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UK - Bowes:
a town that inspired Charles Dickens
Dickens of a Place
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Mention Bowes in the North-East of England and the image conjured into most minds is that of the French chateau-style stately home, designed by Jules Pellechet, which is today home to the Bowes Museum.
Only a handful of people immediately think of the quiet village in Teesdale that provided Charles Dickens with the inspiration for Dotheboys Hall and Wackford Squeers, his quirky one-eyed schoolmaster.
Set in the dales, in countryside demarcated by dry stone walls and characterised by the gentle bleating of sheep, Bowes makes a pleasant impression despite a hoare frost whitening the landscape.
Within the low-beamed village pub, the Ancient Unicorn Inn, a fire burns in the hearth and people chat over pints of real ale, oblivious of the cold outside.
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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 – for it was only the boundary changes of 1974 that made Bowes part of County Durham - ahead of writing Nicholas Nickleby. Although it was finally unified politically in 1870, the country is still divided into 20 distinct regions, each of them with its own unique landscapes and history that are reflected to this day in its culinary masterpieces.
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.
“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.
“The previous landlady was keen on this kind of thing and 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.”
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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?
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.
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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.
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