I'd assumed we'd be staying in north Yorkshire as we're near Richmond, but when we arrived we found the place was just over the county boundary, in County Durham. The distinction isn't entirely arbitrary. Richmond is on the river Swale which joins the river Ure and eventually ends up in the Ouse, flowing out into the North Sea at Hull. Barnard Castle, the nearest town to the north of us, is on the Tees which enters the sea at Teesside, between Hartlepool and Ravenscar.
We started our tourist efforts in Darlington at the Head of Steam museum. Darlington used to be a great railway town. I hadn't realised how big the railways were there: Swindon, yes, or Doncaster, but in my mind Darlington's association with railways stopped at the building of the Stockton and Darlington railway. Not so, it went on to become a major engineering centre, and suffered badly as the railways began to wind down in the second half of the twentieth century. The town centre was horribly hacked about by planners in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving odd examples of fine Victorian architecture marooned among dual carriage ways and brutalist concrete buildings, but the vibe we got on our visit was that it was doing OK now.
The Head of Steam museum has got one of Stephenson's original engines, the Locomotion. The Stephenson engine everybody seems to have heard of, myself included, is the Rocket, but Locomotion was built four years earlier, in 1825. I was quite touched to think of the great engineer George Stephenson perched on the little seat to the side of the engine, driving it on its maiden voyage, with two of his brothers acting as firemen. The museum is housed in Darlington railway station on the line of the original Stockton and Darlington railway, which represents one of the pivotal feats of the industrial revolution. Altogether we liked the Head of Steam museum. Note to councils everywhere: try to keep your museums open even in these difficult times, they encourage tourists who bring hard cash to your area.
In fact we did not have to part with any hard cash to get into the museum since we went on Heritage Open Weekend when it was free. It is not very expensive to visit anyway, but the main bonus of going during the Heritage Weekend turned out to be that visitors were invited into the shed, a former railway foundry, where the North Eastern Locomotive Preservation Group have one of their two workshops. It was only under the Systems Administrator's guidance that I began to grasp that preserved steam railway operations and steam locomotive ownership are quite distinct. Preserved railways don't generally own their engines, they hire them from whoever does own them, be it a group of enthusiasts or a rich individual like Pete Waterman. NELPG has four locomotives, the volunteer who showed us around told us very proudly, the most of any group in the country.
The one in the shed at Darlington was in for what had turned into a major overhaul, since besides needing the usual ten yearly boiler certificate it had turned out to have a cracked cylinder case. A replacement had been cast: the pattern alone cost fifty thousand, for what will probably be one-off use since no other engines remain to that design, and the new cylinder case weighed nearly three tonnes. It was lucky it didn't weigh any more since the heaviest weight the foundry could handle was three tonnes. There aren't many foundries left able to do that sort of work. The wheels had been to Devon and Belfast for specialist repairs. I couldn't work out how a society with six hundred members could remotely begin to afford any of this, until the SA reminded me that they were getting the hire fees from the other three engines that weren't in for repair. This overhaul had taken five years so far, and the volunteer hoped they might finally finish next year, and make room in the shed for the next engine. Our glimpse into the locomotive workshop was jolly interesting, and I now know how I would diagnose hot running in an axle (put tallow on the end and see if it melts during running).
From Darlington we went to Raby Castle, which didn't open until later in the morning. Part of the art of touristing is planning your running order for things that open late, shut early, or don't open on Mondays or Fridays and Saturdays or whenever it might be. Raby Castle is close to Barnard Castle, and the great merit of visiting on a Sunday was that we would be allowed to go round the castle at our own pace and not be limited to a guided tour. It is a splendid castle, steadily modified from being a defensive fortification to being an extremely grand house with a medieval vibe. The castle was originally in the possession of the Nevill family, was confiscated by the crown after they unwisely took part in an uprising in the sixteenth century, and was bought along with Barnard castle (the actual castle, not the whole town) by Lord Barnard in the seventeenth century.
Wikipedia's entry on Raby Castle is rather sniffy about the extent to which the Barnard family altered the medieval fabric, on the other hand three centuries on, Raby still has a roof on it and is a functioning family home, whereas Barnard castle is a ruin. Raby in its present form is great fun, highlights including the Victorian octagon drawing room done out like a Paris salon of the middle of the century, which is quite fabulously ornate. We were interested to note that the replacement silk wall hangings fitted as part of the restoration a few years ago were woven in Sudbury. There is a decent art collection as well, a great hall complete with carriage entrance and carriage as the nobility could be driven right into the building and not get wet getting out of the carriage, and a very large library complete with a young pianist playing a Steinway grand. And there were helpful room guides and quite a lot of fresh flowers. And some odd touches like a rug made out of a skinned spaniel, head still attached, and a stuffed fox.
Raby has a deer park, with deer and long horn cattle and an extraordinary number of geese, and an eighteenth century walled garden cunningly positioned on a south facing slope a little way from the castle and sheltered from the worst of the wind by the ridge the castle stands on. I'd have liked to learn more about the original purpose of the garden, and whether it had originally been entirely for produce or included a pleasure garden. Nowadays there are some good bulgy yew hedges said to be over two hundred years old, trimmed in such angular planes they made me think of a brutalist concrete sculpture of the 1960s reenacted in yew. The most remarkable feature was a White Ischia fig, said to have been planted in 1786, which took up the whole of its own purpose built heated glass house. I paced out the house and it was fully twenty-one of my strides long, and the fig was attempting triffid-like to burst out of it, leaves pressed up against the glass and slithering out where the windows were cracked open for ventilation.
After Raby we went to look at the castle in Barnard Castle, now in the care of English Heritage. It had a brief period of glory when it held off the great uprising for five days of siege in the sixteenth century before surrendering, but by then it was already becoming obsolete. It sits dramatically over the river Tees, but is hemmed in by the town, and Lord Barnard preferred to make a home out of Raby and used the town castle as a source of stone for his building works. It is pleasant enough to walk around now on a fine day, and looks just like a ruined castle ought to do, complete with round tower, but there isn't all that much of it any more.
And after all that and our drive up from Essex the previous day we were tired and went back to our holiday let, which is some sort of converted agricultural building rather than a quaint cottage but perfectly pleasant, being clean, quiet, warm enough, and with a straightforward cooker that stays on when you turn it on. And that was day one of our touristing so I am now two days behind and the holiday is unfolding faster than I am writing about it.