One bizarre after effect of Dominic Cummins’ trip to Barnard Castle has been to ratchet up the pressure on young local families who want to stay living in town. A few years ago Mark Steele did an episode of his ‘Comes to Town’ radio comedy show about Barnard Castle, and his main comic theme was the fact that nobody knew we were here. Now we get a name check virtually every day on national media. First it was the wave of ‘where?’ at the height of the Dom trip storm, with lots of explainers from journalists who came from the North East on where it was and how to pronounce it. As soon as restrictions were lifted last summer we had huge numbers of visitors coming for day trips, which was great for local businesses. There was a constant queue at the excellent Katie’s Fish and Chips in the Market Place, the Teesdale Mercury shop displayed copies of a hastily published ‘Where’s Dom?’ book, Specsavers staff got used to having a queue of people taking selfies of their shop front, and you had to watch out for people stepping backwards into the road to get a better angle on the Barnard Castle sign on the bridge over the Tees. We became quite blasé about encountering camera crews, both UK and international, doing vox pops near the Buttermarket.
With a staycation summer looming, the announcement of about a thousand civil servants moving to Darlington, our local prison expanding, and vaccines being processed at the Glaxo factory in town, we are well and truly on the map. There has been a steady stream of media coverage - travel articles, house search articles, great places to live listings..... Every bed and breakfast and holiday cottage is booked for months ahead, the town was heaving over the bank holiday weekend despite the dreary weather, and house prices are rising fast - up 13% at the last count. The market is positively febrile, and houses that have been advertised for months are being snapped up. It used to be rare that anything would be for sale in town for over about £275k, and the little terraced houses would go for around £120k. Now there is nothing at that price, but several at over £400k. Much of the property in the town centre has been owned by local families for generations, and they are understandably starting to take advantage of the boom, wth more and more tiny pieces of land being scoped for infill development. One of the grand Victorian terraces is on for £495k and has been immaculately eviscerated, done out from top to toe in black and grey, the garden paved over with a jacuzzi in a plastic pergola. A beautiful Georgian house is up for the same price, but the garden has been sold off by a developer for an executive development of luxury dwellings. A Lidl is being built on the fields approaching the town, and Morrison’s is fighting back by buying up its neighbours and planning expansion. New estates are being built around the town, and the little school my small nephew goes to is receiving a surge of new children in September.
It’s all good for local businesses, and I know that towns can’t stand still, but I can’t help feeling a bit sad that it’s becoming impossible for the locals to afford to buy here. I will never be a local, but I bought the house we live in when I was 27 and vowed that I would stay in it to the end of my life. I’ve seen my neighbours’ children grow up and have children of their own, known people who knew the history of the town and people and the houses around me back to the end of the nineteenth century. There has been a rich oral history of this ancient town, its alleys and mills and cellars, which I learned by osmosis. My friend Kevin the joiner knew my house because he used to watch TV after school with his best friend in what is now my kitchen in the early 1960s. He used to ride bareback a white stallion belonging to a scrap dealer who had an orchard at the bottom of the ginnel behind our street. I used to know a plumber who was born in one of the houses on Thorngate and told me lurid stories including one of his mother suckling him one night and a rat came and suckled the other breast. There were lots of stories of tunnels connecting my side of the street with the castle which is up above the other side. I thought they were folk myths until we discovered that we have one starting from our own cellar.
It’s not really the fashion for people to stay in one place for long now. The ‘forever home’ of house programmes (to which I am addicted) is more about kitchen islands and trifold doors than about putting down roots in a community and listening to its past, and before long there won’t be many people left in the town who can pass on those stories and connections. I hope that some of the younger generations of Barnard Castle families manage to secure a foothold in the town, perhaps through inheritance if necessary, to become guardians of the spirit of the place which could so easily become snuffed out by our growing success.