Penistone - an historic market town that deserves more than a fleeting visit
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 April 2017
Joan Russell Photography, Joan Russell Photography
Get to know this historic market town which is worth much more than a fleeting visit. Richard Darn reports.
It was a dark foggy autumn night in Penistone. Waiting for the last train to Barnsley after a night of fine ale my interest was piqued by three gentlemen on the opposite platform with tripod mounted cameras pointing up the line. ‘Hmm, not going to make much of a picture,’ I mused. Intrigued beyond restraint, I went across and asked them what they were doing. ‘Waiting for the leaf cleaner from Carlisle,’ they responded excitedly. ‘It’s unique.’
These were my kind of people and when the yellow locomotive (purpose built in the 1950s to remove troublesome foliage) pulled in the railway paparazzi swung into action and I shared their unbridled pleasure. Penistone is like that – full of surprises.
Continuing the railway theme the old Woodhead Line to Manchester Victoria ran through here and was the first electrified railway in the UK. And the three-mile long Woodhead Tunnel was also the world’s longest when it opened in 1845. The rails have long since been ripped up and melted down, but the route survives as the Trans Pennine cycle trail, offering a great way to explore the lovely countryside.
Despite living a 45-minute bike ride from Penistone, I’ve always felt it was a remote and very separate place as befits the highest market town in England at nearly 750ft above sea level. Such a setting demands a grand entrance and the place does not disappoint. From the west the entry points come through the Peak District National Park, whilst travellers from the east are greeted by a spectacular 29-arch Grade II viaduct spanning a valley with the town perched on the hill above.
Penistone has been a centre of upland farming for centuries and developed its very own breed of sheep capable of withstanding the harsh weather. Locals were granted a royal licence to hold a market in 1699 after protesting that driving livestock to Barnsley was impossible in snowy weather (let’s not forget this was the mini-Ice Age so the climate in these parts must have been terrible). The textile industry also gained a foothold and Penistone cloth became famous worldwide, being both cheap and durable. Wonderfully, the original 1763 merchant’s Cloth Hall survives, located opposite the Spread Eagle pub. It is now occupied by a chemist.
Things are on the move in the town. The old livestock market was closed to make way for retail developments, but in a nod to the past Barnsley Council commissioned a huge traditional Cruck Barn in the Market Place. This fabulous project used over 100 cubic metres of oak and measures 35 metres long and 13 meters high. Built using traditional methods, it is probably the biggest oak structure erected in the UK in centuries and it creates a wonderful covered space for markets and entertainment. Town planners elsewhere should take note - it took my breath away.
With its local shops, historic Grade I St John’s Church (parts of which may be Saxon), old pubs and new cafés the town definitely feels as if it’s on the up. New houses are being built and many families are doubtless drawn by the proximity of Penistone Grammar School founded in 1392 and which still maintains a terrific reputation.
There are riches aplenty in the surrounding countryside and stunning walks. A favourite is just over the hill at Langsett reservoir. Here you can either take a 4.5 mile circular walk through woods and over high moorland or use it as a starting point for a hike out to Derwent reservoir (where the Dambusters practiced).The views are utterly magnificent. Whichever you choose look out for the remnants of a farm building on the tops called North America, reduced to rubble by tanks training here during the Second World War. The tiny hamlet of Langsett is also a stunner, beautifully preserved and evocative of times past.
Not too far away off the Manchester Road there’s a much older and more spiritual relic. For 300 years worshippers have flocked to Bullhouse Chapel, claimed to be England’s oldest nonconformist place of worship in continuous use. Understated and beautiful, it was constructed within living memory of the terrible religious wars that scarred the 17th century. It’s well worth a visit.
Back in town I couldn’t resist popping along to the Penistone Paramount Cinema to see what was playing. Built in 1914, this 350-seat venue has witnessed silent movies, the early talkies and now the latest big screen blockbusters. But it’s also a live music venue and appearances by the nationally renowned local folk singer Kate Rusby are always wonderful evenings.
What’s reckoned to be Yorkshire’s biggest one day agricultural show also takes place in Penistone (second Saturday in September) so there is lots going on. Scratch the surface and you find a fascinating town that knows how to keep in touch with its roots.