Mayor says Dominic Cummings’ trip put town on the map as English Heritage reports ‘stay at home’ boom
The crumbling medieval fortress at Barnard Castle had a record number of visitors last year after gaining notoriety as the destination of Dominic Cummings on a lockdown mission to test his eyesight.
Visitors to the 12th-century castle on the north bank of the River Tees were up by almost 20% in 2021 compared with 2019, according to English Heritage, the charity that manages more than 400 historic buildings and monuments.
After the Guardian and the Daily Mirror revealed Cummings’ trip to his parents’ farm during the height of the first Covid lockdown, the prime minister’s then chief aide claimed he had driven with his wife and child to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, which “seemed to have been affected” by his bout of Covid. He wanted to ensure he was able to drive back to London the following day, he said.
At the time, Covid restrictions prohibited almost all movement, and the revelation of Cummings’ trip to the north-east caused public outcry.
As restrictions eased in the following weeks, Barnard Castle residents and businesses reported a surge in curious visitors. John Blissett, the town’s mayor, said the controversy had “put us on the map”. “The crowds have been coming in … I think the publicity has done us good.”
The initial increase in visitors to the Grade I listed fortress – built by Bernard de Balliol and later in the hands of Richard III – turned into a record year in 2021, English Heritage said.
Barnard Castle is among a number of smaller historic attractions that saw a boom in visitors last year, with several reporting record numbers, English Heritage said.
The trend was a clear indication that the public “took advantage of the ‘stay at home’ mandate to rediscover the heritage on their doorstep”, the charity said.
Boscobel House in Shropshire, where in 1651 Charles II hid from Cromwell’s soldiers in an oak tree after the civil war, saw an 82% increase in visitors compared with 2019.
Kirkham Priory in North Yorkshire, which was home to Augustinian canons until its dissolution in 1539 and where secret military research was conducted during the second world war, had a visitor increase of 75%.
There was a 30% rise in visitors to Pickering Castle, also in North Yorkshire. The 13th-century castle was used as a royal hunting lodge, holiday home and stud farm by a succession of medieval kings.
Kate Mavor, chief executive of English Heritage, said: “In the past, lesser known, more intimate local sites in our care have often been overlooked in favour of our more iconic ones, despite having just as rich and important a history.
“This has been a long and hard pandemic but one silver lining appears to be that with people staying closer to home, they have discovered historic places nearby.”