WACKFORD Squeers – who can forget the flog ’em and starve ’em schoolmaster in Nicholas Nickleby? Or Smike, his equally aptly named urchin victim at Dotheboys Hall? Both based on the villainous reality of the day.
'Beds float in trees, a flying saucer glides alongside a fox hunt, and giant dolls crash through landscapes filled with foreboding'
In 1838 Charles Dickens made a foray to Greta Bridge and Barnard Castle in Teesdale to investigate the abuses of the notorious “Yorkshire schools”. His journalistic exposé forced many to shut, while the experience created such memorable fiction.
To get there it took the great writer 29 straight hours by stagecoach from London, the hell of the potholed Great North Road made more hellish by the January snows. He stayed in The George at Greta Bridge and described it in a letter to his wife as “the very best inn I have ever been put up in”. Our arrival at the same riverside hamlet (now officially in County Durham) on a balmy spring day was quite different. By car via the A66 after a lovely stay in Durham city. We were booked in for spa treatment at the Morritt Arms, which may or may not have been “The George”. Three coaching inns once vied for the travellers’ custom here, including the George and Dragon, part of which was incorporated into the later Morritt. It’s all very confusing.
Whatever, after a fine, simple lunch, it was a joyto sit in the sun outside its Dickens Bar, while my wife used the state of the art spa facilities at “The Garage”, the independently-run hotel’s latest development. She was suitably impressed.
Originally used as a refuelling and repairing point for the first motorcars, The Garage boasts car themed bespoke treatments such as the Oil Change Facial, as well as heat experiences including indoor and rooftop hot tubs, a Secret Garden, and the UK’s first Shepherds Hut Sauna. For furller details of what’s on offer visit this link.
A wedding (it’s a great venue) spilled out into the garden. I stepped briefly inside to admire the bar’s jolly Dickens-themed scenes across all four walls. It is the only hand-painted wall mural by John Gilroy in the world. The famous Northumbrian artist is best known for his Guinness Irish Stout advertising posters.
The it was off to Barnards Castle on the lovely back road passing Egglestone Abbey. I had a date with a building only started 20 years after Dickens’ visit. The Bowes Museum was purpose-built as a public art gallery for the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne’s illegitimate son John Bowes and his wife Joséphine Chevalier, Countess of Montalbo, who both died before it opened in 1892.
They did bequeath a colossal endowment for then of £125,00 and 800 paintings (Goya, El Greco, Canaletto amid much that’s less distinguished) forming the basis of the collection, which also strays into furniture, fashion, ceramics and all manner of collectibles. In truth I find the stupendous French style exterior preferable to the permanent contents. With one exception – the much-loved musical automaton, The Silver Swan.
At 2pm every day this product of an 18th century Parisian jeweller’s workshop comes to life courtesy of three separate clockwork mechanisms. When set in motion it appears to preen itself and bend its neck tot take a fish from the “water”.
It was a fascinating, slightly sinister experience, as was my refuge on one of the current, contemporary exhibitions. Tim Walker: The Dreamscapes is on until September 1, 2013. His day job is as a fashion photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, but the images here are surrealistic, neo-romantic evocations of the English landscape. Beds float in trees, a flying saucer glides alongside a fox hunt, and giant dolls crash through landscapes filled with foreboding. Worth missing out the rest of Bowes just for this.
Down the road is a much more satisfying place to visit – quirky, lived-in Raby Castle. Combine it with a trek up to see High Force waterfall, where the iver Tees suddenly plunges 20 metres over Whin Sill into a pool, and you have a great day out.
Barnard Castle itself is one of Britain’s great traditional market towns with an abundance of individual shops and some sturdy architecture. We chanced upon the farmer’s market which, though not large, puts many others to shame.
Earlier on the way down we had dined at a pub that takes regionall sourced food very seriously, while retaining all the virtues of a proper boozer. It’s not easy to find the Feathers Inn, Hedley On The Hill , but well worth it.
The profile of Teesdale often suffers in comparison with the Yorkshire Dales further south, but it is a ravishing area and the Morritt Arms makes a splendid, welcoming base. Just don’t make the journey up in a snowy January by rattling stagecoach!
The Morritt Hotel, Greta Bridge, nr Barnard Castle Co. Durham DL12 9SE. www.themorritt.co.uk.
The 26-bedroom hotel, located just off the A66 just 10 miles from the A1, is currently offering a special wedding package for couples who book one in 2013. It includes a free spa evening in The Garage, including champagne and canapes and mega pampering. For full details or to make a room reservation visit the website, email email@example.com or call 01833 627232.
To book spa time and treatments visit www.thegaragespa.co.uk, email The Garage at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01833 863100.
Essential Co Durham tourist guide www.visitcountydurham.org
The Bowes Museum www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk
Raby Castle and High Force www.rabycastle.com
For more about Teesdale visit www.teesdalediscovery.com
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