Picture credit: Chris Wardle (IFY Community)
“I hope to make people realise how totally helpless animals are, how dependent on us, trusting as a child must that we will be kind and take care of their needs.” – Vet, Alf Wight (James Herriot)
There has been a settlement in Thirsk since around the mid-6th century, during Anglo- Saxon times. The town’s proximity to the Viking capital of York, meant that many of the villages surrounding the town are of Danish origin, ending in the suffix, “by and ton,” e.g Hambleton and Sowerby. For a time during the Viking’s dominance in this part of Yorkshire the town was known as “Thraesk,” which means a lake or fen. The place was significant enough to be mentioned in the Domesday book as the parish of “Tresche” and was split into two manors, “Orm and Thor, the names of two local Anglo Saxon leaders.
The Norman invasion saw typical changes to the town. The lands were given to baron, Robert de Mowbray, of which the whole valley is named after to this day, and a castle was built to maintain order. Unlike many other Yorkshire towns, who kept these important structures much longer, Thirsk Castle was destroyed in 1174, after an uprising in the town against monarch, Henry II. The de Mowbray family replaced their castle with a manor house, but this also became dust when it was destroyed by Scottish raiders in 1322
In the meantime Thirsk had become a market town with its charter granted in 1145 to be held on a Monday. These rights plus the flat, fertile land around which Thirsk is situated meant it became a thriving place for livestock traders and merchants trading in leather, skins and hides. A draping company, one of the first in the county, Bartholemew- Smith, started trading in 1540 and carried on for nearly 400 years until 1972. One of Thirsk’s most prominent features, St Mary’s church was completed in 1480 and took fifty years to build.
The 18th Century brought further changes to Thirsk. The building of turnpike roads and improved transport saw the town become an important stopping place on the London to Edinburgh route, nowadays the A1. The town centre became full of inns and tavern, of which weary travellers could rest. Some of the oldest inns, including “The Golden Fleece,” and the Three Tuns date back to the 1740s and still exist in the town today. Industries also began to grow in the town to support this trade, including brewing and tannery for the men along with farriers and blacksmiths for the horses.
Thirsk is home to two historical figures. In 1755, cricketer, Thomas Lord, of which the famous “Lords” cricket ground is named after was born in the town. In the 20th Century it was home to James Alf Wight, whose famous semi-autobiographical books about his life as a North Yorkshire vet, under the pen name, “James Herriot,” formed the basis of the popular TV series, “All Creatures Great and Small.”
Although many of the old crafts have long since left, Thirsk is a thriving North Yorkshire market town, which attracts tourists to explore the its history and nearby national parks.
Thirsk is a market town of around 5,000 people in North Yorkshire, which is situated directly between the Moors and The Dales in the valley of Mowbray. The town has a small river, known as The Cod Beck, running through its centre.
Its location makes it a perfect hospitality town for tourists wishing to explore both the Yorkshire National Parks, although Thirsk has some attractions of its own worth exploring.
Perhaps its most famous son is the Veterinary surgeon, James Alfred Wight (James Herriot,) who wrote a famous series of books, collectively known as “All Creatures Great and Small,” which was also the title of the TV adaptation.
Wight joined the town’s veterinary practice in 1940 and carried on until the 1970s when he began writing about his experiences. His first book, “If only they could talk,” was published in 1970 and was followed by seven other volumes throughout the next two decades, the last of which was published three years before his death in 1992. The TV series broadcast from 1978-80 were based on the vet’s book, while the second run from 1988-90 was filmed with original scripts but maintained the same characters. These were based on Wight’s real life colleagues, but with their names changed. The cast included Christopher Timothy, who played James Herriot, along with Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon and the late Lynda Bellingham as the author’s wife.
The World of James Herriot was opened in 1999 in commemoration to the vet and author.
It attracts half a million people worldwide and gives visitors an insight into what it would have been like as a vet in 1940s-50s Yorkshire along with information about the life of Wight and his colleagues. The museum is in the same building as the original 1940s veterinary surgery which Wight joined and has been restored to its former glory. The attraction also houses the largest collection of Herriot memorabilia in the world and includes many features suitable for children.
The Thirsk museum is located at the birthplace of the town’s other famous son, Thomas Lord. He was born in 1755 and during his life helped to found the Lord’s cricket ground in London, of which it is named after. The museum has eight rooms filled with cricketing memorabilia, farming equipment, costumes and toys. One of the exhibits is the remains of a Saxon giant, which was found during excavations of an ancient burial ground near the museum. St Mary’s Church in Thirsk is one of the most impressive religious buildings in the region. It has an 80ft tower and has served the town for 500 years.
The nearby village of Kilburn is famous for two things. Firstly the Robert “Mousey” Thompson Visitor Centre is located here. He was born in 1876 and was a famous church furniture-maker. His legendary trademark of carving a mouse into all of his work is a feature that can be seen in places of worship throughout Yorkshire. The reason why he chose this particular creature is said to be from the saying “we are as poor as church mice.”
Secondly the village is home to the Kilburn white horse, which is carved into the hillside. It was created in 1857 by businessman, Thomas Taylor and schoolmaster, John Hodgson with the help of his pupils. It is 318 feet long by 220 ft high, the largest white horse chalk figure in the country. Taylor deposited six tons of lime onto the grey rock to make it stand out. The horse can reportedly be seen as far away as Lincolnshire on a clear day. The landmark was covered over during the Second World War so German bombers could not see it as they navigated through the skies of Yorkshire. The horse is frequently covered with chalk chippings from the Yorkshire Wolds to maintain its clarity.
As a hospitality town, Thirsk is well linked to other Yorkshire towns and cities. It is located between two important roads, the A1 and A19, which connects the town to Middlesbrough in the North and York to the South. In the East the A170 takes travellers across the Yorkshire Moors National Park to Scarborough, while the A61 goes to Ripon and Harrogate in the South West.
Thirsk train station was built in 1841 on the York to Darlington line. In 1933 it became the first station to have a route-setting power signal box, something which was rolled out throughout the rail network in the years after. Sadly the station has also been at the centre of two fatal train crashes, in both 1892 and 1967. The station runs services to Middlesbrough, Sunderland, London Kingscross and Manchester airport via York and Leeds. Local bus services run to York, Ripon and Northallerton from the marketplace.
Thirsk is home to a historic independent cinema in the shape of “The Ritz Theatre.” The original was opened in 1912 by Walter Power and is one of the longest running in Yorkshire. Although it closed down in the 70s it was revived by a group of volunteers in 1995 and is now a community-run cinema showing new releases and children’s matinees.
Sport in the town comes primarily from horseracing, which was first recorded here in 1612 when James I provided a Gold Cup for a race in the nearby Hambleton Hills. Regular meetings were first held in 1855 when local landowner, Squire Fredrick Bell, provided his estate to hold horseracing events. Nowadays the racecourse hosts fourteen flat fixtures per year and attracts some of the top jockeys and trainers from around the circuit for its main event the 300 Guinea Stakes.
One of the most distinctive features of Thirsk is its medieval cobbled marketplace. Although it has the inevitable presence of some well-known supermarket chains the town has kept its stores largely independent with many interesting shops to be found down the ginnels and alleyways off its main square. The market is held on Mondays and Saturdays, selling a wide variety of goods from fruit and veg to computers and DVDs.
Located between the Dales and Moors, Thirsk is a delightful town with plenty to offer visitors to the area.