Richmond - the historic market town that inspired Turner

Two hundred years ago, before package holiday ‘tours’ were even a twinkle in Thomas Cook’s eye and anyone in this country had heard of Benidorm or Faliraki, wealthy men and women visited up and coming towns around the country.

The view over the town showing Richmond Castle. (James Hardisty).
The view over the town showing Richmond Castle. (James Hardisty).

And for many, Richmond was high on what we might today call their ‘bucket list’.

During the Georgian era, roughly stretching from 1714 to 1830, the North Yorkshire market town became a magnet for many artists, writers and politicians. “It had brilliant views and vistas which ticked all the boxes for what became fashionable during Georgian times,” says Jane Hatcher, a local author and member of Richmond Civic Society and a veritable mine of information on the town. “We had Medieval monastic ruins as well as the castle and wherever you walked there was always a lovely view that made it picturesque, it kept making a picture, so Richmond became an attractive place to visit.

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“It was an important place as well as a fashionable place. You would meet people of a similar persuasion in the hotels and coffee houses here.”

The Georgian Theatre Royal built in 1788. (James Hardisty).

It became popular with the intelligentsia of the day and among its notable visitors were the likes of Daniel Defoe, Celia Fiennes, Robert Harley (1st Earl of Oxford), George Byng (1st Viscount Torrington) and John Wesley.

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Turner first visited Yorkshire at the tail end of the 18th century having been invited by the Lascelles family to paint their country house at Harewood, north of Leeds. He subsequently roamed across the county and the landscape that played out before him stirred a new sensibility.

When he left London he was known as an architectural draughtsman of abbeys and castles, but when he returned from his tour of the North of England he was well on his way to becoming a sublime landscape painter. Richmond, and the striking view of its ascendent castle, clearly made an impression on him.

Robson Wood department store on Finkle Street, circa 1905-1910. (YPN).

Ashley Jackson, who knows a thing or two about painting, calls Turner “the Shakespeare of artists” and a few years back he took me to the spot where Turner created some of his sketches on the banks of the River Swale.

Jackson explained how he employed artistic licence to tweak perspective and make a better composition. “He has had to push the castle up into the air to get it in the painting. In his mind’s eye he’s had to elevate himself in the air to do this because of the way the river bends.”

The area continues to beguile artists, intrigued as they are by a landscape that would no doubt still be recognisable to Turner today.

Perhaps Richmond’s greatest cultural asset, though, is the Georgian Theatre Royal. Opened by local impresario Samuel Butler in 1788 it is the UK’s oldest working theatre still in its original form.

Richmond is a town rich in history. (James Hardisty).

The structure and shape of the auditorium has changed little over the past 230 years and glimpsing it for the first time still has the power to take your breath away.

It is an architectural gem and an invaluable part of our country’s theatrical heritage.

The Georgian period may have been Richmond’s golden era, but the town’s origins lay much further back in the mists of time. And it was the Normans, rather the Romans, who were behind is early development.

The word Richmond comes from the Norman ‘Riche-Mont’ meaning Strong Hill and the town as we know it today began in 1071, when Alan Rufus, who fought alongside William the Conqueror during the Norman Conquest of England, built a castle on a defensive site deliberately chosen on a steep hill above the fast flowing river.

It was intended as a status symbol of Norman authority (and to subdue any locals who might have felt rebellious), and is among the oldest stone-built castles in England.

Most early Norman castles had earth ramparts and timber buildings, whereas Richmond’s outer curtain wall and the great hall in the corner were made from stone from the start. It was built as the base of the vast Honour of Richmond, making it the equivalent of the headquarters of a major corporation today.

The town developed around the castle (its market place was once the castle’s outer bailey) with two key suburbs, Newbiggin and Frenchgate. It became an important regional centre in the medieval period, when royal charters were granted, giving the rights to hold markets and fairs, some of which lasted for several days.

During the 18th century the town became the base of the North York Militia. Officers were drawn from the local gentry, and people were attracted by the assemblies and balls put on when the annual muster was taking place, which was another reason for the town’s fashionable status.

These military links still exist today in the shape of the Green Howards Regimental Museum housed in Trinity Church Square in the cobbled Market Place.

There is also a more contentious chapter in the castle’s story. Its prison cells were used to hold conscientious objectors during the First World War, including those who became known as the Richmond Sixteen.

The castle was a Northern base for the Non-Combatant Corps from 1916 and scores of people were sent there, including 16 men who stuck to their pacifist principles and refused to do anything to promote or contribute to the war.

In May 1916, the Richmond Sixteen were taken to France and court-martialled for refusing to obey orders and sentenced to be shot. Their cases were taken up in Parliament and the death penalty was subsequently changed to 10 years hard labour by the Prime Minister.

Today, some of the graffiti written by these men can still be seen etched onto the walls of the prison cells.

A lesser known fact about Richmond is that it was, at one time, home to one of Yorkshire’s major racecourses along with places like Doncaster, Ripon and York. “We had a very important racecourse up on the moor just above the town,” explains Hatcher.

“People came to Richmond races each September to see the country’s top horses. When the race meetings were on, you had a season of social activities, with the Militia muster, assemblies and theatre plays.

“Richmond races ceased towards the end of the 19th century because the track had a tight turn on it and as racehorses became faster the Jockey Club thought the course was getting dangerous.”

It meant that nearby Catterick Racecourse, which was close to the Darlington to Richmond railway line, reaped the benefit and became the preeminent local horse racing venue.

In recent times the town has once again become popular with visitors as an ideal base for exploring the more northerly Dales.

During the 1980s, fans of James Herriot’s books flocked there. “The TV series is largely associated with Thirsk because the museum is there and Alf Wight was based there, but a lot of the early filming was done in Richmond and the number of people who came here because of that connection was immense. I remember rather large American gentlemen with Texan accents rolling into the Richmondshire Museum and being amazed that we had the film set there and saying how excited they were to visit Herriot country.”

Richmond has certainly experienced the ebb and flow of history through the centuries and it bears pertinent reminders of this.

“We have a plague stone in the churchyard commemorating the enormous loss of life during a plague in the 1590s, so we’ve come out of dark times before in Richmond,” says Hatcher.

The town is not immune from the challenges that face so many rural communities, but equally it is suffused with the kind of history money can’t buy. “It still has much of its old-fashioned character, it has visual charm and it’s a place where people still greet strangers with ‘Good Morning.’

“There’s such wonderful scenery and you walk down to the river and there’s a sense of eternity about the area. There’s a timeless quality and a reminder of what is important in life.”

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