Wetherby - the home of the friendly parliament

PUBLISHED: 15:57 08 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:50 20 February 2013

Wetherby - the home of the friendly parliament

Wetherby - the home of the friendly parliament

The town's parliament is uncommonly good natured and could show its London counterparts a thing or two, as Paul Mackenzie reports Photographs by John Cocks

The sun is beating down on Wetherby; proper cracking the flags weather. Children are playing and laughing in the riverside park while their mothers recline on the grass, and swallows swoop and wheel in the sky as bees buzz lazily around the pots, tubs, baskets and beds.

A gaggle of teenage lads amble by in regulation low slung jeans, a snippet of their muted conversation just audible over the gush and babble of the Wharfe: Yeah, I saw the film, not as good as the book, I didnt think. The characters just werent well enough developed.

But the peace of this idyllic English summers day is shattered by raucous laughter from a group occupying benches in the shade. Every town and village in the land has a spot like this, a magnet for gangs who can appear intimidating and threatening.

In Wetherby, theyre a fairly friendly bunch though. They have been gathering here for decades beside the Garden of Rest Shelter, but the building fell into disuse until it was re-opened in March 2000. The shelter was bequeathed to the town in 1952 by a local headteacher called Charles Edwin Whitaker. It is now the base for a regular posse who gather on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

These are not disaffected youths or bored teenagers, they are a group of older men known as The Thursday Club or, according to a creative local newspaper columnist, Wetherbys very own Old Mens Parliament.

They even have a constitution of sorts which commits them to do certain things each time they convene. Regulars on their agenda are: putting the world to rights, chatting, joking and keeping an eye on people passing by. But the main business of their meetings seems to be simply to have a chat and a gossip.

Current Prime Minister Ian Leadley was invited to join the group shortly after the shelter was re-opened. He said: During the 1950s men would meet and chat and play dominoes but gradually that generation died off and the shelter came to be used as a store room by the local council.

Bill Gray was a well known man in the town he was involved in the project to restore the weir and he asked the council if he and his friends could use it as a meeting place, after all it was originally bequeathed for use by the old folks of Wetherby. Bill invited me along and Ive been involved from that day to this.

There are about 30 men who pop along to the group when they can. As well as discussing local matters, they get involved too. Items under consideration now include local history projects around the town, the naming of a new car park and an on-going battle to have street signs replaced.

We used to meet on a Thursday, Ian added. But we realised we had so much to talk about that wed better get together on a Tuesday as well.
It is usually all men, theres nothing sexist in that and we do occasionally have a woman who comes along for a chat and a laugh, but not often. We get complete strangers wandering up as well sometimes, but in the main people come along who have some sort of tenuous connection with others in the group.

We have been called the Old Mens Parliament, but theres no elections or anything like that. And our expenses systems a bit different too we just chuck a bit of loose change in a tin when we have some so that we can buy a jar of coffee and some milk when we need to.

While the old chaps chamber might not quite measure up to the splendour of the other House in Westminster, Wetherby town centres irregular streets are packed with fascinating architecture.

And those streets are lined with arguably the finest selection of independent boutique shops youll find anywhere in Yorkshire, selling everything from designer clothes to beautiful gifts.

Theres also a pedestrianised shopping centre, superstores, major chains and a weekly market the market charter dates back more than 750 years as well as a popular farmers market which launched ten years ago and now has about 30 regular stalls peppered around the Market Place on the second Sunday of each month.

Trade has been a key feature of Wetherby life for centuries. The town has been inhabited from at least Neolithic times and was an important Roman site it was the Romans who introduced horse racing to the town and the course is now regarded as one of the countrys finest jumping tracks.

Wetherby was also a busy staging post on the north-south road halfway between London and Edinburgh a position which led at one time to the town boasting 40 pubs.

The river Wharfe which winds through the town also marks the divide between North and West Yorkshire and Wetherby Bridge is a grade two listed ancient monument which has spanned the river for more than 700 years.

Where it is: Wetherby stands between junctions 45 and 46 of the A1M, roughly in the middle of the Leeds, York, Harrogate triangle. Typing LS22 6NU into a sat nav should take you to the town centre.

Where to park: There are a number of free pay and display car parks around the town centre and some on-street parking is available close to the centre.

Where to eat and drink: There is no shortage of restaurants and cafes in Wetherby and at one point there were 17 pubs in the town centre there are 12 now.

What to do:
Take a walk beside the river, tour the super selection of shops, go the races (the season starts on October 12th) and then watch a movie at the marvellous Wetherby Cinema, a traditional little picture house where you can even be served with hot drinks or ice cream while you watch the film.

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