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What makes Boroughbridge so special?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 October 2017

The market cross in St James Square, Boroughbridge

The market cross in St James Square, Boroughbridge

Joan Russell Photography

Tony Greenway visits the North Yorkshire market town and takes his young daughter for a second opinion.

Boroughbridge town centre Boroughbridge town centre

School holidays. They start off so well, don’t they? But in my experience they quickly descend into long, monotonous hours that blur into one another, repeatedly punctuated by a small voice saying: ‘I’m bored.’ Over the summer, Betsy, my 10-year-old, verbally expressed her boredom – ooh – well over 100 times, I reckon. Around the 106 mark, I snapped. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘Get your coat. We’re going to Boroughbridge.’

Admittedly, to a 10-year-old, the words ‘we’re going to Boroughbridge’ don’t have the same pulse-quickening ring as ‘we’re going to eat ice cream until it comes out of our ears’ or ‘we’re going to Disneyland’. But I had an article to write about the place (Boroughbridge, not Disneyland), and in an effort to find something for her to do – and in the spirit of ‘take your daughter to work day’ – I thought it might be best if she tagged along too.

Now there isn’t, it has to be said, a wide variety of things to do and see in Boroughbridge if you’re a child. Just outside the town there’s a soft-play centre, but even Betsy admits that she’s getting a bit long in the tooth for those. Even further outside the town – about three-and-a-half miles, actually – there’s Newby Hall, which has award-winning gardens, an adventure playground and a miniature railway (that’s more like it). Plus there are three immense standing stones on the western outskirts called Devil’s Arrows, visible from the road but, as weirdly impressive as they are, you can only look at them for so long.

Still, it would be good to find out more about these bizarre monoliths we decided, so consulted the internet via my phone – but that was worse than useless. ‘These are among the least understood historic monuments in Britain,’ one online guide told us, bluntly. Well, thanks a bunch. Although legend has it that the devil himself threw the stones and was aiming for Aldborough next door – but missed and hit Boroughbridge instead. Betsy wasn’t convinced by this. That story was almost certainly made up, she said confidently. For a start, why would the devil have it in for Aldborough so much? ‘Well,’ I said. ‘Apparently it’s because Aldborough was a Christian settlement and...’ Boring even myself, I quickly changed tack and mumbled: ‘Er... I don’t know,’ instead.

Betsy is ready for her 'massive hot chocolate with everything on it' Betsy is ready for her 'massive hot chocolate with everything on it'

OK, so most 10-year-olds don’t like divination lessons. But do you know what they do like? They like eating and drinking and, luckily, Boroughbridge has some excellent food shops and cafes. We parked up in the free car park (a donation of £1 is suggested: ‘Very trusting,’ noted Betsy. ‘Have you paid?’) and walked along the high street to a new venture called Plenty, which is part takeaway deli, part sit-in cafe. We chose the latter option, and had lunch – and a massive hot chocolate with everything on it – looking out of the big picture window across to the fountain that was built over an artesian well in 1875. Plenty also does a nice range of homemade ice creams, which was handy.

The other thing Betsy likes to do pretty much more than anything else is make a beeline for sweetshops (did I mention she was 10?). We clocked two really good ones: Bailey’s of Boroughbridge which sells ‘traditional old-fashioned weigh out sweets’ plus a chocolate emporium called Sweet Fink, which has been open since October 2016, stocking a range of handmade products including ones from Italy, Germany and Yorkshire. Inside we met owner Hugh Fink, who also runs a fine food shop in the town and is president of the local Chamber of Trade.

Hugh has lived in Boroughbridge for 25 years and has seen a lot of changes in that time. ‘It used to be a standalone town in its own right with everything: butcher, baker and candlestick-maker,’ he says. ‘But more recently everyone has been going online or to big shopping centres for their basics so what we have in Boroughbridge now are more specialist independent shops.’ And this, if you’re thinking of visiting, is why you really should go. ‘Independence’ is the metaphorical ace up Boroughbridge’s metaphorical sleeve. Even the local Spar is a franchised business. Maybe this is why there seems to be such a good community vibe here. In July, the mayor, Peter Phillips, launched an initiative to recognise the people and organisations that contribute so much to the town, with categories including Community Spirited Shop or Business of the Year, Community Event/Project of the Year and Young Volunteer of the Year.

Sharon Longcroft, who runs Sweet Fink, is a Chamber of Trade committee member and agrees that Boroughbridge’s independent retailers help to make it stand out from the usual small town, chain store crowd. ‘Plenty is new and has invigorated (the top) part of the high street, as have Appleton’s the butchers,’ she says. ‘People like to come here for a browse, lunch and some shopping. Plus we get cyclists and walkers, too.’

Sharon Longcroft at Sweet Fink, another of Boroughbridge's independent specialist stores Sharon Longcroft at Sweet Fink, another of Boroughbridge's independent specialist stores

Historically, the Great North Road ran through Boroughbridge, so the town was used as a stopping off point for stagecoaches and horse-riders travelling between London and Edinburgh (JMW Turner clip-clopped up here in 1816 to make sketches of the bridge on the River Ure, Newby Hall and Ellenthorpe Hall). In 1963, a bypass was built which was great for getting traffic out of the town, but maybe did the job a bit too well. ‘We need to do more to get shoppers back in and spend money here,’ says Hugh. ‘We’re very aware of the need to raise our profile as a minor destination. No-one is going to come to spend two weeks just in Boroughbridge. But it’s a great centre. We’re good for access to the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors, we’re near to the motorways, we’re on the canal and we have a lot of people coming through on their boats up to Ripon.’

Time to buy some chocolates, then, before wandering around and doing a bit of window shopping and – for Betsy – clothes shopping, her latest hobby (something she hated doing six months ago. Kids are curious, aren’t they?). She also wants to come back to Boroughbridge after hearing Sharon talk about its festivities in the run-up to Christmas: a late night shopping event on December 6th plus Boroughbridge Community Care’s Christmas Tree Festival at St James’ Church on December 9th and 10th. There’ll also be a Santa’s Grotto, plus a carol service at the church.

‘Boroughbridge is very pretty with some beautiful houses,’ Betsy said into my tape-recorder, as we drove past the war memorial on picturesque Hall Square. Then she asked the question she always asks when measuring the attractiveness of any town she visits. ‘I wonder if Phil and Kirstie would like it here?’ Yes, I expect they would, Betsy. I expect they would.

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