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The Southern Charm of Northern England

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.

The castle that gives the town its name was an early fortification expanded in the early 13th century by Barnard de Balliol. To see Barnard's Castle in all its fierce, vertical glory, walk all the way down the Bank, past weavers' cottages on the right and Thorngate House, a graceful mansion, on your left. Between the two old mills (now upmarket flats) there's a footbridge across the river: You can look through the slats beneath your feet down to the cold Pennine Hill water rushing to the North Sea.

On the other side, turn left and follow the riverside path. Don't scare the ducks. In a minute you'll see the castle, thrusting out of a rocky outcrop above the Tees, its twilight-gray towers solid against the sky.

It's a ruin now, but you can imagine how intimidating it must have looked to Scots marauders, Northumbrian insurgents or other medieval troublemakers. The Roman legions used to ford the river at the bottom of the cliff. The road you see to the left? That was originally Roman; it's still straight as rain.

A French Confection

I ought to be contemplating the great sweep of Teesdale's history. Instead, my mind is on shopping. Barnard Castle is hog heaven for antiques aficionados. I stand in The Collector and fantasize about the manor house I'll buy when I win the Florida Lottery. I'll furnish it with that ruby and sapphire Persian carpet and that refectory table and the cabinet with flowers and the cupids.

I window-shop my way down the Bank, considering rosewood chairs, a Coalport service for 20, a ceramic plaque that reads "Prepare to Meet Thy God." In the Mission Hall, a mini-mall of antiques down toward the river, I covet a stuffed stoat, a Victorian rolling pin and a giant lustreware mug shining like copper.

If you want to learn more about lustreware -- much of it made in nearby Sunderland -- or Elizabethan woodwork or the right kind of Old Masters to hang in the manor house, just march back up the Bank to the Bowes Museum, the greatest conglomeration of art in the Northeast.

The first time I saw the Bowes, I thought I was having a weird French hallucination. There, on a high hill overlooking the Demesnes (the medieval common lands of Barnard Castle), was this huge Loire Valley chateau: mansard roof, floor-to-ceiling windows, boxwood knot gardens, the works. What happened was this: John Bowes, love child of a village girl and the Earl of Strathmore (kin to the late Queen Mother), married a French actress named Josephine Coffin-Chevalier in 1852. They both loved to shop. Their house began to fill up with acquisitions, so they built the Bowes to edify the locals and commemorate their stuff.

And what stuff it is: El Grecos, Goyas, Turners, Louis XV furniture, Belgian tapestries, Meissen porcelain, Bohemian glass. In two seconds you can go from a green and gold salon from the time of the Sun King to a high Victorian sitting room with William Morris patterns on every surface. This summer, there was a special exhibition of drawings from the Queen Mother's collection (she took her Bowes connection seriously), including pieces by Gainsborough and Lawrence and a lovely portrait of her by Augustus John, back when she was simply Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

I take the shortcut back to the Bank through a narrow path by the churchyard, past the 19th-century schoolhouse and through the passageway underneath the old Broadgates Chapel, a Methodist meeting house. John Wesley preached there in 1765. I'm wondering if I have time for a walk up to Egglestone Abbey before dinner: It's less than a mile across impossibly green pasture, by hedgerows beginning to show the red berries of autumn and along the tree-shaded river.

I decide I'll go tomorrow instead and hike all the way to Rokeby. Once you make it to the gaunt and lovely 13th-century abbey ruins (Turner painted there on one of his trips to Teesdale), you can amble for a mile or so through the woods and get to the pumpkin-colored Rokeby Park, where Sir Walter Scott wrote a long historical poem. "Rokeby" got lousy reviews when it came out in 1813, turning Scott into a full-time novelist, but the Palladian house is well worth a tour.

If it's a fine day (northern weather can get fierce, but usually not till December), I'll take the track past the Dairy Bridge, where the Tees meets the River Greta, and on to Mortham Tower, a 700-year-old fortified house so ancient and serene that it seems to belong to some lost Arthurian epic. Walking along the banks of the Greta, maybe I'll have a drink and a ploughman's (bread, cheese and pickle) at the Morritt Arms, a nice country pub.

But that's tomorrow. Tonight is dinner at Blagraves.

Phantom Echoes

It's cool this evening, so owner-chefs Ken and Elizabeth Marley have lit a fire in the downstairs drawing room where Gail and Bob Jordan and I sit drinking a perfumey Medoc, eating tartlets of wild nettles and Cotherstone cheese (made in a village three miles up the dale) and trying to decide what to have for dinner. The menu at Blagraves changes often, reflecting the seasons: venison, pheasant, pigeon, salmon (lots of hunting and fishing around here), plus local beef and lamb.

Upstairs in the dining room, we feast on asparagus, rabbit terrine, trout and guinea fowl as Bob explains that Blagraves House was built in 1483 and belonged to Richard III -- as did the castle and most of the lands around here. You can still see his heraldic emblem, the Boar Passant -- that is, with one trotter raised -- on the south wall of the house.

For dessert there's homemade ice cream and sticky toffee pudding (the most sublime use of sugar known to man), but I'm having the lemon posset with fresh berries. We move onto the subject of ghosts: Bob and Gail's house has a phantom staircase that some spirit clunks up and down; the old Manor House down the Bank has an angry maidservant from several centuries ago who makes pinging noises in empty rooms; Blagraves may be haunted by Oliver Cromwell, who spent a night here in 1648, and a ghost kitty cat. The feline spectre apparently rubs up against diners' legs and when they look, there's nothing there.

"Maybe it's just Sparky," Gail says.

Bob speculates that the tunnels that run under the Bank, used in innkeeping times as a way to move beer barrels when the road above was covered in snowdrifts, might give rise to some of the stories of hauntings, with strange noises apparently coming from nowhere. Some of the tunnels are ancient and may reach as far as the castle or the medieval monastic buildings by the river.

Bob says he thinks history leaves a sort of imprint on places and people, an echo. "It's like we have some memory genes passed on by our ancestors. Could be why you feel so at home in certain places."

Could be this is why I feel so at home in Barnard Castle: It's those Southern memory genes calling back across the Atlantic to the place whence they came.

Diane Roberts last wrote for Travel about Tallahassee.

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