down, town

I take my cue from Ella Fitzgerald; the weather’s no good (again), but isn’t this a lovely day? Learning my lesson from before, I’m togged up and ready this time, but lugging a great bag of optimism around with me along with the rain gear and the camera. It pays off.

Barnard Castle, County Durham. A cold January day.

The River Tees drops from its source on Cross Fell 2000 feet and more much more, above, descending through the North Pennines at speed, via cataracts and torrents, past High Force, where it crashes over itself to reach the lower hills. It has much to escape; on the Fell, the only named British wind, the Helm, a fierce north-easterly, shrieks across the escarpment, filled with fiends according to the ancients, and in the water itself lives Peg Powler, a green haired hag who pulls naughty children beneath the surface should they stray too near the edge.

By the time it has fallen to 600 feet it is all much calmer and the Tees is a broad and easy-on-the-eye tumble over rocks and – the land being rich in ironstone at this point – rust coloured pebbles. It meanders around the promontory where the town sits. The significant feature looking down onto the river is, of course, the castle, a pile, like almost every other near-border stronghold, squabbled over for years by various interested parties. Here, the Scots and the Balliols and the Bishops of Durham. Seven centuries ago, Edward I gave it to the Earl of Warwick and a couple of generations after that the castle passed by marriage to the Nevilles. During the Wars of the Roses, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) took possession of the fortress. His stamp, his personal device, the white boar, is to be found everywhere on keystones and bosses. On St Mary’s, the large parish church whose tower looms across the main street, a window arch on the north transept shows the hog clearly. Richard was here.

I start in the graveyard. There are skeletal horse chestnuts towering here, creaking above me like masts and rigging, jackdaws and rooks complaining at nothing, joining in. A tomb, a sizable table monument, declares a wonderfully gruesome Reaper. This is for George Hopper, I find, of Black Hedley, Northumberland. He is a very grand chap, Death, standing there silently, God’s acre before him, looking out, as Woolf said, on the shells, bones and silence beneath us, but it’s cold enough already and time to be getting along.

At the southern edge of the church yard, a gate takes you down the hill a little and out onto the Demesnes; a feudal hangover, like the Lendings mirrored across the river, this is a long sloping sled-friendly bank that dramatically skeeters off down into the valley and eventually would land you in the Tees if you found yourself unable to stop running.

Behind and betwixt and between its many streets, Barnard Castle, Barney, is riddled with snickets, alleyways, cut-throughs and ginnels. It is a smallish place, but it covers a lot of ground. There are routes and paths everywhere. From the edge of the Demesnes, turning back towards the town, there are numerous points of entry via the tunnels. You just have to take your pick. These dark slips feed out into the main orthodox streets, but they turn into one another too. Evergreens and ivies that cling to the stone hint at it, but in the summer the conduits must be wonderfully shadowy and cool. As a navigable method they are, taken all at once, a little baffling, so I determine to do just that and endeavour to uncover each one.

As singular channels it is easy to see their merit, though, and it makes sense to pop from one corner of town to another down a stony rabbit hole, rather than traipse effortfully along three sides of a planned square. Elsewhere, you can see that such eminently sensible innovations will have been eradicated in successive waves of town planning, and I am sure that where the new-ish supermarket and its associated car park now sit, the footprint once included many crisscrossing corridors. What is left, though, makes for a delightfully eccentric, if obtuse, tour of the town.

Back at the church, if an overview was needed after all those obscure paths, it is found in a wonderful mural thrown large against the Parish Hall wall. Created by the artist Douglas Pittuck in the 1950s, it shows Barney town life in its many higgledy-piggledy forms, playing out beneath the gloomy circular keep of the castle and the towers of its churches, including of course St Mary’s.

Boys catch tadpoles in a jar, lovers lean over the bridge and look into the river, soldiers possibly on leave from Catterick up the road stride past, women gossip, and a motorcyclist tears through the fabric and down the steep hill towards Startforth. It’s complex and kaleidoscopic and, of course, colourful and confusing, but after much staring and taking apart and putting back together it makes sense. Like the streets, and the alleyways and the creaking branches and the shells and the bones and the silence.

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