Motorhome travel: Campervans and castles at Christmas
Words and Photos: Felicity Martin
It’s easy to let your horizons shrink in the winter. After rushing around the shops, numbed by Christmas jingles, the inclination is to curl up on the sofa with a hot drink. But having a motorhome means that sofa could be somewhere you’ve never been before. The kettle could be boiling while you gaze out on unfamiliar and enchanting scenery.
That was my theory when I booked a campsite in Teesdale in mid-December. It meant taking a chance with the weather; but nothing ventured, nothing gained…
Andrew and I are heading for Teesdale to explore an area new to us, after visiting friends for a couple of nights.
It’s a glorious winter’s day, with the low sun shining brilliantly, so our friends decide to have a day out with us at Barnard Castle, driving separately by car. As we approach the town, a romantic ruin is silhouetted on a bluff above the River Tees. Stone walls glow golden in the warm light, with glassless window arches framing slivers of azure sky.
Egglestone Abbey looks so inviting that we divert to have a look around. There is a small car park beside it and free entry. Although many of the buildings were demolished during the reformation, part of the abbey was used as workers’ accommodation by adjacent Rokeby Park into the 1800s.
Our destination at Barnard Castle is The Bowes Museum, which is holding a Christmas market. It’s not somewhere I had heard of before I researched Teesdale on the internet. I’m not prepared for the size and grandeur of the building that we see rising above the trees on the edge of town. It looks like a French château materialising on the edge of the north Pennines.
Market stalls are arranged around four sides of the formal gardens below the museum, with fairground rides and refreshment stalls on the terrace outside. We wander around choosing chocolates, cards and fleecy slippers. Our dog, Braan, particularly likes the cheese stalls because the owners give her morsels to taste. We buy a round of a flavoursome blue and a pack of craft beer from a neighbouring stall.
Hazel and I are desperate to have a go on the merry-go-round horses, but the men are very reluctant to revert to childhood. It’s enormous fun, galloping around in circles with rousing Christmas tunes playing. Because it’s free to have as many rides as you like, I keep returning for another go.
As the sun goes down, the chill sets in. Even mulled wine can’t keep us warm, so Braan is tucked up under a blanket in the campervan while we explore inside the museum.
The rooms are as large in size and proportion as the exterior – much bigger than you’d expect in a house, however magnificent. The mystery is solved when we discover that Bowes was never lived in, but was built by John and Josephine Bowes to house a museum.
They had no children to leave their fortune to, so it was their legacy to county and country. Josephine was an accomplished landscape painter and had an eye for design. They purchased an amazing collection of paintings, ceramics, silverware and furniture to fill the museum.
The middle floor has a ‘Catwalking’ exhibition with outfits from top fashion houses, such as Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen and a lifetime’s pictures by fashion photographer, Chris Moore. The top floor houses the famed Silver Swan automaton, which comes alive once a day (we come in too late to see it). There is also a gold clockwork mouse, encrusted with pearls, designed to run around and twitch its whiskers. The museum café keeps up the high standards, with silver service and lovely food.
The Christmas market is open until 7pm on Friday and, when we leave, the illuminated rides look very pretty in the dark.
The Geminids meteor shower peaks tonight and it is cloudless. Later, away from street lights, we gaze up at the stars. Although the moon is still bright – it’s deep yellow and lying on its back near the horizon – we spot several shooting stars streaking overhead.
We return to Barnard Castle early the next day for a look around the town, parking in the big Galgate car park behind Morrisons. The castle doesn’t open until 10am (and is only open at weekends in the winter), so we follow the Teesdale Way down to Flatts Wood, make a loop around Percy Beck then follow the River Tees downstream under the castle walls to the old bridge. Our return route is up the attractive main street, which is full of independent shops.
We are the only visitors looking around the castle, the ruins of which cover a surprisingly vast area, with outer, middle and inner wards at different levels. A cold wind cuts through us so we quickly circumnavigate the ramparts then cross the moat to the inner keep, where climbing a staircase built into the walls of the round tower gives us a more elevated view.
We drive to Bowes to see its ruined castle. There’s only narrow street parking so we stop in the village hall car park and I quickly walk up to the castle while Andrew prepares lunch. The massive square keep has no outer defences other than a dry moat, but looks impressively sturdy.
The strengthening wind is now carrying a fine, icy rain so I beat a hasty retreat. Returning downhill I find my feet slipping under me; the rain is freezing on contact with the ground and turning to black ice.
We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing at the campsite while a storm blows and buffets the campervan. Rain lashes the roof, but the forecast snow never appears.
By dawn it is beautifully clear and every surface is covered in ice. From the dog walking field, the views are magnificent with winter trees looming out of mist-filled hollows.
Gingerly following B-roads, we drive to Richmond, which appears to be a three-dimensional town; yet another castle towers above narrow lanes that plummet down to the river. From Yorke Square car park we walk up a steep, cobbled path to Castle Walk and follow it around the south side of the fortifications, high above the fast-flowing River Swale.
A detour down to the Foss (or Force) gives us a close view of the river powering over a hard step of rock. Canoeists are gathering on the bank, getting ready to tackle the rapids. Just looking at them makes me feel cold.
We enter the castle beside the massive keep and first explore the walls, dropping down through a gate to the Cockpit, a garden beside the great hall. It has topiary, lawns and seats with a view of the river.
Beside the keep is the cell block where conscientious objectors were imprisoned during WWI. They were then sent to France and those who refused to help the military effort were court marshalled and sentenced to death. A reprieve arrived a day before they were executed and their sentence was commuted to 10 years hard labour.
We climb stairs up the keep to enjoy a 360-degree panorama. The castle is laid out below and there is a great view over Richmond’s Market Square, which was built on the plan of what was once the castle’s outer bailey.
Before leaving we have a look at the exhibition. It describes the building and running of the castle through clear and colourful displays and models that bring medieval times alive.
Down in the square we find Mocha, a dog-friendly café and squeeze into a table for two between other dog-occupied tables. As it’s a chocolate shop I choose the luxury mocha and it’s excellent; not too sweet, with two shots of coffee and real dark chocolate melted into it.
Refreshed, we drive to the nearby Easby Abbey, which is yet another English Heritage site. We wander around the extensive ruins. Like Egglestone, it was an abbey of ‘White Canons’ – ordained priests rather than monks, founded in 1152.
The adjacent church of St Agatha is even older, dating from 1100. It has wonderful thirteenth century wall paintings that depict Old and New Testament stories. They were saved during the Reformation by being covered in whitewash, since removed.
Another clear, frosty morning is our cue to explore the more rural delights of upper Teesdale. On the way we fill up with LPG at the Co-op service station in Barnard Castle.
Andrew is driving and I frequently ask him to stop at laybys so I can leap out and photograph the wonderful views.
As we pass Eggleston, the low sun illuminates the medieval cultivation terraces on the hillside. This part of the valley is lush and green, with tree-lined stone walls dividing the fields. Further up at Forest-in-Teesdale, the pastures are rushy and the flat ground ends suddenly in rocky scars that run along the foot of bleak moorland.
We are planning to brew coffee at the picnic site overlooking Cow Green Reservoir, the source of the Tees. However, as the private water board road begins to climb more steeply the whole surface becomes a sheet of white ice. The wheels are spinning and there’s no way we’ll make the last mile. Andrew ends up reversing 500 yards until he can turn at a junction. Nevertheless, it’s a stunning scene with snow lying among the tussocks of grass.
Back down the valley we park at Bowlees. The adjacent visitor centre is closed until February, but a useful information board details walks and we set off on one of the longer ones. We cross the Tees by a suspension bridge below Low Force, where coffee-coloured water is surging over ledges of hard rock. Walking upstream on the Pennine Way gives us a real feel for the Teesdale landscape. Higher up we enter the Moor House-Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve with thick stands of juniper, which, from a distance, we mistake for gorse.
The apex of our route is a viewpoint looking upstream to High Force. The sheer power of water surging over the 70ft-high Whin Sill of solidified magma is impressive. Spray rises like steam from the boiling cauldron of water in the pool at the foot.
Retracing our steps, we cross another footbridge to take a higher route back along an old track. The moon grows bright as the light fades on the last mile back to Bowlees.
Our final visit is to Raby Castle, which we have been told not to miss.
The magnificent castle is closed for winter, but we enjoy coffee and mince pies in the Stables Café. I planned to pay for entry to the extensive deer park, but it’s a cold and wet day. Even Braan shows no inclination for a walk. So, with a last look at the Christmas trees on sale (no, one won’t fit in Stella), we head north for home.
My winter weather gamble has paid off. We feel better for the fresh air, exercise and historic treasures we have experienced. The things we’ve seen have given us a wealth of stories to bore our stay-at-home neighbours with over the holidays!