The hidden secrets of Thirsk

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 January 2016

St Mary's Parish Church

St Mary's Parish Church

Joan Russell Photography, Joan Russell Photography

Richard Darn makes a fond return to one of North Yorkshire’s best loved market towns. Photographs by Joan Russell

Thirsk MuseumThirsk Museum

I’ve always had a fondness for Thirsk, but in truth I also found it a bit of a perplexing place. Clearly it is very ancient judging by the narrow wynds offering a retreat from the busy market square, but where are the really old medieval buildings? The answer I discovered during my trip to this charming North Yorkshire town is that antiquity abounds behind the smart Georgian façades which greet travellers.

Let’s start at the beginning. Thirsk’s name is derived from the Viking word Thraesk (old Swedish apparently) meaning lake or fen. The once marshy flat terrain it occupies in the Vale of Mowbray between the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors must have been a wild fowl’s paradise. And it still is judging by the number of ducks I saw happily shooting down a fast flowing stream during my afternoon visit. But more on that later.

With the Great North Road and East Coast railway nearby the town also has a distinct feel of an important crossroads. So it’s no surprise to discover that some of those splendid Georgian buildings in the cobbled market square were once thriving coaching stops. Following the creation of turnpikes in the 18th century a travel boom ensued and two of Thirsk’s three coaching inns survive to this day - The Golden Fleece (possibly Tudor in origin) and The Three Tuns (1698).

The Golden Fleece once stabled up to 60 horses and provided a comfort stop for famous coaches like the Wellington, Expedition, Newcastle Union, Victoria, Phoenix and Hero. Another regular 4pm caller was the swift Highflyer - the Flying Scotsman of its day – which completed the London to Edinburgh run in a whirlwind 24 hours.

From the middle of Thirsk looking east I catch a glimpse of the impressive western escarpment of the North York Moors. The wild country is never far away from this gateway to two national parks. The manor of Thirsk was once owned by Orm and Thor, Anglo-Danish nobles, but was seized by William the Conqueror and handed to one of his henchmen.

Subsequently the Lordship fell into the hands of Robert De Mowbray, who gave the Vale its name and who by all accounts was not the kind of man you would want to meet on a dark night. ‘Daring and crafty, stern and grim, he was given more to meditation than speech, and in conversation scarce ever smiled’ reported one chronicler, presumably from a safe distance.

Back in the present I was impressed by the hustle and bustle of Thirsk which often seems so absent from many other famous Yorkshire market towns these days. A plethora of independent shops adds to the feel that this was once and still is an important centre of life for the wider countryside.

I vaguely knew that Thirsk had spawned a number of famous characters – not least James Herriot (Alf Wight) who had his veterinary practice on Kirkgate, now an award-winning visitor attraction, and also the much missed Bill Foggitt.

We all know about the former so let’s recall the latter’s colourful life.

Bill was part of my childhood cropping up regularly on TV before his death in 2004, offering sage weather forecasts based on a multitude of observations including the behaviour of moles, flies and pine cones. The national press used to lap this stuff up, but before we write him off as an eccentric let’s remember he drew on family records dating back to 1771.

His great, great, great grandfather began making weather observations after a storm swept away part of Yarm and Bill continued the family tradition. He helped to put Thirsk on the map and I’m glad to see he’s commemorated with a blue plaque on the chemist building once owned by his family.

Whilst we dwell on famous sons let’s also salute Thomas Lord, born in the town and who went onto to greater things, bestowing his name on the world-famous Lord’s Cricket Ground in London.

Such is the draw of the cosy Market Place I’m sure many visitors never stray further afield to admire the beautiful Thirsk Hall, extended by John Carr in 1774, and superb Mary’s Church (1433), the finest of its kind in North Yorkshire according to celebrated historian Nicholas Pevsner.

I’ll admit to being amongst this unadventurous brigade so to correct previous omissions I took a stroll along a pleasant riverside path and unearthed a rich history. Cod Beck stretches for 22 miles, has seven bridges and takes you through the Holmes, once a place where Edwardians promenaded in their Sunday best and which featured ‘possibly the finest willowgarth in the country’. These pollarded trees supplied the raw material for a thriving local basket making industry and fine looking specimens still grace this corner of the town thanks to traditional management. I will make a date to come back in the summer to admire the wild flowers which produce a riot of colour just a stone’s throw from Market Place.

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