Explore Bedale, a stronghold of independence with a cherished Georgian style
PUBLISHED: 21:41 11 June 2013 | UPDATED: 21:41 11 June 2013
Words by Terry Fletcher
Photographs by John Cocks
Bedale is a town full of surprises but for many visitors the biggest surprise of all is perhaps that it exists at all. Although standing just a few minutes from the busy A1 most of those thundering past on one of the country’s major arterial roads are completely unaware it is there. And that is their loss.
The town is a tranquil Georgian gem that has retained its individuality while many around it have become clones of one other, their high streets flanked by those all-too-familiar chain stores and the same old national names. Here, with the exception of the banks, the names over the majority of the shop doorways will be new to most visitors though not to locals. Many of the businesses are long-established family firms which have been fixtures for generations.
Local historian Brian Hall, who passed the family fish and chip shop once run by his own father and mother on to his son, Stephen, says this sense of community and continuity plays a major role in creating Bedale’s charm. There’s also plenty of history here – St Gregory’s Church dates back to Saxon times while Elizabeth I made an endowment of £7 11s 4d (£7.57) to set up a grammar school and there’s no shortage of tradition either.
‘Sport has been particularly strong,’ says Brian, now 79, who used to play football, cricket, squash and golf for Bedale and still plays bowls. ‘You can play almost any sport here; we’ve even got our own swimming pool and a golf course practically in the centre of the town. The cricket club is 150 years old but the bowls club is even older and goes back for 200 years. At one time we had whippet racing too but that died out.’
This rich sporting legacy produced some national figures and none most unusual than Eva Askquith, the daughter of the local butcher. She was an international star in the still male-dominated macho world of motor bike racing in the 1920s and 1930s taking on the men and beating them in hill trials, grass track races and speedway. She was also a renowned horsewoman who won many point to point races. Ironically, despite her daredevil sporting exploits, she managed to avoid serious injury until she was knocked down by a car after she retired from competition. Nevertheless she went on to live until she was 80.
Today that seems a long way from the peaceful scene in Bedale whose wide curving Market Place retains an air of its Georgian heyday. But for the number of cars parked on the cobbles and the slightly incongruous modern lamp standards it would not be a total surprise to see a coach and four come clattering up the street.
Janet Stevens, whose Red House Interiors, an quirky mix of collectible antiques and eye-catching contemporary designs featured in a national list of the country’s 50 most unusual and off-beat shops, said: ‘Thankfully Bedale is still a stronghold of independence which makes is very attractive to visitors. They can find all sorts of one-off shops where they can see things that they will not find at home. The proximity to the A1 is also a big help. As well as visitors to the Dales we get people coming for a day out from Newcastle, Leeds and York as well as further afield. It has become a destination in itself for those in the know. It’s a great place to come to shop or just browse, have a mooch, a cup of tea and a slice of cake.’
And mooching, especially, on the Heritage Trail, which starts outside the volunteer-run Tourist Information Centre at the top of the Market Place, is well rewarded. Just next door is Bedale Hall, a Georgian mansion that from the road seems a little disappointing until it is realised that the impressive showpiece frontage overlooks the park. Today the hall houses a museum and it is worth asking to see the palatial ballroom. Just opposite is St Gregory’s most of which dates from the Middle Ages and Victorian times and includes a fortified tower built as protection in the days when not all visitors were welcomed and Scots raiders posed a serious threat.
From there the route passes the 14th century Market Cross and wanders down to the beck where you can suppress a shudder at the sight of the tiny leech house, one of the last surviving in the north when the local apothecary kept the blood-sucking creatures to treat patients. A little further along the beck is an even bigger surprise here in the landlocked Dales, an area known as The Harbour. In reality it was developed as a canal basin built during an abortive attempt to make the Swale navigable in 1767.
The scheme ran out of money and was finally killed off by the coming of the railways. The local line in turn closed to passenger traffic in the 1950s but limped along for another 40 years carrying limestone to Teesside and military vehicles. In 2003 it was resurrected by volunteers who now run trains for 22 miles from Leeming Bar to Redmire and plan to eventually re-open the whole line from Northallerton to Garsdale Head, linking the East Coast main line and the Settle-Carlisle Railway.