Located at the very heart of North Yorkshire, the small market town of Boroughbridge has charm and character by the bucket-load, not to mention an astonishingly rich history that is still in evidence today.
When I visited during the recent half-term break with my family, the shops along the High Street appeared to be doing brisk trade and most of the seating outside the various tea rooms, cafes and eateries was taken. As a member of staff in Wardrobe, a lovely boutique selling womenswear, confirmed, “Boroughbridge is thriving”.
In fact, local traders were apparently so incensed by a recent news report suggesting that their High Street was in trouble that they contacted the media outlet responsible to point out their mistake for fear that the negative coverage would put shoppers off.
The warmth of the welcome that we received from everyone we spoke to was one of the things that struck us most about our day trip; shopkeepers chatted to us as we browsed and offered recommendations.
My nine-year-old remarked how “nice the lady was” at La Tienda, a treasure trove of a gift shop, and the proprietor of Winearray, a fantastic wine merchant’s nearby, was more than happy to offer advice when it came to choosing a good bottle of red wine as a gift for a family member. Staff at the Dining Room, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch in the beautiful rear courtyard, were just as friendly and helpful, but even strangers in the street said “good morning”.
There’s a distinct and, it must be said, pleasing lack of high street chain stores in the town centre, which is heavily dominated by a good choice of independent shops and businesses.
One of the best ways to get a feel for the place is to head for Hall Square, where the Tourist Information centre and Butter Market Museum, a small display of historical artefacts from the local area, are located. There, you’ll find an information board featuring details of the Town Tour, a one-mile walk through the town centre that takes in some of its most interesting – and unusual – sights.
Among them is Boroughbridge Hall, which was the birthplace of the celebrated 19th century explorer, writer and naturalist Isabella Lucy Bird, who was the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, not to mention the first Western woman to travel up the Yangtze River in China.
The walk also leads you past the Black Bull, one of the oldest of the town’s many inns, which dates back to the 13th century. The street known as Horsefair was once part of the Great North Road, the main highway between England and Scotland, and an important stage coaching route between London, York and Edinburgh. In fact, Boroughbridge is pretty much equidistant between London and Edinburgh, and right at the heart of North Yorkshire.
This made the town an important staging post for passengers and horses, not to mention drovers and horse traders. Also located in the town centre, the Crown Hotel once had stabling for 100 horses. Held every June, the Barnaby Fair involved 14 days of horse trading, followed by three days of trading cattle, sheep, hardware and other goods.
The Town Tour also takes in the site of the Battle of Boroughbridge, which was fought on March 16, 1322 between a group of rebel barons and King Edward II. It followed a period of antagonism between the King and one of his most powerful subjects, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. It culminated in the defeat and execution of Thomas, enabling Edward to reassert his authority and cling on to power for another five years.
As my daughter has been learning about prehistoric Britain at school, the undisputed highlight of our visit, which can also be viewed on the Town Tour, was the chance to see the Devil’s Arrows, three mysterious stone monoliths dating back to around 2000 BC.
The tallest stone stands higher than those at Stonehenge, yet I’d not even been aware of their existence prior to our visit. Wedged between a housing estate and the busy A1 on the very edge of the town, they’re an unexpected and slightly surreal sight. According to local legend, the devil threw the huge stone “arrows” to earth in a fit of rage.
As if the chance to see prehistoric monuments wasn’t enough to lure lovers of history to the area, the nearby village of Aldborough was once the prosperous Roman town of Isurium Brigantum. It started life as a trading settlement around AD 70 and became the civilian “capital” of an extensive region of northern Britain between AD 120 and 400.
Strategically founded on the Roman road network and the highest navigable point on the River Ure, the town was a vital point of communication, administration and trade in the Roman north. Today, one corner of these Yorkshire defences is managed by English Heritage and set out in the picturesque surroundings of a Victorian arboretum, where you can still see two mosaic pavements in their original positions. There’s also a museum with an impressive collection of Roman finds.
Although there’s plenty of car parking in Boroughbridge, we parked up at a pretty picnic area in the adjoining village of Langthorpe, which is just a short stroll over the bridge from the town centre. The picnic area is sandwiched between the River Ure and the canal, which is less than a mile long and was built to allow river craft to navigate around the weir.
The Ure is an important habitat for many freshwater species, including river lamprey and salmon, which can sometimes be seen from the bridge. It’s a peaceful place to enjoy an ice cream and watch the world go by, but also the starting point for the Langthorpe Loop, a circular walking route taking in yet more of the town’s fascinating historical sites, as well as the weir and the salmon leap.
In addition to the abundance of walks, Boroughbridge is also popular with cyclists and sits midway along the 170-mile long Way of the Roses coast-to-coast cycling route between Morecambe and Bridlington. Its river and canal-side location enables day trippers to enjoy boat trips from the marina, and it’s also a popular fishing spot.
It’s hard to believe that this unassuming little town has such a wealth of history and interest just waiting to be discovered. Although it undoubtedly has a timeless, olde world charm about it, Boroughbridge arguably sits just outside the main tourist hotspots of this area of North Yorkshire and seems to attract a predominantly local crowd of shoppers and visitors from the outlying rural areas.
If you’ve never been before, it’s well worth making the trip.
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