THIS year, a major piece of Lottery-funded work is taking place in St Mary’s Church, Barnard Castle, to conserve nearly 1,000 years of history but also to open it up to the public.

As a scene setter, let’s have a quick whizz through St Mary’s history and a couple of its curiosities…

The Northern Echo:

Late 11th Century

Guy de Baliol, a French-speaking baron from Picardy, was asked by William II to become lord of Gainford and take charge of Teesdale. In the middle of the dale, he built a wooden castle on the clifftop (we don’t seem to know what the clifftop’s name was at this time) next to the Roman road which ran straight between Bowes and Binchester.

Early 12th Century

Guy’s son Bernard (pronounced Barnard) takes over and rebuilds the castle in stone – it is Barnard’s castle. A little chapel, dedicated to St Margaret, was built into the castle walls. It later became a stable and at least two of its arches can still be made out.

The chapel soon became too small, and so St Mary’s was founded around 1130 in a prominent position at the top of The Bank overlooking the Market Place. Although it was a small, low building, it was sizeable enough to dominate every other building in Barney – a part, of course, from the castle.

The church’s remarkably grand south door dates from the 12th Century.

The Northern Echo:

13th Century

One of the church’s oldest ornaments is a tomb dedicated to Robert de Mortham, the vicar of Gainford (Gainford was the mother church). His family owned Mortham Tower, near Greta Bridge, and in 1339 he built a chantry on the south side of the church. He lies in stone, clutching a cup and resting his feet on a lion – once he had a bird on his right shoulder.

The Northern Echo:


In 1474, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, married Anne Neville and became lord of the manor of Barnard Castle. Richard develops a fondness for the town, and gives 40 marks (or pounds) to substantially enlarge the church.

Richard’s emblem was a white boar, which can be seen on several buildings dotted around the town. A white boar is beside a fine window in the south transept, indicating this was one of the many improvements paid for by Richard’s money.

Another was the sturdy font, which is made of polished Tees marble that was quarried near Egglestone Abbey. It has many curious symbols on it that must once have meant something. It was completed by 1485 by which time Richard had risen to become Richard III and was dead beneath a car park in Leicester.

It is believed that his carved face can be seen on the right hand side of the chance arch. On the left is his brother, Edward IV, wearing the crown.

The Northern Echo: The Northern Echo:


The church was in a poor state. The town fire engine had taken up residence in its main doorway, and buildings had grown all around its perimeter, meaning it was largely hidden and could only be accessed through narrow passages. The tall and elegant tower and spire, which had been a landmark for several centuries, were dismantled as dangerous. To compensate, the tower was raised to 60ft and topped with a towerlet – however that only lasted a few years.

Inside, two huge galleries had been hung from the walls to increase seating capacity, but burials were still carried out, and so the floor was desperately uneven, and often there were old bones poking out.

Local solicitor and historian William Hutchinson wrote in 1785 that the “whole appearance (of the church) is slovenly and offensive”.


The long awaited restoration began, with the galleries being ripped out and the floor being lowered 2ft to its original level. “A great quantity of bones has been brought to light, which will be carefully re-interred,” said the D&S Times in 1869.

However, it was then discovered that the tower was in such a dangerous condition that one pull on a bellrope could bring it crashing down. It had to be propped up, and the bells fell silent from October 23, 1868 until the townspeople had raised enough money to complete the work on July 17, 1874.

The tower was now 80ft high, and William Watson, of Spring Lodge, donated a clock with three 5ft 6ins dials (there is no clockface on the east side of the tower).

The restoration ended in 1877 with the demolition of the Queen’s Head pub opposite the church. The demolition widened Newgate, which had been very narrow, and allowed this column’s favourite architect, GG Hoskins, to build a branch of Backhouses Bank (now Barclays) on the corner.

The Northern Echo: The Northern Echo:


Amen Corner, the huddle of buildings that had grown up outside the church, hemming it in, were demolished. A couple of them were so old they were found to have hemlock in their wattle and daub walls to keep out vermin.

One of the properties at the top of The Bank had been a clockshop run by Thomas Humphreys when Charles Dickens stayed at the King’s Head Hotel nearby in 1838 while researching Yorkshire schools for his novel Nicholas Nickleby. He enquired about one of the clocks in the window to be told that it had been made by Thomas’ son, William Humphreys.

Dickens was so inspired that in 1840, he started a magazine called Master Humphrey’s Clock which ran for 18 months. The premise was that Master Humphrey kept manuscripts in his longcase clock and his friends came round to read the stories – from these beginnings came the novels The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.

With Amen Corner swept away, St Mary’s was fully open to public view, as had been intended in the 11th Century.

The Northern Echo:

Late 1940s

Barnard Castle became one of the last towns in the country to stop its daily bell ringing from the church tower. At 6am, a “rising bell” had rung for several minutes to ensure that all the millworkers were awake. This practice stopped in 1927, when most people had acquired an alarm clock.

Since Norman times, a “curfew bell” had been rung at 8pm for several minutes. This was a reminder to people to dampen down their fires at the end of the day – very important in the days when houses were timber, and the word “curfew” comes from the Old French “couvre feu” which means “cover the fire”.

In Barney, the practice faded away just after the end of the Second World War.