Windows to the World


Revitalising a medieval church, and exploring 900 years of colourful history in Barnard Castle.

UPDATE: Following careful consideration of the COVID-19 crisis, we have made changes to the Windows to the World public programme, and have decided to postpone all activities, talks and workshops that were due to take place before 01 June 2020 until the autumn, by which time we hope things will be functioning normally again.

For now, you can find the latest information about changes to our upcoming programme here:
If you would like us to notify you when the events are re-scheduled, please subscribe to our newsletter on, or follow updates on this website.



Windows to the World is an interactive project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to revitalise Barnard Castle’s oldest church, St Mary’s Parish church. Alongside its ongoing restoration, we are talking to the experts and delving into the archives. We are aiming to explore centuries of the town’s colourful history, uncover hidden gems from its past, and share these discoveries with the world through talks, exhibitions, workshops, performances, a brand new virtual museum, and so much more.

DigVentures has partnered with St Mary’s Parish Church, situated in the beautiful and picturesque market town of Barnard Castle in County Durham. At almost 900 years old, St Mary’s is currently in dire need of restoration work, which was made possible by a generous grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. But repointing stonework and conserving Victorian stained-glass windows is not everything this project is about. The money from the NLHF is also helping us with another problematic issue that the church is currently facing. Over the centuries, Mary’s Parish church has lost much of its former uses and importance. It was slowly forced back into an isolated spectator position tucked away behind a row of houses, only one of many churches in town. Still used for church services,  it is mostly ignored by those who don’t actively practice the Anglican faith.

Founded only a couple of decades after the towns iconic medieval castle in 1130, as a response to the growing congregation of the castle chapel, St Mary’s Parish Church had an eventful past witnessing times of peace, upheaval, prosperity and misery for nearly 900 years and witnessing the lives and deaths of generations of its inhabitants. Up until the 19th century, it was the only spacious and public building of the town and therefore the centre of not only religious, but also everyday secular town life. Through the centuries, it served as fire station, parish hall and playhouse, and was used as meeting place for planning committees and storage place for official town documents. But with the arrival of non-conformist religions in the town, the foundation of purpose-build buildings such as the Witham and the town hall, and the renting of pews that turned visiting a church into an elitist privilege, the congregation of St Mary’s dwindled just as its uses diminished to church services and ringing the daily rising and curfew bells. Even the bell was completely replaced by the alarm clock by 1927.

A new life for an old church

Today, inhabitants of Barnard Castle are aware of the church, but they are not aware of its intriguing history, nor do they know of its potential. A recently conducted survey shows, that most people wouldn’t recommend a visit to the church to tourists and many have not set foot into the building themselves. They are intimidated by its apparent religiousness and tricked by its Victorian shell that hides the medieval features and other interesting artefacts and heritage assets within. This project will uncover, rediscover and reinterpret the eventful history and cultural peculiarities of St Mary’s Parish, Barnard Castle, and their wider surroundings. After all, 900 years is a long time. Windows to the World will ensure that visitors and participants learn a lot about the town that they didn’t know before!

The church still features parts of its medieval structure and walking through the building is like travelling back in time. Trained eyes can trace improvements, changes, expansions and renovations from the churches medieval beginnings through to the late Middle Ages and Victorian period until the early 20th Century. Richard of Gloucester, later King Richard III, took a special interest in St Mary’s and spent significant sums to make the building bigger and lighter. It underwent important structural and ornamental improvements, most of which are still visible today. As a result, St Mary’s features not only the crest of Richards boar, but also stone carvings of the later king’s head and that of his brother, King Edward IV. Amongst the usual church artefacts, St Mary’s is also home to a stunning collection of Victorian stained-glass windows, several war memorials, all the colours of the 4th Durham militia and so much more.

‘Windows to the World’ is aimed at refocusing St Mary’s position in the town and turning it into a heritage destination while still keeping its purpose as a house of worship. By breaking down perceived barriers of access, highlighting fascinating and important artefacts and stories of the past, and offering a wide variety of different events and activities, locals and tourists will come to appreciate this substantial part of the towns heritage and realise that St Mary’s is so much more than ‘just a church’. Once again a part of everyday town life, St Mary’s Parish church will regain some of its former glory and importance with people recognising its wealth of information and cultural treasure.

Many thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund and to the many lottery players who made ’Windows to the World’ possible, as well as to the Northern Dales Richard III Society and the Friends of St Mary’s who contributed to this project.

In the beginning was a castle

The town of Barnard Castle stands on a prominent position high over the River Tees, with roads both into Teesdale and into the uplands of the North Pennines, as well as former railway lines, important communications routes for almost 2000 years. The River Tees functioned as a political boundary since prehistoric times, its latest use being the boundary between Country Durham and Yorkshire until 1974, with its main crossing for centuries right at the bottom of the town at Barnard Castle Bridge. The earliest structural evidence is that of a Roman Road crossing the river and connecting Bowes and Binchester, and although there are no remains of buildings, several finds of Roman coins and pottery suggest a possible small settlement near Barnard Castle Bridge. The origin of Barnard Castle as it is today dates to the late 11th century, when Guy de Baliol built the castle as the centre of his estates given to him as reward for support for William II. The fortification promised protection from Scottish attacks, land was offered to settlers, a small chapel was built within the castle walls, and a village grew around the castle along the former Roman Road, later known as Gallow Gate (today Galgate). As the castle grew and underwent changes, the village changed with it and developed into a town. Much of this early medieval structure can still be seen in the street layout of Barnard Castle, including outline burgage plots and back lanes behind the houses at Horse Market where the town’s early industries were located.

Soon, the church was too small for Barnard Castle’s congregation and a new church dedicated to St Mary’s was founded in 1130 on an elevated position that was visible from the surrounding countryside. Located in a central location in the town at the crossing of two of its most important roads, in immediate vicinity to the market place and opposite the entrance to the castle, ensured that St Mary’s was one of the first main buildings visitors to the town would see. The building of St Mary’s church is likely to have triggered the development of Newgate, which is a slightly younger street than Horse Market and The Bank. Several houses were built, as well as a small hospital and alms houses in the 13th century that were connected to the church.

Patronage of Richard III

In the following centuries, the Barnard Castle was under constant threat from Scotland until into the late 13th century when John Balliol became King of Scotland. When he was taken prisoner by the English a few years later, the castle became the property of Guy de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, after whose death it came into the possession of Richard Neville, the Kingmaker and one of the leaders in the War of the Roses. In 1475, Richard of Gloucester, who had in the meantime married Richard Neville’s daughter Anne, became Lord of Barnard Castle. He would later become King Richard III, but before he left the North, he spent a considerable amount of time in the Barnard Castle and ordered significant improvements to be made both in the castle and in St Mary’s church, one plan being to build an ecclesiastical college and a chantry.

However, with his early death in 1485, not many of his visions had been realised. Several boar carvings all around the town, some of which have since been lost, are a small reminder of what could have become of Barnard Castle if Richard III had survived the battle at Bosworth. Today, Richard’s white boar is depicted in the town’s coat of arms. He provided St Mary’s church with a grant of 40 marks and the building underwent significant improvements, structural as well as ornamental, most of which are still visible today and made the building bigger and lighter.

The castle loses its importance

The castle subsequently fell into disrepair but became an important location during the Rising of the North in 1569. Sir George Bowes, who supported Elizabeth I, withstood a ten-day siege before surrendering the castle. As a result, the Earl of Sussex had time to muster an army in support of the queen. Still loyal to Catholicism, the majority of the town was in support of the Rising. From 1630 onwards, the castle was in possession of Sir Henry Vane who gradually dismantled it to provide building material for improving the nearby Raby Castle.

Industrialisation, cholera and battling poverty

Barnard Castle continued to grow. During the 18th century, the towns textile industry increased significantly with several high buildings being built along Thorngate and Bridgegate that allowed for maximum light for the weavers in the upper stories. With the early industrial revolution, the weaving industry was expanded by several carpet, flax and woollen mills along the river Tees. As a result of the increase in industrialisation, the living conditions for the working class, especially at the bottom of the town, deteriorated dramatically. With the increase of the population, St Mary’s Church struggled to provide suitable space for burials. Throughout the 18th century people were still buried within the building with the pews being moved whenever a burial took place. Towards the end of the century, the pavement was broken, the floor had risen and was uneven, and it was not uncommon that during a service, people stood on freshly turned soil, with skeletal remains of earlier burials showing. Similarly, skeletal remains were becoming visible in the grave yard which was subsequently expanded in the early 19th century. The squalid conditions of the grave yard contributed to an outbreak of cholera in 1849. People living south of St. Mary’s church drank and cooked with water from wells that where contaminated with drainage water containing morbific matter from the grave yard. All 145 victims of the epidemic were buried in the grave yard, which was finally closed in the mid 19th century.

A second wave of industrial development took place in the 19th century and resulted in the creation of a second industrial area around Queen Street and Birch Road with industrial buildings and worker’s houses. A final boost in the town’s expansion and development took place in the mid 19th century with the arrival of the railway. In 1861, the railway station opened exactly 40 years after the world’s first passenger train had run from Stockton to Darlington. It facilitated not only the movements of soldiers to the new Barracks of the Durham Militia in Barnard Castle, but also turned the town into a popular destination for day tourists who also visited the Bowes Museum and the forest. The population grew from 2966 people in 1801 to 4478 inhabitants in 1861. But during late 19th and early 20th century, the local economy declined, many people lost their work and Thorngate and Bridgegate were considered slums. Throughout the centuries, St Mary’s church did its part in helping the poor. Collecting boxes for the poor were provided and the contents distributed, and from 1718 well into the 20th century, loaves of bread were given to people in need on Sunday mornings. To improve the living conditions of the poor, Reverend Dugard, who also oversaw every single one of the cholera burials, built schools, set up soup kitchens and bed and blanket stores. In 1901, St Mary’s Church Mission was set up at The Bank in response to the economic decline and high unemployment.

A building for everyone!?

By the 14th century, St Mary’s church was not only a place where people gathered for services. Late into the 19th century, the church was the only spacious and public building of the town and served as fire station, playhouse and parish hall. Religious plays and comedy were performed for the public, the priest was allowed to perform community duties and official town documents were kept in the church. After a severe fire in town in July 1748, Sir Henry Vane sent his fire engine from Raby Castle and gifted it to the town where it was stored in the church. Half a century later, Barnard Castle acquired a bigger engine partially financed from church rates and housed in a porch extending from the church’s South door. A planning committee formed in the first half of the 19th century to manage issues such as public hygiene and planning proposals met regularly in St. Mary’s church. But with the start of the 20th century, St Mary’s church became more and more isolated from everyday life and the common population of the town. Matters of local government were removed from the church to newly built public buildings. In addition, the practice of renting pews to individual families or reserving them for visitors of hotels made visiting a church service an elitist privilege excluding many of the poor people living in overcrowded and insanitary conditions at the bottom of the town.

During the 18th and 19th century, several non-conformist religions established in town and a number of chapels and meeting houses were built away from the main roads, only few of which survived until today. This was met by efforts of St Mary’s to make the Anglican church more attractive. Significant and expensive restoration and remodelling was undertaken with improvements both inside and outside the building. Examples are a taller clock tower that masked most of the Norman remains, as well as new Victorian stained glass windows. These works were partially funded by wealthy people from the town, but the effects didn’t last. Nevertheless, until 1927, St Mary’s was still an integral part of town life by ringing its rising bell for five minutes at 6am and the curfew bell at 8pm, probably instituted in England by William the Conqueror to remind people to damp down their fires. It later became a sign for children to come home.

Today, St Mary’s church is still an active church providing religious service to the people of Barnard Castle, but it is no longer at the centre of town life. Although its graveyard holds the remains of nearly all of Barnard Castle’s inhabitants up until the mid 18th century, people seem to have forgotten its colourful history and the role it played it during the past 900 years of the town’s existence.

With your help, Windows to the World will change this!

UPDATE: Following careful consideration of the COVID-19 crisis, we have made changes to the Windows to the World public programme, and have decided to postpone all activities, talks and workshops that were due to take place before 01 June 2020 until the autumn, by which time we hope things will be functioning normally again.

For now, you can find the latest information about changes to our upcoming programme here:
If you would like us to notify you when the events are re-scheduled, please subscribe to our newsletter on, or follow updates on this website.



Events, activities and education sessions are taking place at St Mary’s church throughout 2020.

You can see all the events listed below. To book a place on an upcoming event, check DigVentures’ What’s On page. We’ll be adding new events throughout the year, so keep checking this page, or sign up to our email list to get alerts in your inbox.

Participation in any of the Windows to the World events, workshops and activities is FREE!

March 2020

Monday, 02 March 2020 – TALK
‘The history of St Mary’s Parish church’ with Peter Wise

Thursday, 19 March 2020 – WORKSHOP
Help us digitise 900 years of history

April 2020

Thursday & Friday, 02&03 April 2020 – WORKSHOP
Help us research the unknown history of St Mary’s Parish church and Barnard Castle

Monday, 06 April 2020 – TALK
‘Signs and symbols on medieval cross slab grave covers’ with Peter Ryder

Tuesday, 14 April 2020 – TALK
Douglas Pittuck from every angle‘ by Elizabeth Conran, Liz Gott and Christine Hartas

Monday, 20 April 2020 – FILM LAUNCH
St Mary the Virgin, Barnard Castle: (Opening its) Windows to the World – first-ever screening of an explorative documentary with John Grundy and Peter Ryder, followed by Q&A

Friday, 24 April 2020 – TALK
Douglas Pittuck from every angle’ by Elizabeth Conran, Liz Gott and Christine Hartas’

May 2020

Monday, 04 May 2020 – TALK
‘Ancient folklore of Teesdale and Weardale‘ by Michael Lyons

June 2020

Monday, 01 June 2020 – TALK
‘Teedale Tracks and Derailing Dukes’ with Chris Lloyd


July 2020

Tuesday, 07 July 2020 – PERFORMANCE
The life of Richard III – a musical performed by students of Green Lane School

August 2020

Event details coming soon

September 2020

Event details coming soon

October 2020

Monday, 05 October 2020 – TALK
‘The arrival of non-conformist religions in Barnard Castle’ with Peter Ryder

November 2020

Event details coming soon

UPDATE: Following careful consideration of the COVID-19 crisis, we have made changes to the Windows to the World public programme, and have decided to postpone all activities, talks and workshops that were due to take place before 01 June 2020 until the autumn, by which time we hope things will be functioning normally again.

For now, you can find the latest information about changes to our upcoming programme here:
If you would like us to notify you when the events are re-scheduled, please subscribe to our newsletter on, or follow updates on this website.



There are three major ways in which you can get involved with ‘Windows to the World’

Take part in the fun and learn

There is a whole range of events and activitie for you to join and they are all happening at St Mary’s during 2020. Whether you want to learn something and listen to the experts, get actively involved in a workshop, or just take a seat and enjoy yourself – there is something for everyone and every age.

From talks to seminars to heritage and skills workshops, performances, exhibitions and tool-box talks, take a look at What’s On and book a place.

Volunteer your time

‘Windows to the World’ may only be around for 2020, but we want to build a lasting legacy that keeps people interested and engaged with the building and its stories. If you are interested in history and heritage and would like to learn more about how to run and organise activities, why not join us and gain or brush up on those skills. Meet our fun and friendly group of volunteers, and be a part of bringing St Mary’s heritage to life. Just send an email to

Groups and schools

We can offer our fun and educational Miracles to Medicine sessions to schools, scout groups and other youth groups. If you belong to any of those or other groups and are interested in a guided tour of the church or another tailored heritage related activity, please get in touch with us by sending an email to

'It was a really hands-on session. The students were fascinated'
'I was rather pleased that I managed a good result'
'They learnt all about medieval remedies'
'The children loved the session and buzzed about it for the rest of the day':D
'It was a nice atmosphere. Everyone was really nice'
'I enjoyed the challenge of trying to make a 3D model'
'I grew up in town but I just found out how much I don't know about it'
'Wow! I learned so much today'

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