Why Pickering is the perfect base to explore North Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 February 2018 | UPDATED: 10:55 12 February 2018
Pickering is growing apace as a tourist destination but attracting visitors is really nothing new for the pretty North Yorkshire market town, says Martin Pilkington.
Travellers have always stopped off at Pickering since… well what do the history books say? Well, ages and ages and included medieval kings Henry I, II, III or IV who no doubt made themselves comfortable at Pickering Castle. While the well-preserved ruins of the stronghold still draw visitors to the town it’s the North Yorkshire Moors Railway (a heritage steam railway run by volunteers that snakes through the North York Moors), which has one of its termini at Pickering, that’s the main pull (excuse the pun) today. ‘They come predominantly for a trip on the train, combined with visits to York, Castle Howard, walking on the North York Moors and to visit other market towns within Ryedale as well as Pickering itself,’ says Helene Haythorne, the town’s mayor and owner of Branwood Guest House and Cottages, so particularly qualified to speak on the topic. ‘And they can easily take in the nearby coast at Filey, Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay.’
She’s keen to list the town’s own highlights too: ‘We’ve great local shops here, all independents bar one, and the market place is lovely. We’re located just behind the church and always recommend everybody staying here to go over and see its stunning wall paintings,’ she adds.
The wall paintings date from about 1450, but during the Reformation they were covered over and forgotten until a happy accident revealed them: ‘The story goes that in 1852 workmen dislodged some plaster and revealed them,’ says the Vicar of St Peter and St Paul’s, Father Antony Pritchett, ‘We had the railway by then, and people came from far and wide to see their discovery for a time.’ The church’s then incumbent, however, found the images idolatrous and in spite of pleas from the Archbishop of York they were covered over again. ‘In the 1890s the next vicar had the lime-wash removed,’ adds Father Antony, ‘but he couldn’t leave the paintings as they were, they would have faded away, so he opted for “restoration” and had them painted over.
Nowadays we’d just conserve what was there, but these are more vivid and give a better impression perhaps of what a medieval church would have looked like. I love to hear visitors gasp when they first see them, and it’s rare now not to have people in the church looking at the paintings, with numbers increasing – they even seem to be on the itineraries of coach parties here.’
Pickering before the railway era was once an important staging point for another sort of coach that brought visitors to the market place at the heart of the town. ‘The White Swan was originally a coaching inn to accommodate travellers on the York to Whitby route,’ explains Anna Spencer, the now hotel’s marketing manager, ‘but nowadays it’s the North Yorkshire Moors Railway above all that brings people to Pickering.’
Another sort of transport is now, however, starting to vie with the train as an attraction. ‘Since the Tour de Yorkshire began we’ve had lots of visitors staying here to cycle part of the route and the moors,’ she says, ‘so we’ve added a cycle store with cleaning and drying facilities and a work bench to make things easier for them.’
The numbers still favour the railway though, whose track last year carried about 350,000 passengers. It was saved from oblivion by the trust that still runs it with the help of more than 1,500 volunteers. ‘We even have people who come every year from Australia to work with us,’ says its head of marketing, Laura Strangeway. Improved accommodation in Pickering for some of those volunteers is one of the several goals of the charity’s Yorkshire’s Magnificent Journey Appeal, aiming to raise £2.5 million which will be matched by the Heritage Lottery Fund. ‘We started with the need to repair and replace three of the bridges coming into Goathland, and it grew from there,’ she adds.
Just round the corner from the station in Pickering stands the Beck Isle Museum of Rural Life. ‘The museum was started by local history enthusiasts in 1967 in just two rooms, and has expanded hugely since then,’ says museum manager Ella Voce. ‘Now the collection runs to more than 50,000 items.’ Like the railway it relies on volunteers, some of whom demonstrate crafts and skills in the shops and workshops contained within the museum – tasks like printing, weaving, crochet and spinning. Like the railway too it reopens at February half-term, and through 2018 it will house an exhibition of particular relevance to the many tourists who combine a trip on the track with a tour of the displays - a history of holiday-wear and swimwear.
It is not just Pickering itself and the railway that draws people to the area, but the countryside and surrounding villages. Cropton three miles northwest of the town offers something extra beyond the beautiful moorland and nearby North Riding Forest Park – beer tourism. ‘The brewery here started in 1986,’ says Karl Butler of The Great Yorkshire Brewery in the village. ‘So it’s one of the original micro-breweries in the country. We conduct 5,000 tours a year, and do brew days as well, with some people staying at The New Inn here specifically for the tours.’ There’s even a chance that some of those visiting the brewery will rub shoulders with equally ale-minded stars, and can at least try their tipples ‘We’ve brewed beers for Tony Hadley for a couple of years, and also for the band Madness,’ says Karl.
With all of its attractions and the growing significance of the hospitality industry to the local economy, the town has avoided becoming ‘touristy,’ much to its credit, and doubtless adding to its appeal. ‘We have retained our grocers and butchers and post office, and everything that residents need,’ says Helene, ‘so we feel we’ve achieved a nice balance between being attractive for visitors and a great place to live for the locals.’