The Southern Charm of Northern England

Bowling is a proper sport for ladies and gentlemen in the village of Barnard Castle, which has stately homes and no rhyming rodents.
Bowling is a proper sport for ladies and gentlemen in the village of Barnard Castle, which has stately homes and no rhyming rodents. (By David Lyons -- Alamy)
By Diane Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 30, 2007

I'm trying not to spill pinot grigio on the inlaid Georgian cabinet. Or the Elizabethan refectory table. This is the trouble with being at a party in an antiques shop: nowhere safe to put your glass.

But people here in the northern English village of Barnard Castle have a remarkably relaxed attitude toward their old and beautiful things, maybe because old and beautiful things are everywhere. The main street is lined with silvery stone houses, some dating from before the Tudors, warm in the honeyed light of Indian summer. The church of St. Mary, its graveyard overrun with hollies and wildflowers, was founded in 1130. There's a museum with everything from El Greco saints to the Queen Mum's hats, and rising above the wild River Tees, the medieval castle that is the town's namesake.

On an afternoon scented with plate-sized pink and white roses flopping over garden walls, Barnard Castle seems to belong to an England far from the noisy modernity of London -- even though the capital is only 2 1/2 hours away by train. Bob Jordan, owner of the antiques shop, and his wife, Gail, are welcoming friends, customers, whoever walks by on the street, to celebrate the expansion of his quietly elegant emporium.

Barnard Castle is an easy place to be. You can make new friends over a pint of bitter in the pub or find blessed solitude on a country walk along the river. You can explore Roman sites, medieval mansions and pretty churches, or you can eat your way through local game and fish at one of the town's excellent (but not formal) restaurants. There's shopping, too, for antiques, designer clothes and local crafts, and people-watching on the Bank, the town's main drag.

Sir Walter Scott, John Wesley, Richard III, Romans and Celtic warrior princesses hung around Barnard Castle. J.M.W. Turner painted here. Charles Dickens researched "Nicholas Nickleby" here. Yet despite this A-list history, Barnard Castle, about 45 miles north of York, is almost a secret, unfamiliar even to other Britons.

Visitors heading up the eastern side of England hit York and Durham for their great medieval cathedrals, then hang a left to the Lake District, 40 miles west, to commune with the poetical souls of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Every traveler worth his or her Lonely Planet guide knows Windermere, Grasmere and Hill Top, home of Beatrix Potter. The Lakes even have a tourist mascot, a rapping squirrel named M.C. Nuts throwing down a hip-hop version of Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

But the Northeast, especially the 25 miles of the Tees valley known as Teesdale, boasts no rhyming rodents, no ersatz attractions. Rebecca Jenkins, a writer who lives in Barnard Castle, says, "People nowadays think the Northeast is derelict coal mines and all sorts of nastiness, but it's glorious. Because there have always been large landowners up here, we've retained our rural character."

Jenkins has set her new mystery novel series in the area, so she knows it well. "We've everything in a small space," she says. "Moors, woodland, hills, waterfalls, Bronze Age sites, Roman sites, old abbeys, stately homes, the lot."

Deep Veins of History

The North of England is like the South in the United States. The rest of Britain enjoys making fun of the way Northerners talk and the allegedly strange food (black pudding and tripe) they eat. Northerners own guns and persist in fox hunting, despite its being outlawed; they revel in parochialism (the village five miles up the dale is considered foreign); and they are obsessed with the past.

As always with stereotypes, some elements are accurate -- at least accurate enough to make me, an American Southerner, feel at home. But the signal truth about the North of England in general, and Barnard Castle in particular, is that people are spectacularly friendly. If a Barneyite says you should stop by the house for a drink, he or she means it. I've been coming up to Barnard Castle since my friend Deborah Jenkins (Rebecca Jenkins's sister) bought a 300-year-old house here and fixed it up so exquisitely it would make Martha Stewart weep with envy. Americans are rare enough here to still be interesting. In my 20 years of visiting, I've never seen the place overrun with busloads of camera-toting tourists. Yet there are plenty of charming, often historic, places to stay, from bed-and-breakfast inns to elegantly decorated cottages.

Some of the links between England's North and America's South are on display in the churchyard of St. Mary's. I pick my way between plots and see Sparky, the luxurious, ink-black community cat, sitting on a grave marked "Eubank," washing her paws. Eubank is a familiar name, one of the many I see on these mossy headstones carved with grinning, scythe-wielding skeletons. Mortham, Hornsby, Snodgrass are names I also know from little towns throughout the South. Some of their kin sailed for America in the early 18th century. Bob Jordan says he noticed "loads of Teesdale names in Tennessee when I was traveling the States . . . especially Snodgrass."

Inside the church, you can see 900 years of English history just by turning your head: round-topped Norman arches from the 12th century, fussy Victorian windows, effigies of priests who lived at the time of Chaucer and regimental banners of the Durham Light Infantry dating from before the American Revolution, the silk now so worn you can see clean through the Union Jacks.

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