In 2014, The Sunday Times named Skipton as Britain’s “best place to live” and two years later placed it among the nine best towns in Yorkshire and the North-East, citing its schools, its market and its proximity to the Yorkshire Dales as reasons for receiving the accolade.
The acclaim is well deserved. Skipton has a great deal to offer – in terms of character, history, heritage, places to visit and culture and entertainment. It’s a no-nonsense market town with a friendly, welcoming ambience – indeed in 2016 it was awarded a trophy by the National Campaign for Courtesy as Britain’s most courteous town.
In 2017, according to a study by the Office for National Statistics, it emerged as “the happiest place to live in the UK”. That doesn’t mean people are dancing through the streets with huge grins on their faces – that’s not the Yorkshire way – but there is definitely something about the place, even just as a visitor, that invokes a feeling of contentment.
And, actually, many of the residents did dance through the streets – also in 2017 – when they took part in the BBC Two series Our Dancing Town, creating a wonderful spectacular, choreographed by West End performer Steve Elias, that was captured in one long, uninterrupted take.
The castle is the handsome centrepiece of the town. Situated at the top of High Street, it is a magnificently well-preserved Grade I-listed medieval castle built in 1090 by Norman baron Robert de Romille, lord of the Bolton Abbey estates. During the Civil War a Royalist garrison was based at the castle and it was the last remaining Royalist stronghold in the North, surrendering after a three-year siege in December 1645.
After the war, the castle was carefully and lovingly restored by Lady Anne Clifford who was born there in 1590 and baptised at the nearby Holy Trinity Church. Her renovations included planting the spectacularly beautiful old yew tree in the castle’s courtyard to celebrate the building’s repair after the war.
The castle is a good place to begin a visit to the town and a fascinating place to explore – the sense of history as you wander through the rooms and grounds is palpable.
It is also the starting point of the long-distance walk Lady Anne’s Way, a 100-mile trek which ends in Penrith and takes in houses and towers once owned by the Clifford family.
Skipton’s market days are very much a central part of the town’s focus and economy. As Skipton is the largest town surrounded by smaller towns and villages, the market attracts shoppers from around the district.
There is a good range of independent shops, some of which can be found in the charming Craven Court shopping centre, an attractive glass-ceilinged arcade created from a 16th century theatre. And Skipton also has a hugely popular Christmas market which is regularly voted in the top 10 of the UK’s best festive markets.
Cattle and sheep markets were for hundreds of years held in the high street but on July 5, 1886 the very first Skipton Auction Mart was held and that date is celebrated each year in the town’s annual Sheep Day carnival.
By day, the auction mart is animated by the hustle and bustle of livestock sales, by night it transforms into one of Yorkshire’s most unusual and original arts venues. The Mart Theatre stages professional and amateur performances, presenting everything from opera and drama to panto and musicals. Stand-up comedy is a staple with big names who have appeared in the past including the late, much-missed Jeremy Hardy who was a regular, Mark Steel and Sarah Millican.
Live music was also on the menu and each year it hosted Art in the Pen, the hugely popular contemporary art and craft fair featuring work from new, emerging and established artists and craftspeople which has been running annually at the auction mart since 2005.
Like many arts venues and events, both Art in the Pen and the Mart Theatre are not currently operational due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Under serious threat of permanent closure and not eligible for any of the available business or leisure grants, they have launched a JustGiving campaign to raise funds.
For film lovers the Skipton Plaza cinema is worth a visit. Built as a Temperance hall in 1873, the building was converted into a cinema in 1912 and has functioned in that capacity ever since (although, like the Mart Theatre, it is also currently closed due to the pandemic). The ornate entrance to the building was added in 1915 on its reopening as the Gem Picture Palace.
Purchased by Matthew Hartley & Son in the early 1920s, it remained in the family for three generations until it was put up for sale in 1998 and bought by Charles Morris, the owner of several vintage cinemas in Yorkshire including the Cottage Road Cinema in Leeds and the Picturehouse in Keighley.
Running through Skipton is the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. At 127 miles, it is Britain’s longest inland waterway and took 46 years to build – it was completed in 1816 but the first section to open was the stretch between Skipton and Bingley in 1773.
Today the waterside area in Skipton is undoubtedly one of the town’s greatest assets – taking a canal boat ride is a great way to explore the town from a different perspective and there are lots of attractive bars and pubs. The Narrowboat is a particularly friendly and welcoming place, as is the Royal Shepherd.
Other watering holes, of which there are many in the town – from traditional Victorian pubs, to trendy bars serving craft beers, and everything in between – include the Woolly Sheep Inn, the Castle Inn and the Red Lion.
For eating out, aside from local favourite award-winning fish and chip shop Bizzie Lizzie’s of Skipton, there are plenty of restaurants, artisan coffee shops and tea rooms, many of them serving food that has been reared, grown or made nearby.
Known as “the Gateway to the Dales”, Skipton is a perfect place to explore the landscape either on foot – there are many beautiful walking trails from leisurely strolls to long-distance treks – or on a bicycle. But whatever you choose to do in Skipton, you won’t be disappointed.
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