The Ancient Unicorn can trace its history as a coaching inn back to the 16th century. Since then it has been at the heart of a community which originally grew up around the Roman fort Lavatrae and the Norman castle of Bowes. The site being strategic in guarding the route out of Scotland and resisting the raiding Scots, which included a siege in 1322 by Robert the Bruce, which left the castle in ruins. Traces of the Roman fort are still visible in the fields south of St. Giles Church. The castle still has residents - the ghosts of the roman garrison who come back on the anniversary of a local massacre.
Evidence of civilian life at the Roman fort dates from the 1st - 4th century AD - a much longer period than can be found at Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall. This makes Bowes an important Roman site in the understanding of early settlement in Britain.
St. Giles Church is medieval with a Norman doorway. It was here in the graveyard in 1838 Charles Dickens found the burial place of George Ashton Taylor, his inspiration for the character of Smike in 'Nicholas Nickleby', the schoolboy who was so badly treated by Wackford Squeers.
Dotheboys Hall in the novel was modelled on Bowes Academy, run by William Shaw, who was often fined for ill-treating boys and whose ways were vividly attacked by Dickens. You will find George Ashton's grave on the north side of the chancel.
In the churchyard is the grave of Edward and Emma whose ghostly spirits have been regularly seen haunting the Ancient Unicorn. The story of Emma and Edward or Roger Railton and Martha Wrightson as they were known takes you back to the 18th century. Their families were both innkeepers. The Wrightsons at the King's Head (long since gone). and the Railtons at the George (now the Unicorn). In 1713 Roger fell in love with Martha but faced with hostility from parents the pair had to meet in secret. On Shrove Tuesday 1713 fate stepped in and Roger fell ill from a serious fever. He begged to see Martha.
Eventually the Wrightsons relented and Martha was allowed to visit him. Three days later he died. Martha died shortly afterwards of a broken heart and the two were buried together in one grave at St. Giles Church. The sad episode was immortalised in a a ballad published in 1750 called Edwin and Emma and also in a poem "Bowes Tragedy" published about the same time.
The ghost of an unknown 12 year old boy has also been seen in the cellars of the Unicorn.
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