A Day at the Races and Knowing Your Places
Yorkshire loves hierarchies. It has its crown jewel towns. They are easy to find. They all have a Betty’s. York, the crown jewel of the crown jewels, has two. Much as I love York, Harrogate, Northallerton and Ilkley I couldn’t live in them. I could happily live in the many less favoured Yorkshire towns though. Scarborough, Huddersfield, Halifax, Ripon, Richmond and Thirsk. I could live out my days in any of them if I had to. And I wouldn’t wander far if I did.
I knew Thirsk first (a tongue-twister if ever there was one) from the racecourse. So much of my early knowledge of geography is based on what I picked up from watching Grandstand* with my father and brothers in the sixties. (Males watched sport, females asked us to raise our feet so they could vacuum beneath them as we watched… it sometimes felt like a chore.) I had favourite sports back then. Rugby League has always been my true passion. It’s part of who I am. As a child, once I’d realised I didn’t have the application to become a vet, my sole ambition was to play professional rugby league; ideally with my hometown club of Barrow. I learnt to love the sport. Experienced, what has been described as high velocity ballet mixed with chess, at close quarters from the wall in front of the crowd on the popular side at Craven Park. Under the Friday night floodlights the royal blue jerseys shone. I can still smell the embrocation from the players’ legs. Still feel the excitement of being there; of being part of it. I knew the names of all the professional teams by the age of seven. By my eighth birthday I could point them out on a map. None of the teams played in the crown jewel towns. They, as you’d expect from lovers of hierarchies, are strictly union.
But I’d watch any sport that was televised. The BBC pretty much had a monopoly on Saturdays. ITV had football highlights to enjoy after Sunday dinner. On Saturdays they made do with Black Marlin fishing and speedway in between the seven horse races they transmitted before the wrestling. There was even a bet called the ITV 7. All you had to do was select 7 winners in a row. The sport wasn’t exactly free of shady dealing in those days but even a Newmarket stable lad couldn’t pick seven in a row. The BBC would chip in with test cricket and some minority sports of their own. At one time motorcycle scrambling, and another sport, where portly middle aged married couples would attempt to drive a vintage car as high up a muddy slope as they could. He’d don goggles and drive like a refined maniac; she would bounce up and down in a less than flattering attempt to secure some traction. The Beeb also found time for horse racing. My knowledge of geography became more widely spread. In addition to the cricket playing nations I could now find every racecourse on the map. It was an ambition to visit them all. I’ve managed plenty but a few remain. To this day I have no idea where the muddy slope was.
Yorkshire is a sporting county. It has more racecourses than any other. Of 58 courses in the UK (this piece may be out of date within days of publication depending upon how the people of Scotland vote) 9 are in Yorkshire: Beverley in the East Riding. Pontefract, Ripon, Wetherby, and Doncaster in the West. York, Redcar, Catterick and Thirsk in the North. The vast majority are flat racing tracks. Thirsk is one of these.
They’ve raced horses in Thirsk since the time of Shakespeare. Originally the course was out of town on the Hambleton Hills but for the last 150 years meetings have been held at the present course on the western edge of the town.
There is a great deal about horse racing that I shouldn’t like. Culturally and socially it is the other end of the stick to working class, Labour party Rugby League. This really is a world of hierarchies and squirearchies. A world where segregation is still the order of play; where owners are feted above the trainers and jockeys who bring home the winners. Where wealth and status determines where you are allowed to sit or stand, who you get to mix with. A racecourse is essentially an open field with rails around it. There are a good number of different gates to these fields; the premier gateway is an ordinary wooden door, painted green and guarded with fake doric columns: a veritable plastic parthenon!
Racegoers are respectfully reminded of the standards expected of them. In the Premier Enclosure (the words are carefully chosen) you will be turned away if you arrive in any of the following: “any items of sportswear, fancy dress, short trousers, ripped or torn garments, mottle-dyed denim, trainers, plimsolls, or any other items that, in the opinion of the management, are not in keeping with the Code or may cause offence to other racegoers.” The list is delightfully specific. No-one else has used the word plimsoll in reference to footwear since the seventies.
For all of it’s cap doffing deference to money, I love a day at the races. I love the crowds in their tribal arrays. I love the lines of bookies on the rail and the shouting of the odds. I love the packed stands against the backdrop of green, the brightly coloured silks as the jockeys enter the paddock; and, most of all, I love the sheer beauty of the horses. These are hugely impressive beasts brought up to peak condition by men in tweed and waxed cotton who have encyclopaedic memories and purple noses.
I love to stand at the paddock rail and watch them parade and see them at close quarters, watch the horsemanship and instant rapport from the jockeys whose skills astonish me. I love to stand on the rail with a furlong to go (no premier enclosure for me) and feel and hear the thunder as they gallop towards the winning post. I’m not a gambling man but any race I watch at the racetrack will be carrying a Johnson fiver. At the bookies I usually lose. At the track I invariably get the winner that funds the day out.
Opposite the racecourse is a handsome brick building that is the last reminder of a great Thirsk manufacturer: A.C. Bamletts. From the 1850s to the end of the 1980s Bamletts made specialist harvesting machinery. The firm was started by Adam Carlisle Bamlett as a one man concern. He took the design of mowers, reapers and binders forward at a great leap and was soon able to establish a company that led the world in its field (literally). At one time the name Bamlett was as synonymous with agricultural machinery as Massey Ferguson or John Deere. In the twentieth century it was unable to keep pace with the ever growing machines that yearly turn the once little fields of England into prairies. The firm went into receivership in 1989. This one building remains awaiting tenants in it’s new role as offices. Next door once stood the terminus of the Thirsk and Leeds Railway. It was lost to the short sighted cuts of the 1960s (Beeching’s Axe) and is now, as so many once proud sites have become, a Tesco supermarket. During demolition of the station, workmen uncovered one of the few surviving turntables for locomotives. Nobody knew what it was and it was broken up before its value and significance were recognised.
Parking is fun in Thirsk. There are plenty of spaces in the cobbled square. It says Pay and Display but you only have to press the button on the parking machine and it issues you with a ticket that allows you to stay for an hour without payment.
I’m in a delightful family run café just off the main square. I’ve ordered the sort of breakfast a farm hand would have enjoyed before spending the day out on a Bamlett’s reaper. There is a pleasant air of quiet. The couple at the next table have spent their lives in Thirsk and have seen a sad decline.
“Dying on its feet.”
“In what way?”
“Used to be full of good shops did the square. And on market days it was full of stalls. Now it’s only a handful; and some of them stay away if it looks like rain.”
She looks ruefully across the room and into the past in one movement.
“There used to be a livestock market out there. You can still see the rings in the ground they tied the bulls to. S’why they called it the Bullring.”
“Now we get coaches of people. They let them off and give them an hour. Some do a bit of shopping. Most walk round the World of James Herriot and then they get back on the bus again and disappear.” After another pause she repeats; “Town’s dying on its feet.”
Every town has people who regret change but this lady wasn’t against improvements. She loves Thirsk and had seen it lose some of its identity. She is not without hope though. She thinks the café, we are in, is the best thing to happen to the town for a long time. A place where local people receive a good service from local people. It would be wrong to see it as a sad place. This town may have lost some of its unique appeal as a market but it is still a very special place to be. I don’t wish to keep beating the same drum but the pattern seems fairly clear. As national chains move in, local character begins to move out.
The square is one of the biggest of the Yorkshire market towns. Like Ripon, Richmond and Masham the town is built around a large cobbled market place. No two buildings are alike and many are of considerable merit. It’s a pity the market is unable to draw in the number of stalls it once did and an even greater pity that the cattle market has moved to purpose built premises on the edge of the town. It would be quite something to have seen the square at its peak. But the modern world makes demands everywhere. The livestock market is able to carry out its work more effectively, if less picturesquely at its new site. And, critically, the square is still there.
Half a street away is the aforementioned World of James Herriot. It’s a good museum and worth an hour of any traveller’s time. Those above the age of 35 remember the series based on his books. All Creatures Great and Small (still being shown on satellite channels) was the last of the great Sunday evening, family gathered around the television serials. It ran from 1978 to 1990 and owed a great deal of its popularity to its gentle nostalgia for a disappearing way of life among the eternal loveliness of this part of Yorkshire.
James Herriot (real name Alf Wight) moved to Thirsk in the early years of the war and worked as a vet for the rest of his life. On approaching retirement he began to write down some of his experiences in a style that could variously be described as semi-autobiographical or fictional autobiography. This wasn’t done to be deceitful but a mixture of protecting professional integrity and the delights of storytelling. The books are good and the television series even better; benefitting from a strong ensemble cast and the star quality of the Yorkshire countryside.
In the books Thirsk becomes Darrowby (though the fictionalisation extends to locations). Herriot continues to act as a tourist attraction but is perhaps also a barrier to Thirsk being seen as a town in its own right. There is certainly a great deal more to the town than the setting for a series of books..
Further out is a proud manor house and a church that combines an imposing exterior with a welcoming and atmospheric interior. A spate river known as Cod Beck (It’s a dialect form of Cold Beck) flows around the town centre. In a fine, historic area of parkland and willowgarth called the Holmes it is joined by the Whitelass Beck. For most of the year they are quiet streams but during periods of heavy or prolonged rainfall they can become a mighty torrent. The town suffers occasional flooding.
Above the town on the Hambleton Hills is one of England’s hillside white horses. It’s one of the more recent and, in my opinion, by some distance, the worst. Further round the escarpment is the true natural splendour of Sutton Bank. It’s as close as any English main road gets to being alpine and from the top are views over the whole of Yorkshire from Dales to Moors. Thirsk is almost perfectly situated. Few towns benefit from so much natural beauty so close to its doorstep. It’s well served by modern roads and would benefit greatly from its lost rail link.
It may have lost a few good buildings to the wrecking ball but its strength lies in the buildings it has kept. Despite the cars and lorries this is still a beautiful town and one, I would happily move to.
*Flagship BBC 5 hour sports programme that was on every Saturday from the late fifties to the nineties.