The Bowes Museum and Barnard Castle

Carrying on from York and Castle Howard, we proceeded to Helmsley, a most delightful and unspoiled town, which endeared itself to us as there was a section of free parking in the middle of town. We haven’t seen such a thing anywhere else.

There was something for both of us here. Whilst Mark visited this rather lovely pie shop…


…I was happily browsing this knitting shop. I don’t think either of us bought anything, but we had a lovely time. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_4641

We were too early for the wisteria in Cambridge, but boy, it’s here with a vengeance. Just glorious.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_464f

We were headed to Barnard Castle, which is not just a castle, but a whole village (or is it town?).  I just wandered around with my mouth open, admiring all the stunning buildings


with stunning details. Look at these little adornments.IMG_3849

Lots of these historic towns have a central market place and Barnard Castle is no exception. This was a corn market. On a sidenote, I had no idea that England grew so much corn, but corn markets and exchanges are everywhere, so they must have grown the odd bit.


We visited Barnard Castle as I wanted to go to the Bowes Museum. This is one of the few purpose built museums of its time and it is built in the style of a French chateau, as it was the brainchild of the wife of industrialist John Bowes, Josephine, who was French. It has a very grand entrance. IMG_3855

The view from the front looking over the gardens. IMG_3856

It was built to showcase the Bowes’ collection of things they had amassed from all over the world. There’s some pretty stunning stuff in here. Among my favourites was the mechanical swan

The swan was made in 1773 and was acquired by the Bowes’ in 1872. It was originally coin operated and would go all day, but now it is only operated once a day. This is pretty amazing for something so old

I took this from the Bowes Museum website ( :

The American novelist Mark Twain also saw the Silver Swan at the Paris exhibition in 1867 and described it in his book The Innocents Abroad:

‘I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes – watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as if he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop – watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it…’ “

You can see the operator in the video. There are three separate mechanisms that drive the swan. The silver fish appears to be taken from the fish swimming in the lake, which are really glass tubes. In fact, the fish is permanently in the beak of the swan and appears and disappears.


This is not the only automaton in the museum. This rather delightful mouse is also on display, but it doesn’t operate, which is a shame. It is clockwork, runs around, stops and twitches its whiskers and then runs around some more. I love the leather case.


There’s so much to look at in the museum. They had a Goya exhibition when we were there, which was rather splendid, if not a little depressing, and a whole room of textiles and clothing.

They restore the tapestries in a glass cube so that people like me can observe their technique. Sadly they weren’t at work when we visited.


This man’s collar is rather fabulous.IMG_3863

and I enjoyed looking at the flax loom, although this one was operated by young children in factories, which is rather ghastly. IMG_3881

One connection I hadn’t made is that the Bowes family are related to the Queen Mother, who was of course a Bowes-Lyon. The family estates were split at one point and then reconciled. I found this an interesting piece of history.

We eventually left the museum and thought we’d explore the castle, which is a ruin, with very little left to see.


So we tottered back into town, whereupon I observed this church with the blue clock face. Now we have been slightly puzzled by these clock faces – they are everywhere and they clearly aren’t original. Did someone do a job lot on blue clock faces? Is there a church clock door to door salesperson? Are they government issued? Does anyone know? Can you enlighten me if you do as it’s driving me insane!


I had this beautiful building in amongst my photos but I have no idea what it is. I love those round tower-like structures at the end.


So another wonderful day as we head towards Scotland, which was the original aim of our trip.


14 thoughts on “The Bowes Museum and Barnard Castle

  1. So glad you are enjoying your holiday!
    “Corn” in corn markets or corn exchanges just means generic cereal grains, not indian corn or maize, which I doubt was grown in the UK when all these buildings were made. Most market towns would have had a corn exchange or corn market.
    I remember taking our children to the Bowes museum and them being fascinated by the swan. The thing they most remembered from the trip!

    1. Thank you so much for educating me! I am English and feel as though I should know all this, but am ashamed that I don’t. I understand that your children would remember the swan, it is pretty memorable!

  2. As someone who’s largely hosuebound, I’m loving following your travels, Sue, thank you!

    The internet seems to think that it was a decree from Henry VIII that clock faces should be blue “following God’s command to Moses (Exodus 39) to make Aaron the priest “garments of blue with gold bells”, church clocks should be “blew with the signs upon them gilt”.”

    1. Thank you so much Mim. My sister just told me about the clock faces and apparently I should have learned this in history (my mind would have been elsewhere!) How fascinating! I note that the Scots have not complied with this…! 😀

  3. The Bowes is a magnificent museum. I’ve been fortunate and seen two fabulous exhibitions there when travelling to Northumberland to see family. The swan really is rather special 😊

    1. I missed the hats, but the Goya exhibition is rather lovely. Lucky you to visit more than once. I would watch that swan all day!

  4. Hi Sue and Mark,
    We are delighted that you are enjoying your visit to the UK and we greatly admire your photos and captions of them. Many of your Yorkshire destinations are well known to us, particularly since we moved to Cumbria in 1964.
    Did you know I (Tony) was born 100 metres from York minster and enjoyed living in the area until 1945. We survived the Great York Air Raid on April 29, 1942 when 90 people were killed close by us in the Clifton area of the city. Although the house was badly damaged, we got out uninjured.
    We are very much looking forward to seeing you and hope you might have time to visit one of our beautiful lakes, 30 minutes by car from where we live. Our area now has World Heritage status.

    With love from us both !

    Tony and Suzie.

    1. Hi Tony, it’s been so lovely to hear from you both along this journey. I had no idea you were born so close to the York Minster – what a grand birthplace! Such an interesting history you have. We are so looking forward to catching up with you, it’s been far too long, and we definitely want to see everything! love to you both, Sue & Mark xx

  5. Well I had heard of the Bowes museum as that is my family name but I haven’t been there and now I know I must go. What a fascinating place it is and how clever were those18th century silversmiths and engineers. I am as usual enjoying your travels along with you. Thank you Sue.

    1. Oh you must go, and you need to flaunt your name! You will love it, it is fascinating, and make sure you get there in time to see the swan swanning about! Thank you so much for your lovely comment!

  6. I am very much enjoying your travelogue of the UK visiting so many lovely places.

  7. The swan is magnificient and I really enjoyed reading the quote from Mark Twain. As well of the whole blogpost of course!

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