SOUTH COWTON was once a thriving village on a hillside above a damp dip. It had its own church and its own castle in which lived its own knightly lord of the manor.

Today, there is a North Cowton and an East Cowton, but South Cowton has largely disappeared.

Its church and castle remain, but its only residents are a pair of swans swimming on the lake which grows at the bottom of the damp dip every time the clouds open.

South Cowton is the middle of nowhere – although in the 9th Century, the scurrying monks carrying St Cuthbert’s remains managed to find it.

They were fleeing the rampaging Vikings, but rested awhile in the damp dip – Cowton is said to be a contraction of Cuthbert’s ton, or settlement.

Where they rested, a church was built, and the settlement grew.

In the 15th Century, Sir Richard Conyers became the village landowner.

He was in the pay of the Duke of Gloucester, who controlled the North of England from Middleham Castle.

Conyers fought with Gloucester in Scotland and, in 1482, was knighted for his bravery.

The following year, Gloucester became King Richard III – although, it is alleged, he had to brutally get rid of his young cousins, “the princes in the tower”, first.

The controversial nature of Richard III’s succession convulsed the country into another bout of the Wars of the Roses, which concluded in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Conyers is believed to have fought alongside Richard III at Bosworth, but couldn’t prevent him from becoming the last English king to die in battle (the hunchback king’s remains have apparently recently been discovered beneath a car park in Leicester).

Because those were troubled times, Conyers fortified his house in South Cowton, and turned it into a castle. Because he was wealthy, he rebuilt the old church that he could see from his castle windows.

Because he liked to keep his feet dry, he connected his castle and his church by a stone causeway across the damp dip.

And because he was a naughty knight, he evicted all the peasants who cluttered up the view from his castle, and he erased their agricultural hovels from his hillside.

That last sentence may not strictly be true, because we don’t really know why Sir Richard Conyers got rid of the villagers of South Cowton, but we do know that 20 people left the four houses in the village. It could be that the village was already dying, which was why there were only four surviving houses.

Perhaps it had been severely infected by a plague.

Or it could be that the 20 people voluntarily left their homes.

Or it could be that Sir Richard turfed them off his land so that he could create hedge-lined pastures in which he could graze more lucrative sheep.

We don’t know why, but, after 500 years living near the damp dip, the last villagers of South Cowton disappeared.

All that remains of them today are curious lumps and bumps on the hillside beneath Conyers’ castle, which is now a private farmhouse. Parts of the causeway still remain, although the dip is currently so damp that the mud slops over the tops of wellington boots in places.

And the Grade I-listed church remains.

By the altar are three alabaster effigies: two ladies and one knight. It is said that they represent Sir Richard, who died in 1503, and his two wives, Alice Wycliffe of Teesdale, and Katherine Bowes of Barnard Castle. SIR RICHARD CONYERS’ grandson was Richard Bowes, who lived happily in South Cowton Castle with his wife, Elizabeth, and their 12 children.

Happily, that is, until Elizabeth, aged 50, heard John Knox preach in Berwick.

Knox was a Puritanical Scottish religious reformer whose fire and brimstone sermons left his congregation quaking with fear.

Perhaps Elizabeth was left quaking for other reasons, because she fell into an intimate relationship with the unmarried preacher. Even in the day, people jumped to conclusions, and at one point Knox was forced to publish their private letters to prove there was no hanky-panky going on.

Knox’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography says: “With compassion and tenderness he guided Mrs Bowes’ tentative steps along her doubt-ridden inner journey of faith.”

Her husband was not at all happy about this journey, and his dismay deepened when his wife encouraged their fifth daughter, Marjory, to marry Knox in 1556.

By then, anti-Papist Knox had become so unpopular in England, where the Roman Catholic Queen Mary had taken to burning Protestants, that he had to flee for his life, taking his wife and possibly his mother-in-law with him to Switzerland.

There, surrounded by the Cowton ladies, he wrote his most famous pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Marjory and Knox had two sons, and a close relationship, and he was deeply saddened when she died in 1560.

His mother-in-law Elizabeth seems then to have returned to South Cowton Castle and her husband.

THE heyday of the South Cowton castle and church was the 15th and 16th centuries, and then they fell into gradual decay.

The castle was abandoned for 300 years before it was renovated in the 1920s, and it required more work in the early 1980s when a tower collapsed.

It is now a private farmhouse.

Since 1988, St Mary’s Church has been in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, and is rarely used for worship.

It is well worth a visit, though, particularly on a damp Boxing Day. There are the Medieval wall-paintings and the strange, two-faced 15th Century carving on the end of a pew.

There’s a peculiar 18th Century funerary helmet and gauntlet high up in the ceiling with a mythical bird perched on top, and a mysterious stairway leads to a locked door. Behind the door, apparently, is a parvis – an unusual room with a fireplace that could have been used as a Medieval schoolroom.

There’s a plaque on the wall dedicated to the memory of Captain Augustus Frederick Cavendish Webb, who died aged 22 in 1854 in the “brilliant charge of the Light Cavalry Division…at the memorable Battle of Balaklava”, and another to Sir Herbert Chermside, who died in 1929.

He was the Governor of Souakin, the Governor General of the Red Sea and the Consul of Kurdistan Erzeroum Kharfoot Diarbekir Moosh and Van, which is a very impressive curriculum vitae.

There’s also a slot in the wall to place a few pennies to help the charity that looks after this lovely old building.

Plus, of course, by the altar is the effigy of Sir Richard Conyers, his feet resting on a funny, grinning reptilian piglike creature with three long, slippery toes.

And sleeping in the stone with him is the true story of what happened to the village of South Cowton.