Barnard Castle, The Bowes Museum, and Egglestone Abbey.

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle is a French-style chateau fronted by ornate gardens built for local businessman and MP John Bowes who with his French actress wife Josephine spent a lot of time in Paris and London in the 1870s collecting art and antiques such as the mechanical mouse. This life-size automaton is gold and decorated with seed pearls and can still scurry around despite being created 200 years ago.

The most famous item of the Bowes Museum is another mechanical marvel, the Silver Swan, an automaton dating from 1773, which at 2pm starts to preen its feathers as it swims along with fish jumping out of the water. This remarkable machine was designed by John Joseph Merlin for James Cox’s Mechanical Museum in London, where it was first displayed in 1774. The swan captivated Mark Twain when he saw it at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867 and he recorded his thoughts in his travelogue, The Innocents Abroad.

It would be a mistake to just see the swan and the mechanical mouse in the next room, because there are many ceramics, paintings, musical instruments, furniture, and pottery pieces to see.

The ceramics were given to Bowes by his cousin Susan Davidson. There is a Meissen sedan chair from 1860 with the liveried attendants in red jackets, a lady is inside with a turquoise curtain for privacy. There’s a pink 1758 Sevres teapot with peacock feathers and tin-glazed earthenware cats by Emile Galle dating from 1906. Two tin-glazed earthenware Delft cows from 1765 are being milked and a majolica relief from c1500 shows Saint Francis receiving the stigmata.  

In the large galleries are some lovely paintings, the Tears of St Peter by El Greco, the Bucintoro returning to the Mole by Canaletto, and Landscape with the Flight into Egypt by Jan van Amstel (where the landscape is more interesting than the religious figures). The painting Dog of the Havana Breed by Jean-Jacques Bachelier has a ribbon draped over the dog’s leg and this was extended in the 18th Century to obscure the dog’s private parts, which was deemed to sensitive a subject for the times. There’s also an altarpiece called The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ by the Master of St Gudule, which is only open between 12pm and 4:45pm.

In the town of Barnard Castle the castle, dating from 1125, sits high on a rock above the river. If you walk for a mile from the castle along the River Tees you will come to Egglestone Abbey. The chances are there’ll be no other visitors as this is a quiet place that was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The layout of the church and cloisters can still be seen. There are more than enough walls to give you an idea of the original abbey.

The abbey of St Mary and St John the Baptist was founded between 1195 and 1198 for Premonstratensian canons. The endowment of Egglestone was so small that early in the 13th century the Abbot of Prémontré asked three of his English abbots to decide if the status of the abbey should be downgraded to that of a priory. It remained an abbey, but poverty beset the canons throughout their history, receiving frequent remissions of taxes to maintain their status.

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