Barnard Castle , County Durham

PUBLISHED: 10:29 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

Barnard Castle

Barnard Castle

Adventurers, authors, historians, classic car restorers and a mighty French-style chateau - the vintage quality of Barnard Castle WORDS AND PICTURES BY GARETH DANT

'Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.'

So wrote Cyril Northcote Parkinson, one of Barnard Castle's most famous sons. More commonly known as Parkinson's Law, the adage was coined by the naval historian - who was born in a house in Galgate in 1909 - to parody the inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

Strolling around this County Durham town on a winter's afternoon though, I wondered whether there could ever be enough time to explore this Teesdale gem. If you like the outdoors - and I must admit that my enthusiasm for the outdoor life was rather tested on my visit, when a smothering blizzard came from nowhere - then there cannot be a more beautiful area in Britain to roam.

The further up river you venture from Barnard Castle, where the town and its citadel sit above the Tees, the wilder and more rewarding it gets. Not for nothing were the North Pennines christened 'England's last great wilderness'

If you like antiques then this, Teesdale's main market town, will reward richly. From the regular furniture auctions at the livestock mart - where we once bought a marvellous old Durham carpet - to the decidedly more up-market antique shops that line The Bank, there's something to suit most budgets.

This is especially the case when you take in The Hayloft Emporium, a rather odd complex of caf, greengrocer and junk shop (in the best sense of the description) all rolled into one. And at the bottom of The Bank is the wonderful Mission Hall Antiques Centre, with five specialist antique furniture shops as well as ceramics, glass, collectibles and Lily Rose, the top floor outlet packed with vintage and designer second-hand clothing, shoes, bags, jewellery and accessories.

Market day is Wednesday, and one of the best farmers' markets in the region takes place on the first Saturday of each month in the centre of town.

And then there's heritage. The magnificent castle that gave the town its name sits high above the Tees in such an imposing way that would-be attackers must surely just have turned around and trotted home when confronted with the sight?

Founded by the Normans shortly after the 11th century conquest, it enjoyed its heyday under Bernard de Bailleul in the latter half of the following century. I wonder if the French nobleman would have minded the name his parents gave him being corrupted by the time it was adopted by a town in bleak northern lands far from northern coastline of France?

Like many a castle in the north, the one in Barnard Castle claims an association with Richard III, who inherited it through his wife. It fell into ruination in the century following his death though. These days English Heritage does a good job of looking after the remains, from which you can get a good view across the Tees.

Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens also have connections with the town, the former a frequent visitor to his pal John Sawrey Morritt at nearby Rokeby Hall - itself worth a visit in the warmer months. His epic 1813 poem Rokeby begins with a man standing on guard in the castle. Dickens stayed at the King's Head in town while researching Nicholas Nickleby in 1838.

Out of town a little and past Barnard Castle School - a private school hotbed of rugby-playing talent - sits the Bowes Museum, which looks like a French chateau marooned in County Durham. The brainchild of local businessman John Bowes and his Parisian wife Josephine, work started on a suitable home for their rapidly-expanding collection of paintings, ceramics, textiles and furniture in 1869.

Sadly, neither survived to see it open to the public in 1892, but their collection is of national importance, and the museum is a must-see for visitors to Teesdale and indeed County Durham, if only to admire the 18th century life-sized silver swan automaton. Recently painstakingly restored, it preens itself and appears to catch a silver fish once each day - literally like clockwork - at 2pm.

Strolling back into town, visitors reach one of the poshest roundabouts I've ever seen: the Butter Market, or Market Cross sits in the middle of the busy A688. At its peak there is a gilded weathervane with two distinct holes: said to have been caused by two local sharpshooters taking pot shots as part of a bet.

Beyond the Butter Market is another big draw - for my family at any rate. You'll find that increasingly rare thing in British high streets, a proper toy shop. Elsewhere in the main shopping area is a mixed bag of independents and slimmed-down outlets of national chains, but there are a few gems to discover, including Andalucia, in Galgate, which specialises in Spanish pottery, jewellery and gifts.

For an altogether different kind of window shopping, visitors will have to head out of town to Harmire Enterprise Park to worldrenowned car restorer The Carrosserie Company. Translating as 'coachworks', this international treasure attracts some of the world's finest cars from all over the globe for painstaking restoration.

Together with business partner Steve Layton, Carrosserie boss Dick Francis and his team of seven specialists do virtually everything in-house: only chrome work and engine re-boring work has to be sent elsewhere. Londoner Mr Francis has lived up north for 33 years and has always been in the specialised automotive sector: 'I used to do all the older cars because no-one else wanted to work on them,' he recalls of his training. From the most basic of parts to full re-builds commanding six-figure sums, the Carrosserie attracts work via word-of-mouth and specialist magazines.

So why Barnard Castle? As well as being a keen fan of his adopted district, Mr Francis is a one-man tourism broker too. 'We bring customers in from all over the world and it's a great place to visit. He we can entertain them for a couple of days and make their trip a really enjoyable experience.' Visitors who may not have a vintage vehicle in need of some TLC are, nevertheless, welcome to come and take a look around the showroom and peer through the workshop windows at the labours of love taking place.

And if it's good enough for globetrotting classic car enthusiasts, Barnard Castle should prove worth a visit for you - however you choose to travel.

Find out more

The Bowes Museum, 01833 690606. Open daily.

The Carrosserie, 01833 630011.
Groups by appointment only.

Mission Hall Antiques Centre 51 The Bank, 01833 631101. Open 10am-5pm, Mon-Sat, and 1.30-5pm Sun.

Rokeby Park 3 miles east of town, open from May until September, 2-5pm., 01609 748612.

Tourist information centre Woodleigh, Flatts Road, 01833 690909.

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