Bowes, County Durham – a Dickens of a place

PUBLISHED: 01:15 04 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:00 20 February 2013

Charles Dickens based Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby on William Shaw's Academy. A plaque marks the spot of the former academy

Charles Dickens based Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby on William Shaw's Academy. A plaque marks the spot of the former academy

Bowes, in upper Teesdale, has a surprisingly rich history for a quiet village and, back in the 1830s, it provided Charles Dickens with the inspiration for Dotheboys Hall, which appears in his novel Nicholas Nickleby

Mention Bowes in the North East of England and the image conjured into most minds is that of the French chateau-style stately home, designed by Jules Pellechet, which is today home to the Bowes Museum.

Only a handful of people immediately think of the quiet village in Teesdale that provided the author Charles Dickens with the inspiration for Dotheboys Hall and Wackford Squeers, his quirky one-eyed schoolmaster.

Set in the dales, in countryside demarcated by dry stone walls and characterised by the gentle bleating of sheep, Bowes makes a pleasant impression despite a hoare frost whitening the landscape during my visit.

Within the low-beamed village pub, the Ancient Unicorn Inn, a fire burns in the hearth and people chat over pints of real ale, oblivious of the cold outside. Its easy to imagine how it might have been when Dickens came here for lunch while researching the conditions of North Yorkshires private academies ahead of writing Nicholas Nickleby. It was only the boundary changes of 1974 that made Bowes part of County Durham.

The Ancient Unicorn was built as a coaching inn in the 16th century, when the Stainmore Pass - now the A66 - was still an important trade route. Inevitably, being a building with a long history, rumours exist that the pub is haunted.

From time to time we let paranormal investigators come to stay and they s that the place is haunted, but I myself havent seen anything, says Joanne Foster, the Ancient Unicorns landlady. The previous landlady was keen on this kind of thing and she thought shed seen the ghost of a girl, but it all sounds rather fanciful to me. The people who stayed with us recently said theyd been in the cellar and met a little boy whod been thrown down there as punishment and wasnt allowed back out; so apparently the cellars haunted by a little boy. And theyd also seen a woman who wore a big grey, smock-like Victorian dress. But Ive slept in all the rooms and Ive never seen anything unusual.

Anyone willing to run the risk of a ghostly encounter can book an overnight stay at the inn. It is ideally located for walkers resting between stages of the Pennine and Teesdale Ways, which converge at Bowes. Perhaps fresh air and exercise help ensure a good nights sleep, despite the occasional bump in the night.

Stephen Roberts moved here from West Yorkshire 25 years ago and is today a director of Hidebound, a local company producing leather drinking vessels based on designs from bygone times. I now thoroughly enjoy the rural lifestyle and, quite frankly, we have absolutely beautiful countryside scenery, he says of Bowes. Knowledgeable about history, Stephen regularly finds pottery fragments while digging his garden and suspects they may date to Roman times. The remains of Lavatrae Roman fort, which once covered four acres, are on the edge of the village. According to Stephen, there is great significance in the name Lavatrae. It is a fort which had a Roman baths. The Roman plunge pool is still here - and you can still see it - where the legionnaires would be sent, effectively, on leave; almost a Roman legionnaires holiday camp, he says, with a hint of laughter.

Another ancient monument, Bowes Castle occupies the north-west corner of the Roman fort. First built in 1087 for the earl of nearby Richmond, the castle was strategically important, controlling trade across the Pennines. It was besieged several times during the middle ages. One of the armies that fought here was led by King William of Scotland, during his campaign of 1173. Today managed by English Heritage, the castle is free to visit.

So too is St Giles churchyard, which holds the grave of William Shaw, the local schoolmaster who is said to have inspired Charles Dickens character Wackford Squeers. Beaten by 160 years of Pennine weather, the headstone now bears a slightly worn inscription. Shaw ran his academy in the house on the west of the village that now bears a wooden Dotheboys Hall plaque.

As Dickens himself found, Bowes may be relatively small but its not short of a story or two.

Bowes and beyond

The village of Bowes is located just four miles from Barnard Castle, at the junction of the A66 and A67. Barnard Castle holds a Farmers Market on the first Saturday of every month, making a market day visit to Bowes a distinct possibility for anyone who finishes their shopping early.

Bowes is renowned as a good stopping point for walkers heading along the Pennine Way and also those striding out on the Teesdale Way. Day trippers keen on shorter walks can park up in Bowes and follow footpaths from the village. A relatively sedate 7.5 mile route will take you via Gilmonby, Gods Bridge and Sleightholme. Anyone looking for more of a challenge is likely to enjoy the 12 mile route past Gods Bridge, Race Yate, Goldsborough and Levy Pool.

If walking isnt your thing, you can always get on your bike as Bowes is on the W2W Cycle Route (www.cyclingw2w.info) which runs from Walney to Wearmouth (153 miles) and also to Whitby (172 miles).

High Force is one of the major nearby attractions. Viewing the free-flowing springtime water crashing down over Englands highest waterfall can easily be combined with a visit to Bowes.

A range of self-catering cottages can be rented in and around nearby Barnard Castle. Cottages for two people can be rented from 185 per week, while cottages for four cost from 210. See www.britainexpress.com for details.

Accommodation and food is available at the Ancient Unicorn Inn, Bowes, Barnard Castle, County Durham, DL12 9HL, managed by Joanne Foster www.ancient-unicorn.com, Tel: 01833 628321.

Stephen Roberts is a director of Hidebound, which produces leather drinking vessels along the lines of those used throughout history www.hidebound.co.uk, Tel: 01833 628317.

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