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Why Northallerton is always worth a return visit

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 February 2018 | UPDATED: 09:41 07 February 2018

Northallerton high street

Northallerton high street

Joan Russell Photography

A fine market town, rich in history, has much to offer today, as Richard Darn discovers

Northallerton is never less than bustling Northallerton is never less than bustling

In my five score years living in Yorkshire I’ve somehow managed to skirt around Northallerton and rarely called in. That’s despite the fact that Mount Grace Priory, just a few miles to the east, is one of my favourite places in the whole county and one I’ve visited countless times.

Quite why I’ve never spent more time in this handsome little market town is a mystery to me, because it’s a thriving place with independent shops, plenty of history and a knack of being at the centre of things. Let’s start with a quirky tale of one man who hated the place.

Mount Grace was founded in 1398 by a particularly strict order of monks, the Carthusians, an extreme religious response to the Black Death. Brothers spent most of their time alone in individual cells, an example of which has been restored for visitors, and only came together to pray in the church. Because of their privations they were considered to have a hotline to heaven and attracted donations from wealthy benefactors keen to ensure their own salvation in those plague-ravaged days.

One monk, however, was intent on more earthly rewards. He stole the monastery’s official seal (essentially a medieval credit card) and took off on a spending spree north of the border. These days one suspects he’d get away with it, but not back then. He was tracked down by some real-life version of Cadfael, returned under guard and incarcerated at Mount Grace, where presumably the news didn’t spread quickly as residents rarely spoke to each other. The Carthusian order still exists, but these days potential monks are screened for their suitability for the lifestyle. How wise.

Northallerton Parish Church Northallerton Parish Church

Larceny on a grander scale took place a few centuries earlier when the Battle of the Standard was fought at Cowton Moor (1138) north west of Northallerton – the location is now marked by a monument. The clash of over 20,000 men took its name from the banners York, Beverley and Ripon minsters which were flown over the English position. Facing them were a larger force of Scots led by King David, intent on expanding his territory and taking advantage of what amounted to civil war in England. Apparently some of the invaders had shaven heads, adding to their wild demeanour and proving skinheads are nothing new. The result was an unlikely home win and David went back to lick his wounds in Carlisle.

Northallerton has always been a relatively prosperous place. In medieval times it was a summer seat of the Prince Bishops of Durham and from here they administered their Yorkshire estates. In a sense that continues as the town is the home of North Yorkshire County Council and the county police force. And in 1887 John Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles noted that it had a large trade in agricultural produce, a cheese fair and markets for horses, cattle and sheep (which were still sold in the High Street into the early 20th century).The town was also a stop over point on long distance stage-coach runs - the impressive Golden Lion Hotel, a listed former coaching inn, still provides hospitality to locals and travellers – and the arrival of the railway in 1841 ensured it stayed at the heart of things.

Even today this is a town that punches above its weight for what in fact is quite a small place. Betty’s are in the High Street and over 100 years ago Messrs Lewis and Cooper started a food shop that has since grown into a world renowned emporium shipping luxury hampers packed with gastronomic delights across the globe. The original shop still exists, with the addition of a lovely cafe, and it remains independently owned. Northallerton also has another retail institution – Barkers. Today the company employs 270 people and operates from three sites locally. It takes its name from farmer’s son, William Baker, who was an apprentice at a small draper’s shop, before taking over and expanding the business. There’s a modern Home Centre on the edge of the town, whilst the original department store is on High Street with its historic frontage and charming arcade of 12 speciality shops running the length of the establishment.

But don’t run away with the idea that Northallerton is all business and no play. The town is home to the Joe Cornish gallery jointly owned by the famous landscape photographer. Despite the fact that he has produced some of the most iconic images of Yorkshire over recent decades, Joe is in fact a Devonian by birth, perhaps that helps bring freshness to his work. The gallery opened in 2004 in a beautiful 18th century Georgian building and features photographs taken locally and on assignment across the UK and abroad, plus the work of other leading photographers. I love landscape photography and admire the time, effort and adventures that have to be undertaken to capture the perfect marriage of land, sky and weather. But for me it will always be his take on the White Rose county that defines his work, whether slanting sunlight across Roseberry Topping or deep mellow autumn sunlight filling a Dales valley. Check out the gallery website for exhibition and photography workshops and talks and make a date to pay a visit to Northallerton – a town that packs a pint into a quart pot.

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