Boroughbridge - Take your time to explore this historic town and its countryside
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 October 2018
Joan Rusell Photography
Explore an historic North Yorkshire town and its countryside with some guidance from Richard Darn.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Boroughbridge. Perhaps it’s the Georgian architecture that appeals to me, or the lovely John Carr designed bridge in the centre, rebuilt in 1785 and dividing the old North and West Ridings, which still arches gracefully over the River Ure. There is something else too.
The town’s hinterland to the east is still defined by the meeting of three mighty rivers. Here the Swale and the Ure join forces to become the Ouse just south of Aldwark. As the crow flies, this spot is just five miles from Boroughbridge, but it remains the sole river crossing point for miles around on the public road network, making the area less visited than it should be.
Archaeologists believe that Aldwark is where at least one half of the Great Viking Army camped during the nation defining events of the ninth century. This mighty invasion force split in two, with one half being stopped by King Alfred in Wessex at the Battle of Edington – a victory that laid the foundations of the English nation – and the rest marching north, spending winter in the Vale of York.
There are treasures aplenty in this wooded and fertile countryside. Helperby is an exquisite little place that has 18th century stamped all over it – one of a number of sublime villages. And grand Benningborough is a gentle bike ride away.
So tip number one for an excursion to Boroughbridge is to leave the A1M and take the slow road instead. But carry loose change – a 40p toll is still required to cross the 250-year-old Aldwark Bridge.
Before making a beeline for the town centre, there is another detour just one mile away that should be on your itinerary. Aldborough with its striped May Pole and village green looks old and it is. For this was once the site of the capital of the biggest tribe in Celtic Britain – the Brigantes. The conquering Romans built a town on top in about AD100 - Isurium Brigantum – featuring a regular street system, defensive walls and forum or market place.
You can still see some of the walls, but the highlight of a visit are two magnificent mosaics which once adorned the floor of an opulent Roman villa. Now housed in their own buildings they are reckoned to be the best in situ in northern England. See them at weekends in October before the English Heritage monument closes for the winter.
Like Thirsk to the north, Boroughbridge’s heyday was as a coaching town. The first mail coaches arrived in 1789 and the Crown Hotel developed a tidy trade catering for travellers, with space to stable 100 horses. It still welcomes weary visitors, but leave the horse at home. Coach travel was expensive by the standards of the day. Leeds to Newcastle cost 28 shillings, but if you were prepared to sit outside and brave the elements it was half that. Despite the rough journey coaches still had romantic names – the North Star went up to Edinburgh via Carlisle, The Defence was bound for Durham and the Royal Charlotte speeded to Sunderland.
It’s a reminder that this town has always been defined by its central position alongside the Roman Dere Street – better known to you and me as the Great North Road. In fact, the Scots could not get enough of the place – they frequently sent down raiding parties and even despatched a 15,000 strong army to vanquish a motley English force at nearby Myton (1319). During more recent and peaceful times 1,000 cattle a day arrived from north of the border to cross the town’s bridge on the way to markets in the south.
You can learn all this and more by starting a tour at the friendly volunteer-run tourist information centre, which has a range of excellent 20p leaflets on the town’s impressive history and personalities. On the day I visited the sun slanted down and I mused how attractive the place looked. There are some very smart buildings here including the impressive (and private) Boroughbridge Hall behind ornate iron gates along with a host of fine independent shops gracing the High Street.
If delis and cafes are your thing you will be heaven. Target Finks for a good selection of Yorkshire provender including rhubarb infused cider from Husthwaite orchards. Another outlet called Bean – housed in the old Malt Shovel coaching inn – strikes an eccentric note combining a dog friendly tea room with a clothing boutique. There is an excellent local butcher and an antique shop well worth visiting. In fact there’s a healthy absence of big chain stores in these parts and I hope it stays that way.
It’s also good see that Boroughbridge is still thoroughly connected with the River Ure - once its trading lifeblood. Boats can make their way from York to Ripon these days with the re-opening of the latter’s canal in the 1990s – it is a marvellous route and you can explore at least some of it by hiring a boat from the marina. Upstream the River Ure is particularly rich in wildlife. According to the Canal and River Trust creatures found here include otters, water voles and white-clawed crayfish. Keep your eyes peeled for kingfishers and little ringed plovers and lurking below the water are lamprey and Atlantic salmon.
It might be tempting to think of Boroughbridge has a sleepy place as time has denuded it of its transport links. The insolvent River Ure Navigation was sold to a railway company in 1847 and the railway itself axed in the 1960s. The same decade saw the A1 diverted from the town for the first time in 800 years and onto a new by-pass.
But what I saw on a warm day was a bustling and compact place, with a very positive vibe about it, and perhaps with its best years ahead of it as an aspirational place to live. I left as I arrived, with a smile on my face.