A-Z of England : V is for the Vale of Pickering
Part 4 : The Finest Medieval Walled Town in England
The Romans liked Malton so much that they stayed for four hundred years. During that time they established a fort in the modern Old Malton (which is something of a paradox), set up workshops and became goldsmiths, and carvers of jet. It was considered a favourable posting. A largely farming area far from marauding hordes. Not much has changed. Farming is still the main activity and marauding hordes remain conspicuously absent. Earlier this year it was included in the 101 best places to live in Britain, which is impressive until you discover that the list proclaimed Skipton the most desirable place to be. Thirty years ago I would have almost agreed, but urban influx has increased prosperity and cappuccino options but has killed the seed that made Skipton special. I wouldn’t want to live there now but I’d move back to Malton at the drop of a hat.
Many think of Malton as the very essence of a market town. An abundance of independent shops gather around the large market square. St Michael’s Church is actually in the centre of the square, along with a cluster of other buildings, giving a sense of two squares; three if you include the cattle market which occupies an ancient and central spot a mere fling of a dried cow pat away. Cattle and sheep are sold by auction on Tuesdays for ‘prime’ stock and Fridays for ‘store’. (animals that are not yet ready for the abattoir). It is an important economic event in the area and a time for farmers to be able to catch up with news of friends and colleagues on other farms. When I lived in the town the Spotted Cow pub had a licence to stay open all day (unheard of in those restricted drinking times). It was (and I believe still is) an excellent pub that sold well kept Tetley beer. It wasn’t only farmers who took advantage of the all day drinking.
The lay out of the town owes a great deal to its medieval heritage. When Harry Robinson, the Dean of Humanities at Huddersfield Polytechnic, heard that I was no longer working for the future university but had moved to Malton, he got very excited. Over mugs of tea and ham sandwiches in the refectory he explained why Malton is still the best preserved medieval walled town in Britain, even though there are barely any walls left. Some geographers favour complex rock formations or pyroclastic flows. Harry (later professor Robinson) had a thing for old street maps and urban settlements. He got very excited indeed at the prospect of me living in Malton. “An awful lot of work still to be done there. An awful lot still to discover.” I told him I’d do my best.
One of the things that hadn’t been discovered back in 1980 was the prisoner of war camp just outside the town. This is surprising given that it was not much over 30 years since it had housed hundreds of (first) Italian and (later) German prisoners, and that the tower stuck out like, well, like a watch tower from a prisoner of war camp. The last prisoners were repatriated to Germany in 1949, after that the buildings were used for the storage of grain and the raising of pheasants to be shot on the Fitzwilliam Estates. In 1985 it was bought by a man called Stan Johnson who intended to set up a potato crisp factory on the site. One day he was approached by three Italians who had been held prisoner during the hostilities. From this meeting events moved rapidly and the camp opened as a museum of the second world war less than two years later. It quickly became a major tourist attraction and is high on the list of places visited by school children on history field trips. Many of my own students have told me how much they have enjoyed a visit there.
Last admission is at 4 o’clock. I arrived at the gates at five minutes to four. This caused a momentary dilemma between catching Malton with its shops open or a museum. I’d already ‘done’ two castles, two ancient monasteries and a working abbey. I fancied shopping. From the outside it looked impressive with a display of tanks, aircraft and flying bombs surrounding the huts and central tower. Happy, well fed, families are emerging. From prison camp to holiday attraction is a fine line to tread. In the “Prisoners’ Canteen and Officers’ Mess you can get hot meals and pints of tunnel-buster strong ale.
Malton always had good pubs. Lots of old establishments with side rooms and nooks and crannies. Many pubs in England reacted to the downturn in trade by modernising. It is a term that is almost always pejorative in the licenced trade. It usually means opening up the space, knocking down dividing walls and thus destroying the natural ambience of the place. Then thought they could recreate this feeling of tradition by erecting mock bookshelves and placing old kitchen and laundry equipment on pointless shelves next to the laser lighting rig and the Bose speakers. England has lost about a third of its pubs in the last twenty years. Happily many of the ones that have closed are the ones that were modernised. The Spotted Cow is still there, still without a straight wall in the building and still, as far as I can see through the window (it is market day but it is closed) with its jumble of rooms.
Walking around the square is like walking into the past. Some of the shops have changed but the buildings are still the same. Stone is kept for prestige buildings around here. Many of the fine Georgian shops and houses are built with an attractive brick. The majority may be eighteenth and nineteenth century but the design of the town is hundreds of years older and still follows the pattern of the medieval walls.
The most distinctive feature of Malton is the fact that it is two towns. Two very distinct towns divided by a river. On the north bank of the Derwent is well-heeled Malton, on the south is the more industrious Norton on Derwent. I’m very fond of Norton but the lateness in the day keeps me on the top side of the bridge. Both towns are susceptible to flooding and in bad winters they become detached.
I’m delighted to see that Derek Fox’s butchers and game merchant is still in its place at the top of the square. Malton has begun to develop a reputation as a food town and it is upon shops like this that the foundations of that reputation are being built. In the old days pheasants, rabbits and hares hung outside complete with fur and feather. Today such displays are likely to put off as many as they attract. The good folk of middle England are keen to indulge in traditional fine dining but would rather their children don’t have to see where the meat comes from. We were brought up to accept plucking, skinning and drawing as part of the preparation of the meal. Having said that, I’m more than happy to buy 3 brace of pheasant and 3 brace of partridge for £25 and to have them oven ready and in the bag to take away; the pheasant which is not quite in season is frozen, the partridge plump and fresh.
Malton is a horse racing town. There isn’t a course here (though point to point meetings take place) but some of the most successful stables in the country are to be found on the banks of the Derwent. Peter and Mick Easterby have both trained on the gallops around Malton and Sherriff Hutton. Horses from here have won classics as well as taking the top prizes in jump racing. Blunt and to the point, neither is averse to causing the occasional offence. Listening to them talk horses over a pint or two in a Malton hostelry was to hear the poetry in the Anglo Saxon elements of the language. In 2006 Mick caused great offence in celebrating a winner at the Ebor meeting at York by relating an anecdote about how he came to buy the winning horse to Channel 4 interviewer Alastair Down. The story concluded, “You’ve made me look a c*** once, I’m not be made a c*** twice.”
Four viewers rang in to complain and one to congratulate the plain speaking Yorkshireman. The programme makers issued apology after apology. The authorities however took a more relaxed view. I love the wording of their statement. “We have written to Mr Easterby and reminded him that he might want to be mindful of what he says when he is next interviewed on national television.”
I drive out of town past the gallops where these horses run out. Watching them remains one of my abiding memories of my time in the town.
Further out I enter the surrounds of Castle Howard. This whole area has retained a deferential cap doffing attitude to the privileged and the powerful. Few parts of England flaunt their wealth more dramatically than this. The castle is a thing of great beauty but is also a statement of social standing and the power of money. The gateways suggest you are entering in at the gates of Vienna yet you are driving from one set of fields to another. In case you’ve missed the buildings, the temples, the lakes and parklands there are two towering pillars that would dominate any London square.
It has been a long day and the evening sun invites me to rest. On a bench in the village of Coneysthorpe I sit in the sun and look over the lake to the great house. It became famous as the location of Brideshead Revisited in an 80s television series. The last time I was here they had just finished filming. I was a young man then. The landscape has barely changed which is something that I cannot say of myself.
A sunset in 1981 I might otherwise have forgotten.
Hermit who lived in the youth hostel. Some dog!