Thirsk – Enter a land of giants and curses and re-discover this North Yorkshire market town

PUBLISHED: 08:33 20 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:31 03 April 2016

The Ritz Cinema, Westgate

The Ritz Cinema, Westgate

Enter a land of giants and curses – with a very lively market attached – and discover Thirsk, reports Chris Titley<br/><br/>Photographs by Mike Kipling

At the heart of it all

Enter a land of giants and curses – with a very lively market attached – and discover Thirsk, reports Chris Titley
Photographs by Mike Kipling

Thirsk has a marvellous independent streak. You can see that in the way the town stubbornly refused to join the craze for modernisation 40 years ago and has retained almost all of its historic buildings as a consequence – while other places gaze upon their 1970s concrete monstrosities and sob.
You can also see it in the character of the people, who are as busy as they ever were but will always make sure they take the time to catch up with a neighbour or help out a stranger.
Most recently you could see it in the way Thirsk went about electing its MP. Owing to the death of one of the candidates, the poll for the Thirsk and Malton seat was delayed by three weeks and was the last to declare.
So while the rest of the country was watching an unprecedented love-in between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats as they formed a coalition government, in Thirsk the two parties’ candidates ignored all that nonsense and fought tooth and nail. For the record, it was the Tory, Anne McIntosh, who won.
Thirk’s traditional values are apparent from its handsome and solid Market Place, where the Golden Fleece and its three-storey neighbours look across the cobbles to the stone clock.
It’s from here, via Castlegate, that the Past & Present trail begins, a guided historic walk linked to information boards telling the story of Thirsk and its conjoined neighbour Sowerby.
Among the highlights of the trail is the site of the long since demolished Norman castle, the sluice gate and weir which are all that remains of Thirsk Mill, and The Holmes, the name of a picturesque area alongside the meandering Cod Beck.
It’s worth stopping off at the magnificent medieval St Mary’s Church too. With its 80ft tower, impressive nave and 600-year-old tenor bell, St Mary’s is as much a cathedral as a parish church.
Thirsk is still very much a market town and a popular one too. ‘It brings a lot of people in, especially during the summer, the Monday and the Saturday market,’ says Derek Adamson, Mayor of Thirsk. ‘Coaches bring people in from all over the north of England. Quite often there are coaches on holiday tours from further afield that call in.
‘Like any retail outlet it has its ups and downs. But it’s quite a vibrant market at the moment.’
Thirsk’s splendid self-sufficiency is evident on the shopping streets. Somehow it has managed to resist the rise of the chain stores which have consumed so many other towns.
‘It’s nice to have local independent traders,’ Mr Adamson said. ‘There’s quite a variety. Most of them are family owned and operated. Apart from the two supermarkets, the nearest we’ve got to a retail multiple in the town is WH Smith that’s just opened.
‘When a business is family operated, the food on their table depends on it, so perhaps they do go that extra mile to please and satisfy the customers.’
Not only the shopkeepers but the townsfolk in general seem to consider it their duty to make all feel welcome. ‘The people are fantastic. It’s got a mini-hustle and bustle but nothing such as you’d get in York or Leeds where everything seems to be a bit too impersonal. Thirsk is more local, personal and friendly.’
Cricket fans have a particularly good reason for a pilgrimage to Thirsk – the house on Kirkgate where Thomas Lord was born. Lord was a demon bowler who, in 1814, opened a new ground in St John’s Wood, London, which became world famous as Lord’s, the home of cricket. His birthplace was preserved for Thirsk and the nation by the town’s Museum Society. Headed by Dr Peter Wyon, the respected GP, and colourful solicitor and coroner Peter Hatch, the society started collecting artefacts in the early 1970s. The museum opened in Thomas Lord’s house in 1977.
Here you’ll find the story of Thirsk’s Saxon giant, whose bones were discovered in an archaeological dig in 1994. He was at least 7ft tall. ‘We haven’t got room to lay him all out but we’ve got his thigh bone as a measure of his stature,’ says the museum’s curator Cooper Harding. But that formidable femur is not its most notorious exhibit. That accolade belongs to the chair from the Busby Stoop Inn.
Murderer and forger Thomas Busby was executed in 1702 and his corpse was hung in chains from the gibbet, or ‘stoop’, on the Thirsk-Sand Hutton crossroads where the inn stands. ‘The chair is supposed to be haunted by his spirit,’ Mr Harding said. ‘Anybody who sits in the chair will have a very sudden, untimely and unpleasant death. We’ve had it since 1978 and nobody’s sat in it. We don’t try it out.’
The chair is fixed high on the wall to ensure no one can take the weight off and bring the curse down upon themselves. Among the most eager to give it a go are the Japanese TV crews who habitually film there. ‘They would love to put somebody in it and film the consequences as they shrivel and burst into flames or something, but we don’t allow it.’
Mr Harding’s latest book, Thirsk And Sowerby Through Time, examines how the area has evolved. Today, thanks to the bypass, there is less through traffic clogging its narrow streets. But there’s been another more fundamental change, he said. ‘Up till the 1950s it was a typical agricultural market town, where the Monday market was a farmers’ market in the true sense of the term.
‘The farmers came in and conducted business usually in the farmers’ room at the Fleece, and their wives and daughters brought their produce in – their butter, their cheese, their poultry, their rabbits and so forth and sold them from the Market Place. With the changes in agriculture that disappeared.’
In the 1970s Thirsk was ‘in the doldrums’. But then there came a gentleman called James Herriot. Thirsk suddenly discovered it was world famous for a vet they knew – but never knew that he wrote books.’
Today Thirsk’s most famous son is celebrated in The World of James Herriot, located in what was the vet’s home and practice on Kirkgate. The surgery has been restored to how it was in the 1940s, and elsewhere there are memory-prompting props from the much-loved BBC adaptation of the best-selling books, All Creatures Great and Small.
If that’s not enough to keep you busy, Thirsk is a wonderful spot to base yourself for a longer exploration of the many nearby attractions. Wherever else you want to visit in North Yorkshire, Thirsk is already half way there. ‘Believe it or not, and despite anybody else’s claims, Thirsk is the true centre of North Yorkshire. You can get the map out and measure it,’ says the Mayor, Derek Adamson.

Where it is: Thirsk is well connected, via the A1 and A19 north-south, and the A61 and A170 west-east. Thirsk railway station is west of the town centre and there are connecting buses.
Where to park: Parking in Market Place, right in the heart of the town, is free for the first hour. Other pay and display car parks are at Millgate and Marage.
What to do: Visit The World Of James Herriot and Thirsk Museum, both on Kirkgate. Take the Thirsk and Sowerby Past and Present trail – leaflets are available from the tourist information centre. Go racing at Thirsk Racecourse: meetings are detailed at

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