on the bank of the River Tees, its facade hard to miss – even without specs on.
This is where Dominic Cummings famously came to test his eyesight back in April 2020 when pandemic lockdown rules were in place. While Cummings has since said he wishes he had never heard of Barnard Castle, others find the place doubly compelling as a result. He has done for the town what Dickens, who stayed there while researching Nicholas Nickleby, could not: put it firmly on the map.
At the Old Barnard Castle Curiosity Shop, owner Angela Baitson showed me eye charts and Dominic Cummings tea towels specially created in the wake of the scandal by her husband, a graphic designer. She told me that they still fly off the shelves. “I see people outside and think ‘How nice. They’re taking photos of the shop’,” she continued, “but they are actually taking selfies [of ] the Specsavers across the road.”
This may sound fanciful, but Statistics back it up. In 2021, English Heritage (which holds the castle under a guardianship agreement with owner Lord Barnard) recorded a 20 per cent rise in visitor numbers compared to 2019.
The wider area seems to be having a moment, too. Mid-way between Barnard Castle and Durham, the Auckland Project is working hard to put the town of Bishop Auckland back on the map. Then there is the development at Raby Castle, another medieval pile around 15 minutes’ drive from Barnard Castle, owned by Lord Barnard as part of the vast Raby Estate.
Barnard Castle may be a ruin but
Raby is a perfectly preserved history museum, thanks in part to building materials taken from the former to keep it in optimum condition during centuries past. It comes with a huge medieval hall, some glitzy 19th-century interior decoration and, hanging from the walls, a who’s-who of the Vane family (lords of the manor since the estate was granted to them by the Crown along with Barnard Castle in 1616) and the Nevilles (who lost it after Charles Neville co-led the Rising of the North rebellion in 1569).
These portraits highlight some of the castle’s more eccentric characters, including William Harry Vane, a pathological hunter who seems rarely to have been painted off a horse or without several dogs for company. In one picture, his extravagantly crenellated kennels are clearly visible in the background though they have since been pulled down.
A few years ago, the castle and its grounds were off-limits to everyone apart from ticket holders, but now strollers and dog-walkers can explore its fringes for free. For a fee, visitors can enter the castle or the new Plotters’ Forest adventure playground, hidden in a Christmas tree plantation where turrets compete with treetops for space on the skyline. The whimsical approach is echoed in a temporary café, situated in a yurt in the grounds.
In 2024, there will be further fairy dust when a new restaurant, market and events space overlooking romantic walled gardens open as part of the Rising development (named in a nod to the 16th-century rebellion). The aim is to do for Raby Castle what Cummings did for its sister down the road.
Lord and Lady Barnard have a knack for hospitality. Five years ago they took over the running of the 10-room High Force Hotel, on estate land 20 miles away in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Across the road from the towering waterfall from which it takes its name, the hotel has a magical setting in the middle of nowhere. Twilight sees neon, dreamscape skies while nights are so dark that occasional stargazing evenings are held by the falls. Rooms (done up by Lady Barnard in artfully clashing prints that nod to the opulent design scheme of Raby Castle) are fit for a five-star hotel, with cloud-like beds and marble-hemmed baths. But the real stars of the show are managers George and Andrew, who run the place like particularly solicitous uncles.
Thanks to them, fires are constantly stoked, freshly baked cakes are produced for elevenses and bunches of flowers are surprises in the bedrooms. It is exactly what you need after yomps in the surrounding countryside.
On one of these, which took me over empty fields towards the village of Bowlees, hares skittered across my path and lapwings bounced on the breeze, sending calls like slide whistles into the air. After walking onwards to cross the Tees by rickety bridge, I followed the squat Low Force rapids back to the hotel with only the occasional dog-walker for company.
On a route as spectacular as this you would expect traffic jams of trekkers, but Raby Estates’ CEO Duncan Peake told me that the region is currently in a “happy place”, with far fewer visitors than the nearby Lake District or North Yorkshire Moors, but a healthy interest from holidaymakers. However, despite the deserted landscape, I still failed to spot the curlews which, Andrew told me, migrate to the area at the very beginning of spring to breed.
“Are you sure you didn’t see any?” he asked, astonished, once I returned from my walk. Perhaps it is time for my own visit to Specsavers.