By Caitlin Ball
Barnard Castle has wound up with a lot of negative press recently, thanks to a little excursion the Prime Minister’s ex-chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, made to the medieval landmark back in March 2020.
It’s pretty worrying that this forced the castle’s millennium of illustrious history into the backseat because of the antics of a shifty Tory politician. It’s a crying shame that, for the foreseeable future, a mention of Barnard Castle will conjure up images of Dominic Cumming instead of medieval knights valiantly defending its walls against siege, and resplendent kings parading its hallways, as they frequently did.
However sad this may be, it seems to be working wonders in terms of the castle’s attractiveness to the public. The 20% surge in visitor numbers reported by English Heritage for last year, in comparison with data from 2019, indicate that people are venturing to Barnard Castle because of the scandal, not in spite of it.
The negative stigma which now surrounds Dominic Cummings, Barnard Castle appears to have evaded. As people grew increasingly exasperated by the insides of their houses during lockdown, local beauty spots which pre-pandemic had perhaps been overlooked, offered a chance for respite when restrictions relaxed. Being at the centre of a political scandal, however, Barnard Castle turned from a local beauty-spot to something of an iconic national landmark.
Dominic Cumming’s misdeed essentially heightened public curiosity about Barnard Castle — a place many had not heard of before. The surrounding eponymous market town has now, according to The Guardian, grown used to influxes of tourists, who come to ‘pose for selfies’ before heading to the castle itself. While the scandal provided an initial hook for the public, however, I’m certain that each visitor came away reminded of what Barnard Castle’s real appeal is.
The castle’s magnificent history begins in the 11th century, during the reign of William II, when its foundations were first built by the Royal favourite, Guy de Balliol. However, it is his son and successor, Bernard de Balliol I, to whom the castle and its surrounding township owe their names. It is he who built up the walls of the castle from the foundations left by his father into something reminiscent of what the ruins resemble today. Barnard Castle remained in the Balliol family into the 15th century, when it eventually fell into the hands of Richard III. The Balliol legacy lives on, of course, in the Oxford college that is its namesake.
By the time the castle fell out of royal hands in the early 17th century, its period of practical usefulness had long passed. One of the later 17th century owners, Sir Henry Vane, began to plunder the castle for materials to develop his own property in Raby, marking the beginning of its period of ruination.
Built on a natural plateau, Barnard Castle sits along a Roman road over the Pennines that remains a significant communications route to this day. Commanding the high ground, it serves as a stunning vantage point from which to take in the views of the calming natural riverbanks, bursting with the lush greenery that lines the rushing waters of the River Tees.
The castle also boasts, on its grounds, a pleasant sensory garden. Fragrant herbs and flowers line the paths carved out for strolling visitors, some of which being famous for their popularity during the castle’s heyday. The marjoram flowers, for example, have been a popular herb since the 14th Century when it was favoured by alchemists in treating ailments such as sore throats and indigestion. It was also thought, throughout the Middle Ages, to be symbolic of eternal love, honour and happiness. The garden, dotted with benches, provides a quaint spot for a picnic lunch and some green spaces for a ball game or two.
While the scandal that shot Barnard Castle to the height of national fame stings for many who suffered and lost loved ones to the pandemic, the surge in visitor numbers has proved the British public’s ability to continually find laughter and comedy during dark times, and incidentally, in this case, rediscover the historic spots which tell such fascinating stories.
Image credit: Gracie Linthwaite