Preserving the history and heritage of Ilkley
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 January 2017
Joan Russell Photography
Ilkley has an enormous amount going on and some very energetic people looking after its heritage and wellbeing, reports Martin Pilkington.
Walk around the centre of Ilkley and it’s the fine Victorian architecture that catches the eye, not least the shopping arcades on Brook Street and The Grove. But there’s much more to the town’s past than its 19th-century spa town legacy. ‘Ilkley was once Roman Verbeia, or possibly Olicana; the academics aren’t sure,’ says Helen Kidman, chair of the town’s civic society. ‘One of our projects is to get a Roman altar found here back into a suitable home.’ The reach of the town’s history is emphasised by the 100-strong group’s recent success in winning Grade II listing for a mural. ‘We worked to have listed The Story of Wool bas-relief mural (created by William George Mitchell in1968) at the old Wool Secretariat building,’ explains Helen. ‘It was put up in the 1960s, when the bronze and glass fibre system used by sculptor William Mitchell was state-of-the-art. We wanted it listing to ensure it was conserved.’ The mural was listed Grade II (more than special interest) in January last year. This year on June 17th, Ilkley Civic Society, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016, will mark National Civic Day by centring their celebrations on the three conservation areas in Ilkley – the town itself, Ben Rhydding and Middleton - that it helped establish, and zealously guards.
Conservation is also at the heart of work done by the Friends of Ilkley Moor, formed in 2008 to rescue its bracken-blocked and waterlogged paths. That work continues, but the Friends are going further. ‘We recently won a £50,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, so we’ll be spending some of those funds through 2017 on work agreed with the HLF,’ says press officer Barry Wilkinson. ‘We got a similar sum six years back. Along with path clearance this time we’re undertaking scientific work, like ecosystem surveys and protection of some interesting moorland species.’
Another conservation project unites several of Ilkley’s groups in a common purpose. The Manor House, some of its structure dating from the 14th century, was built on the site of a Roman fort. Used as the town’s museum for a century and more, it closed in 2015. ‘We’ve an ongoing campaign on the Manor House to get a tenancy with a view to a long-term lease,’ says Parish Council leader Brian Mann. ‘We’re optimistic and negotiations continue. It would be a useful community centre; Ilkley has lots of groups and not too many dedicated meeting spaces.’
A group that would welcome a new venue is Ilkley’s University of the Third Age, not least because of its ever-increasing membership and range of activities. ‘It’s our 20th anniversary next year and we’ve grown to more than 1,300 members now,’ says chair Sue Butler. ‘It’s a virtuous circle – the more people we get the more activities they themselves offer, the more attractive it is to join. We’ve groups studying diverse topics – philosophy, poetry, science, technology. The guiding principle is lifelong learning, so it’s for anyone whose work commitments are reducing or have ended. We meet at various places in and around the town, often at the Clarke Foley Centre, but also in cafes, pubs, church halls, even private houses. One of our trustees is involved with the Manor House work - it would be ideal for us in the future, the building needs to be used.’
Ilkley is famous for that song, of course, but across the arts world it’s known for the literature festival launched in 1973 – WH Auden, no less, opened the event – and still going strong. ‘One of the exciting things about Ilkley Literature Festival is that it was started by people living here who simply thought it was the right place for a literary festival,’ says director Rachel Feldberg. ‘It enjoys tremendous support from local people. The town is ideal for it; small enough to walk around and meet everybody, but with regional and national impact.’
Every October famous authors from Britain and beyond head for the festival, though Rachel is keeping quiet about names for 2017. There are workshops, masterclasses and readings but its reach also includes a summer-school for teenage writers, and work in the district’s schools. ‘The festival is just the tip of a huge organisational iceberg and other year-round work,’ she adds. Rachel also wants the Manor House reclaimed as a community resource. ‘For last year’s event we asked Bradford Council to open it and they did; we staged an exhibition there by Tom Phillips. It inspired our vision of having the site brought back to life.
‘Ilkley is a fantastic town,’ she says. ‘We couldn’t have a better place for the festival with our hinterland the rural agricultural area and moors on one side and a fantastic vibrant cosmopolitan city like Bradford on the other. We have the best of both worlds.’
The town found another way into the national consciousness in 2014 as the most spectacular part of Yorkshire’s Tour de France Grand Depart. ‘The Tour de France made an incredible difference to the town for tourism and more, attracting people to get out into the Yorkshire Dales for fresh air and exercise, which has to be good,’ says councillor Mann.
‘The Tour de France raised the club profile hugely,’ says Ilkley Cycling Club chair Stephanie Millward. ‘But we get people out on bikes not just for racing but for fun, with a high percentage of women and youth members.’
At 1,000 strong, it’s the largest club of its kind in Britain, with plenty planned for 2017. ‘The Tour de Yorkshire is something we’re looking forward to this spring. We hope it comes through Ilkley again,’ she adds: ‘And we’ll have our usual time trials and the very popular town centre race in June, plus loads more. New members are always welcome,’ she adds, which seems to be the story for groups across the town.