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December 8 2013 Latest news:
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The busy market town of Richmond is working hard to attract visitors to what is a very special part of the world as Terry Fletcher discovers Photographs by John Cocks
The Normans were still consolidating their somewhat tenuous grip on England when they planted their first castle on the Riche Mont, the strong hill
overlooking a bend in the River Swale in the Yorkshire Dales. Most early forts were wooden affairs but Alan Rufus, the Conquerors cousin, had more respect for his troublesome locals and opted to go straight to something more solid. Almost 1,000 years later the 100ft high keep is still virtually intact and continues to dominate not justRichmond but the surrounding area, a great stone exclamation mark visible from every approach.
Even to modern eyes, accustomed to tower blocks and grand buildings, it remains an imposing sight so it is scarcely possible to imagine its impact on terrified Saxon peasants who had seen little bigger than wattle and daub huts and the occasional church. Small wonder that few dared to attack it or that it has seen virtually no fighting down centuries of turmoil.
But if Richmonds most prominent landmark is Norman mediaeval aggression carved in stone its heart is pure English Georgian and its second most prominent feature is the vast Market Place, hemmed with still elegant buildings despite the modern and sometimes garish shop fronts at street level.
This huge cobbled expanse, probably best appreciated from the top of the English Heritage-run castle, is reputed to be the largest in England and no less a fan than Prince Charles suggested that it rivalled the great Campo in the Tuscan city of Sienna. It slopes away downhill as though it might slide off into the river were it not pinned in place by the solid anchor of Trinity Church, once the castles place of worship but now the home of the Museum of the Green Howards, the local regiment.
Many of the surrounding buildings are the legacy of the towns 17th and 18th century heyday when local industries like lead mining were at their peak and the town prospered, hosting its own horse racing meetings and fashionable assemblies. A building boom saw the mediaeval shops and houses swept away to be replaced by elegant town houses, such as that of the Bathurst family, which is now the handsome Kings Head Hotel overlooking the Market Place.
Other streets and alleys, known locally as wynds, radiate outwards in higgledy-piggledy fashion and contain yet more Georgian gems as well as the specialist shops and art galleries that make Richmond such a pleasant place to stroll around. Among them is the local base of Mackenzie Thorpe, the Middlesbrough-born artist famed for his square sheep and moon-faced children whose work attracts collectors from all over the world.
The Georgian period also saw the creation of one of Richmonds continuing delights, the Castle Walk, a level pathway that completely encircles the fortress and offered promenading visitors the chance to admire the views down to the river with its lively falls and westwards into the deep cleft of Swaledale itself. The views remain spectacular and the pleasure of a stroll around the walk undiminished.
Just round the corner is another period gem, the Georgian Theatre. It was built in 1788 by actor-manager Samuel Butler, and its first patrons would still recognise the perfectly-preserved interior which plays host to everything from Shakespeare to concerts, pantomimes and stand up comedy. Even if you cant see a show there are tours taking in the tiny auditorium which is a star in its own right.
Richmonds commitment to visitors is strongly in evidence at the local Tourist Information Centre where Hilda Ellis leads a team of 15 volunteers who defied council spending cuts to keep the centre going last year. When the council pulled out local businessman Barrie Proctor stepped in to underwrite the rent and now Hilda and her team staff it and try to cover costs by running a small cafe there. She says: We need our visitors and they need the TIC to help them get the most from a visit. Theres so much to see and do in Richmond and the surrounding area.
Surprisingly Richmond remains largely within its centuries-old boundaries with little building on the far bank of the Swale. An exception was the railway which arrived in 1846, largely to carry away lead, lime and coal from local mines. The branch line escaped Dr Beechings axe and limped on until it closed in 1969. But the buildings remained and have now been restored to house a two-screen cinema, cafe and several artisan food producers in what is still a Grade II listed building and more than repays a crossing of the river.
Getting there: Richmond is easily reached from the A1 at Catterick.
Where to park: Disc parking in the Market Place (market day Saturday). A signposted smaller car park further out.
What to do: Visit the castle, take in a show at the Georgian Theatre, do the Castle Walk for a stunning view of the Swale and stroll through the narrow streets and wynds. Beyond the town lie all the glories of Swaledale. For more information and links visit richmond.org