Cream Of The Country: Barnard Castle

Reasonable house prices are luring new buyers to this ancient and historic town
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Barnard Castle ("Barney" to locals) is the capital of Teesdale, a sheltered valley to the north of the Yorkshire Dales. The town enjoys spectacular views over rolling countryside from its craggy perch above a loop in the River Tees as it cascades down from the east Cumbrian fells and into the North Sea via dramatic waterfalls with evocative names such as Cauldron Snout and High Force.

It's a small, ancient settlement and, although within the boundaries of County Durham, still retains the down-to-earth feel of a typical Yorkshire Dales town, with its ranks of squat stone cottages lining the picturesque streets leading off from its main market square.

It is also rich in historical associations. Its 12th-century castle - built by the same Baliol family who founded the Oxford college - served as a refuge for Richard III and Henry VII. Charles Dickens wrote appreciatively of the ale served in the King's Head in Market Place and based Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby on a local school.

Apart from the castle, whose ruins dominate the skyline, there are plenty of other quirky landmarks. Market Cross in the main square is a curious 18th-century octagonal building that has served as jail, courthouse and butter market.

Then there is Bowes Museum on Newgate - a baroque Victorian folly in the style of a grand French chateau. It is around the town centre, too, that most of the shopping facilities and schools are concentrated.

Prime residential sites tend to be found a little further out, such as in Bank - a ridge running along the edge of the town centre where restaurants, antique shops and tea rooms jostle with a selection of elegant 17th-century town houses and Victorian warehouses that have been converted into flats.

Desmesnes is another popular spot - an attractive enclave of small stone cottages nestling at the base of the town just below Bank and enjoying fine grassland and riverside views

Perhaps the best residential site in Barney is Startforth - a three-minute walk from the ancient centre across a footbridge and enjoying superb elevated views over the river and castle. This is where most larger properties are to be found, typically Victorian or Edwardian family houses with substantial gardens.

Larger properties - the occasional stately home and an increasing number of farm and barn conversions - can also be found in outlying villages such as the pretty riverside hamlets of Romaldkirk and Cotherstone a few miles upstream on the Tees or three miles to the south west in the foothills of the Pennines around the village of Bowes.

Estate agents report a significant increase in newcomers buying in the area. Some have come looking for holiday or retirement homes but mostly they are disenchanted urbanites wanting a fresh start. "People are prepared to commute to send their children to better schools and to enjoy a higher standard of living," says Robin Catterall of Jackson-Stops. He estimates that almost half of his sales are accounted for by people relocating.

"We get a lot of people moving here from Leeds and Newcastle, which are both only about an hour's drive away. It is easy to see why. Money stretches so much further here. Rather than having to pay out £500,000 for a fairly characterless house in a new-build development on the outskirts of Leeds, say, you can pick up a really lovely family house here for the same price or even less."

Furthermore, Catterall adds, there has never been a better time to buy. "The market went through a fairly static period for a while," he says. "Prices were way too high. Then vendors started slashing their prices by as much as 10 to 15 per cent. That has reawakened the interest of buyers. We have sold more properties within the past few weeks than over the entire six months prior to that."

The lowdown

Cost of living: one-bedroom flats from £125,000; two-bedroom stone cottages close to town centre from £200,000; three-bedroom cottages from £225,000; four-bedroom terrace town houses overlooking the Tees from £300,000; five-bedroom detached town houses in Startforth from £450,000; country houses with land from £530,000.

Attractions: good schools; eclectic architecture; interesting artefacts at Bowes Museum; fishing and canoeing on the Tees.

Downsides: limited shopping and entertainment facilities.

How to get there: Trains to London King's Cross from Darlington, 15 miles away, take around two and a half hours.