Wetherby has been a crossroads for travellers for centuries – now it’s hoping to tempt them to stay
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 May 2014 | UPDATED: 21:04 19 November 2017
Generations of travellers have broken their journeys at Wetherby; its location midway between London and Edinburgh making it the perfect place to pause.
It was 1786 when the first mail coach to stop in Wetherby turned off the Great North Road. Its arrival heralded a boom in visitors and the rapid expansion in the number of inns catering to them. Ever since, those passing through have been won over by the charm of this town spanning the River Wharfe.
And that charm is a key element in Wetherby securing a future as prosperous as its past, built in part on the coaching trade of centuries ago.
The market town has faced some tough challenges over the past few years, not least the turnover in shops that has at times left too many standing empty.
And Wetherby suffered a body blow to its tourist trade when the A1 was upgraded to a motorway and the Highways Agency tore down the brown signs pointing travellers to the historic market town. Visitor numbers dropped off alarmingly, and accelerated the number of shop closures.
But things are looking up. Empty shops have reopened under new ownership, a plan is under way to market the town more vigorously as a tourist destination, and after a long – and, at times, tortuous battle – travellers on the A1(M) should soon be seeing new signs reminding them that Wetherby is not just an ideal place to break their journey but a destination well worth visiting in its own right.
Another looming challenge is a plan to build up to 1,800 new homes at Thorp Arch, which is the subject of some controversy. A residents’ group is opposing the plan, amid concern that the new homes will put local services under too much pressure. A similar plan was turned down by Leeds City Council in 2006.
But Leeds has to find the space to build 70,000 new homes over the next 20 years and, inevitably, Wetherby will have to take its share of them.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of optimism in the town about the future, according to the town’s mayor and one of its ward councillors on Leeds Council, Alan Lamb.
A key reason for that is the formation of a group called Welcome to Wetherby, originally set up to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which is drawing up plans to market the town. Coun Lamb said: ‘I think it’s an exciting time for Wetherby. One of our big weaknesses over the years is that we haven’t shouted about what we have, and the Welcome to Wetherby group is fixing that.
‘One of the key barriers to the town going forward over the past 30 or 40 years has been parking and getting the parking right. We hope before the end of the year to create more parking spaces and have more of the right kind of parking spaces. We have too much two-hour parking which isn’t conducive to people coming and spending a significant amount of time here.
‘There is an opportunity to become more of a retail destination. We’ve got to adapt and change with the times, but I’m convinced that people will continue to shop locally and there is an appetite for independent retailers. That’s what we need to encourage.’
Steve Kay, chairman of Wetherby Business Association, also believes the town has every reason to be optimistic and that its range of distinctive independent shops is a good selling point to attract visitors.
‘We’re going to try to push to make things better and get more people involved. It seems to be on the up, it’s quite vibrant.
‘We’re bringing out a new business directory and upgrading our website so that people can get more information. We did come out of a survey with a very good range of independent shops, and we want to promote those shops and get people coming into the town to use those shops and business.
‘A lot of the trades-people have been saying that there’s been a pick up in trade, so things seem to be improving in the area.’
The arrival of new tourist signs alongside the A1(M) can only help in getting more people to visit. For Coun Lamb, succeeding in having them reinstated has been a source of personal satisfaction as well as a boost for the town.
He said: ‘I made it my personal mission to bring them back, and thought ‘How hard can that be?’. It turns out it was very hard. I had to go and meet the Secretary of State for Transport in person and persuade him of the need to get the brown signs back, and even after he agreed there were a whole series of hurdles.
‘Historically, the main road through Wetherby was the A1. We’re right in the middle of the country, and we were the stopping point for travellers and that’s what makes Wetherby what it is.’
History, charm and individuality – three attributes that make Wetherby one of Yorkshire’s most attractive market towns – and give it every chance of achieving the bright future it wants.