Northallerton - the market town in touch with its past
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 February 2017
It's not easy for a rural market town to remain vibrant and still keep in touch with its past but Northallerton is doing just that, reports Martin Pilkington.
Market towns became significant in their locality because people from near and sometimes far would gather there to buy and sell goods. Modern shopping habits are now threatening that raison d’être, which for Northallerton began in earnest in the twelfth century. No wonder the town is fighting back. ‘The Bishops of Durham, who were granted much of Allertonshire by the Crown, established Northallerton,’ explains Jennifer Allison of the Northallerton & District Local History Society, ‘and built a castle and church and obtained a very early market charter for it in 1127. The way the high street developed with its well-known wide-open area was to accommodate the market, with what are known as burgage plots, laid out all the way down the main street.’ That medieval layout is still discernible in places.
‘It was a market centre for its own area as there were other little market towns all around,’ she says. ‘At the end of the Middle Ages, Northallerton only had a population of about 600 people. Somewhat later in Elizabethan times the market becomes more and more important, with the droving of cattle here from the north significant. At one time Northallerton had a massive cattle market.’
Northallerton’s prosperity from medieval days to the 18th century, and its place on the Great North Road, left the fine architectural legacy that contributes so much to the town’s character. Porch House, built in 1584 on one of the old burgage plots opposite the church, is perhaps the best known link with those days still to be seen, though rivalled by The Fleece Inn, originally a private residence built in the Tudor period but using stone that Jennifer believes was taken from the Carmelite Priory lost during the Dissolution. In Georgian times further gems like Register House on Zetland Street, now a photographic gallery, and the house now occupied by Bettys Tea Rooms were added.
‘The town is already a lovely place to visit and has some existing advantages that we want to harness through the work of the BID team,’ says Simon Bailes, who is on the BID steering committee. Some 71 per cent of the potential participants in the BID (Business Improvement District) scheme voted for it, so this spring a new board and BID manager will begin work on improving the marketing of the town, looking at ways to make the already attractive environment better still, and bringing in focussed business support.
‘It’s a lovely high street that has character and charm as a setting,’ adds Simon, ‘things you won’t get in out-of-town shopping centres, plus we have a great range of shops from big national names to quirky independents like Barkers and Lewis & Cooper who are some of the really big commercial draws, and a great food offer. That’s where we’re starting. What’s important is promoting those advantages better - there’s a lot to see here, and lots to do. The high street is an area of focus because that brings a lot of people to the town, so it’s a good place to start, but the whole town is going to benefit.’
Mark Haynes, business and economy officer at Hambleton Council, identifies why the BID has been welcomed by most businesses in the town. ‘Retailers in the high street have been concerned for quite a while about consumer habits changing and the upshot of that. Whilst the town is currently pretty prosperous they want to do what’s necessary for it to stay that way, ensure the town offers a better experience for visitors, and make sure they respond to the threats of internet shopping and the new Scotch Corner outlet recently approved.’
Mark is sanguine about the town’s ability to make the most of its undoubted trump cards. ‘It’s the look of the place that is in its favour, and having its own identity with plenty of shops you won’t find elsewhere, and shops where you get proper old-fashioned personal service and high quality goods. Northallerton is a distinctive place.’
The council has launched its own project intended to add to the character and appeal of the town as a shopping destination. In 2015 it purchased the prison which had closed in 2013, and last year began demolition of those parts not covered by listing. ‘In redeveloping the former prison site it’ll be important to put it to a use that will complement what’s already on the high street,’ says Mark. ‘We want more people to come to the town, to explore it, stay longer and spend more.’
It’s likely that a new supermarket will feature in the development, but public space within its quadrangle, a small hotel, housing and leisure facilities are all expected to figure too.
Change is of course inevitable but in places like Northallerton so too, paradoxically, is continuity, as those efforts to ensure a successful shopping centre demonstrate. Jennifer Allison cites another way in which one of the town’s landmarks, while it has evolved and moved over the years, is still linked to its ancient history. ‘We have had a school from medieval times onwards, probably at least 1200 or so, founded by the Bishop of Durham. Though it’s changed there has always been something there, what was originally a little grammar school became what is now called Northallerton School, very different but rooted in our past.’