Why are more people heading to Skipton than ever before?
PUBLISHED: 10:23 17 January 2017 | UPDATED: 20:35 24 January 2017
Small towns like Skipton are the hot destinations of the 21st century, says Richard Darn.
Every time I see ‘gateway’ blazoned across a town sign I get a frosty feeling.
Perhaps a branding agency has slaved for weeks to come with something interesting to say about a place, but then abandoned that in favour of eulogising what lay beyond. I had no such misgivings on entering Skipton – the self-style portal to the Yorkshire Dales.
With its fine buildings, fresh ideas and lively buzz, here’s an ancient market town fully measuring up to its celebrated hinterland. The name Skipton tells you all you need to know – for this is ‘Sheep Town’, or in Old English sceap tun. And I’m delighted to discover that it hosts a Sheep Day Festival in July! The 2016 edition featured dancing sheep in addition to the normal best in breed.
Festivals come along frequently in these parts - there are also celebrations of waterways, puppetry and food and drink throughout the year. And why not party? After all the town came top in a 2014 Sunday Times survey as the best place to live in the UK and strolling around I can see why: bundles of character, lots of interesting shops, independent cafes and restaurants and a lovely canal and castle.
Small towns like Skipton are the hot destinations of the 21st century.
The flight to the city is over and these are aspirational places to live for those who have grown weary of the urban grind and want somewhere with style and antiquity, plus access to peerless countryside. Add in excellent schools and good rail links and it has the full package.
Not wishing to rest on its laurels, Skipton BID, a partnership venture financed by a levy on businesses, has overseen investment in the town centre since 2009, supporting events, attractions and improvements. It has also helped finance the town’s ambassador scheme – roving smiling faces in yellow jackets that help visitors get the most from their stay. All good examples of how Skipton has proven adept at re-inventing itself. Whilst sheep were the foundations of its prosperity, tourism represents the future. This is not the first time it has adapted to thrive. The original Old English settlement was transformed when the Normans built a fortress to secure their grip on the land and repel invading Scots. That encouraged the growth of the town as a commercial centre for a wider area, just as it did at Richmond.
The imposing castle - now a popular visitor attraction and still in private hands - remains a major landmark. The oldest parts date to 1200 and previous owners include Thomas Earl of Lancaster, executed at Pontefract for rebelling against Edward II, and John ‘Butcher’ Clifford, who slewed the Duke of York’s son in cold blood and perished in a skirmish before the Battle of Towton. As castles go this one is very complete and for that we indebted to former owner Lady Anne Clifford.
During the English Civil War, Skipton was the last Royalist bastion left standing in the north, resisting a besieging Parliamentarian force for no less than three years (the longest siege in the whole unhappy conflict). Unimpressed by its stubbornness, Cromwell ordered the roof to be removed to render it useless. But unbowed the feisty Lady Anne came to an agreement with the new overlords and repaired the damage, but without re-fortifying the battlements. She then planted a yew to mark its restoration in 1659 - you can still see the tree in the courtyard.
Skipton may appear a rural town, but I soon discovered that the Industrial Revolution made a terrific impact. The 127-mile Leeds to Liverpool Canal, which opened in 1816, navigates through the town (indeed the first section to be built linked Skipton with Bingley) and it provided a massive spur to growth. Textile mills grew up along its banks and thousands of tons of locally quarried limestone was ferried out on barges. Even as late as the early 20th century the canal was carrying 2.3 million tonnes of cargo annually. Today it earns its corn through tourism, providing boat trips for tourists and adventures for narrowboat enthusiasts.
Looking ahead I suspect Skipton’s biggest challenge will be coping with its popularity. Being on the top of desirability league tables creates a demand for housing and inevitable development pressures. Leafing through the local paper I can see that housing schemes are being challenged by concerned residents. Balancing growth with maintaining a high quality of life is going to be tough and I hope planning chiefs take stock of what they stand to loose by ill advised expansion.
But let’s finish on a quirky note. Shakespeare may not have had the good fortune to be born in Yorkshire, but that hasn’t stopped us laying claim to part of his legacy. The excellent Craven Museum is exhibiting a rare first folio of 36 of his plays, first published in 1623. The priceless work was donated to the museum by a local lady in the 1930s. Exquisite, beautiful and fascinating, it is one of only four such folios on permanent display anywhere in the world!