The Ancient Unicorn: A Tragic Ghost Story


The Ancient Unicorn in Bowes, County Durham, is a historic coaching inn, where history and hauntings collide…

The Ancient Unicorn, Bowes
The Ancient Unicorn, Bowes

The Ancient Unicorn, in the historic County Durham village of Bowes, has not only been a resting place for travellers navigating the Pennines but has also seen many ghostly encounters.

The story of The Ancient Unicorn is said to date back to the 16th century, when it first served as a coaching inn.

This establishment, strategically located to guard the route out of Scotland, is said to have played a pivotal role in resisting Scottish raids. There are claims the inn endured a siege in 1322, led by the infamous Robert the Bruce, leaving the nearby Bowes Castle in ruins. This is despite the inn not being built until at least the 16th century. Maybe it was a previous inn on the same site.

Whatever the truth, The Ancient Union is located in a very historic place. Traces of the Roman fort, Lavatrae, are still visible in the fields to the south of St Giles Church, a testament to the historical significance of this region.

The inn’s history is intertwined with that of the haunted Bowes Castle. Residents of the past, the ghosts of Roman garrison soldiers, return on the anniversary of a local massacre, adding to the eerie ambiance of the place.

Nearby St Giles Church, with its medieval architecture and Norman doorway, holds the grave of George Ashton Taylor, who inspired Charles Dickens’ character Smike in ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’

In this churchyard, the spirits of Edward and Emma, also known as Roger Railton and Martha Wrightson, have been sighted haunting The Ancient Unicorn.

Hauntings of The Ancient Unicorn

The tragic love story of Roger Railton and Martha Wrightson, dating back to 1713, is at the heart of the inn’s ghostly tales.

Both hailing from innkeeping families, their love faced hostility from parents who ran rival inns – the King’s Head and the George, now The Ancient Unicorn.

Roger’s untimely death from a fever led to Martha’s heartbreak, and they were buried together. Their story was immortalised in a ballad and a poem, ensuring their presence lingers on as restless spirits.

Apart from the ill-fated lovers, other apparitions have been reported.

A mysterious 12-year-old boy is said to roam the cellars, a boy who was once imprisoned here.

A bearded man in a bowler hat and a lady in a grey Victorian dress are among the spectral residents. Some have experienced pranks and mysterious touches, while others have heard unexplained noises in the night.

How to Visit The Ancient Unicorn

Today, The Ancient Unicorn continues as a welcoming haven for travellers and visitors exploring the beauty of Teesdale and the North Pennines.

This charming inn offers cosy bedrooms with en-suite facilities, coffee and tea making amenities, and television. Hearty English breakfasts are also available in the restaurant, where culinary delights from Teesdale and beyond are freshly prepared with a focus on local produce.

Situated in Bowes, near Barnard Castle, The Ancient Unicorn is easily accessible, being 7.9 km from Bowes Museum and within reach of various historic landmarks, including Brough Castle and Richmond Castle.

The Ancient Unicorn is an ideal base for walkers and cyclists exploring the Pennine Way and the Teesdale Way, while also offering secure equipment storage for cyclists. Many outdoor activities, from horse riding to bird watching, await in the beautiful surroundings of Teesdale. Maybe you’ll even see a ghost!

Have you visited The Ancient Unicorn in Bowes and seen a ghost? Tell us in the comments section below!


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