TUCKED into a loop of the broad-flowing Tees, the landscape around Barnard Castle does not look like the setting for sadism or violence. But this is the territory of the notorious Yorkshire schools, 19th-century residential academies so harsh that inmates died in them. This was the scandal that brought Teesdale its most distinguished literary guest, the young Charles Dickens, who came north in 1838 to research his third novel, Nicholas Nickleby.
Teesdale district council has now utilised the Dickens connection by devising a self-drive tour of the area. The route links up old coaching inns, boarding schools, shops and churches that were used by the author in his travels and books.
The jaunt begins in Barnard Castle's cobbled market place. Here, at the King's Head inn, Dickens and his illustrator, Hablot Browne, arrived on 2 February 1838, after a two-day trip up the Great North Road.
Now renamed the Charles Dickens, the pub's current connection with the writer amounts to a sepia portrait and period prints in the front bar. Outside you can imagine the trusty stagecoaches trundling through the wide carriage arch to the now dilapidated stableblock. Dickens seems to have gone down well with the barstaff. "Say you know me and they'll give you ale free," he told his friends.
Directly across the street, prepare for a culture shock. The shop that once housed master Humphrey's Clock Makers is now a tandoori restaurant. Only a small blue plaque reminds you that Dickens used it for the title of his threepenny weekly, Master Humphrey's Clock. But the real thing is not far away. A few minutes' walk down Newgate takes you to the Bowes Museum, founded by landowners John and Josephine Bowes in 1869. The building is a replica of a French chateau, complete with elegant arched windows and decorative columns. And in the local-history section, you'll find Humphrey's clock itself, an original 6ft case-clock made by Humphrey in 1830.
The founders of the museum were aristocratic art lovers who assembled a vast collection in the 1860s. Today it's an aesthetic feast crammed with porcelain, furniture, period rooms, painting and sculpture.
Next, head for Bowes. It was here in the Ancient Unicorn that Nicholas Nickleby took shape. The 16th-century coaching inn is now the village pub, juke-box blaring across the oak-beamed interior. Outside, weeds sprout in the cobbled courtyard. Here Dickens and Browne rode in on a February morning with serious business in hand.
Intent on exposing the Yorkshire schools and their inhuman regimes, they had come to examine one at close quarters. At the far end of the village, they found what they were looking for. There an elegant two-storey mansion now bears a wooden plaque: "Dotheboys Hall, immortalised by Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby."
Then known as Shaw's Academy, the headmaster was prosecuted when eight pupils went blind due to insanitary conditions. There were no holidays and only two towels for the whole school. The horrified author met William Shaw, the head, and transformed him into Wackford Squeers, the bullying tyrant of his masterpiece.
The hall is now converted into private flats not open to the public, but you can see the honeysuckle-draped masonry and lawns from the street. How inviting they must have looked to Shaw's young captives.
Nearby in the churchyard, the Dickens pilgrimage really takes off. It is an atmospheric place overlooked by the gaunt ruins of Bowes Castle. In the far corner, almost hidden by shrubbery, lies the grave of George Ashton Taylor. The Wiltshire lad never survived the privations of Shaw's Academy and died there in 1822. As Dickens read the gravestone, he conceived of Smike, the boy who ran away from the horrors of the Hall in Nicholas Nickleby.
Ironically, George Taylor shares his last resting-place with the man responsible for his sufferings. To the left of the church door, a plain six-foot slab marks the grave of William Shaw himself, who died on 10 January, 1850, aged 67. Maybe fate repaid Shaw for his cruelty to young men. He shares the family burial-plot with his own son who died in 1837, aged only 24.
From Bowes, the trail follows the route of a boy who absconded from the school. Now it's a celebration of delightful Teesdale scenery with a four- mile drive to the lovely village of Cotherstone. Make sure you sample the local cheese here, famous since the Middle Ages.
Another two miles takes you onto Romaldkirk, a charming Dales hamlet built around the 12th-century "kirk", or church, dedicated to St Ronald, son of a Northumbrian king. Georgian houses rub shoulders with stone cottages around a village green complete with stocks and pump.
When you go out on the trail again, you tend to forget your Dickensian fugitive in the sheer beauty of the countryside. The Tees cuts its winding course through ancient rock punctuated by cascading waterfalls. The dale broadens out into meadows patterned with dry-stone walls and dotted with white-washed farmhouses. You envy the Norman barons who won all this as their playground.
Back in Barnard Castle, dinner at Blagraves House is a must. Built in the 15th century, it is the oldest house in town. Square bay-windows project from a time-worn facade adorned with stone figures of musicians and tiny, leaded panes. Inside, its heavily-beamed ceilings, large open fireplaces and carved doors create an atmosphere that is unique in north England. For five centuries the great and good have feasted here, including Oliver Cromwell, who dined there on oatcakes and mulled wine.
Today local game is the speciality with venison, pheasant, quail and salmon fresh from the Tees. Of all Teesdale's famous visitors, only Dickens himself appears not to have called in. Probably supping all that free ale up at the King's Head.
Barnard Castle is 16 miles west of Darlington on the A67. It can be reached from the A1/M1 via the A66, turning off at Scotch Corner. Trains run to Darlington where you can pick up a 75 or 76 bus to the castle.
Where to stay
Accommodation is available at the Ancient Unicorn, Bowes (tel: 01833 628321).
Where to eat
Blagraves House restaurant, 30-32 The Bank, Barnard Castle (tel: 01833 637668).
In the Footsteps of Charles Dickens leaflet available from the Tourist Information Centre, Woodleigh, Flatts Road, Barnard Castle (tel: 01833 690909).
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