Bowes: the County Durham village that inspired Charles Dickens

Bowes, in upper Teesdale, has a surprisingly rich history for a quiet English village. One of Bowes claims to fame is that, during the 1830s, it provided Charles Dickens with the inspiration for aspects of Nicholas Nickleby.

Throughout the northeast of England, Bowes is a name commonly associated with the French chateau-style stately home designed by Jules Pellechet, which is today Bowes Museum. Only a handful of people immediately think of the quiet village in Teesdale that provided Dickens with the inspiration for Dotheboys Hall and Wackford Squeers, his quirky one-eyed schoolmaster.

Inspiration for Nicholas Nickleby

Set in the dales, in countryside demarcated by dry stone walls and characterised by the gentle bleating of sheep, I visit Bowes on a day that sees a hoare frost whitening the winter landscape. Within the low-beamed village pub, the Ancient Unicorn Inn, a fire burns in the hearth and people converse over pints of real ale, oblivious of the cold outside. It’s easy to imagine how it might have been when Dickens came here for lunch while researching the conditions of North Yorkshire’s private academies ahead of writing Nicholas Nickleby. It was only during the county boundary changes of 1974 that Bowes left Yorkshire to become part of County Durham.

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

Accommodation in a haunted house?

“From time to time we let paranormal investigators come to stay, and they said that the place is haunted, but I myself haven’t seen anything,” says Joanne Foster, the Ancient Unicorn’s landlady. One woman was convinced that the haunting are real, explains Joanna: “She thought she’d seen the ghost of a girl, but it all sounds rather fanciful to me. These people who stayed with us recently said they’d been in the cellar and met a little boy who’d been thrown down there as punishment and wasn’t allowed back out; so apparently the cellar’s haunted by a little boy. And they’d also seen a woman who wore a big grey, smock-like Victorian dress. But I’ve slept in all the rooms and I’ve never seen anything.”

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 night’s sleep, despite the occasional bump in the night?

Roman history in County Durham

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, laughing.

Bowes Castle and medieval sieges

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 it’s not short of a story or two.

Further Information

To book a night at the Ancient Unicorn Inn call 01833 628321 or visit the pub’s website.

Find out more about attractions and tourism in County Durham at the This is Durham website.

For further information on destinations in England, click on Visit England’s website.

Getting to Bowes

Bowes is four miles from Barnard Castle, at the junction if 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.

Things to do in Bowes

Bowes is a 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, God’s Bridge and Sleightholme. Anyone looking for more of a challenge is likely to enjoy the 12 mile route past God’s Bridge, Race Yate, Goldsborough and Levy Pool.

If walking isn’t your thing, you can always get on your bike as Bowes is on the W2W Cycle Route  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 England’s highest waterfall can easily be combined with a visit to Bowes.

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