Market that still honours Ben’s half century of service

At Otley, Sarah Todd discovers a strong thread of family continuity running through the livestock market staff

WITH its bright gingham curtains and spotted tablecloths, the café at Wharfedale Farmers Auction Mart in Otley has to be one of the smartest visited as part of this series.

Auctioneer Ian Smith, a big bloke with a blue overcoat, confirms it’s just recently had a “smartening up” before going on to surprise with the revelation that he’s only been behind the rostrum here as market manager for four years.

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He was a late starter on the selling front, beginning by helping Malcolm Skidmore with his furniture sales and doing a bit here and there at Clitheroe and Pateley Bridge; the latter he still sells at.

A farmer’s son who left school at 16, he’d always done a bit of cattle droving and clerking and eventually was persuaded to give auctioneering a go.

He’s still farming livestock when he’s not selling it.

“I was very shy as a lad,” reveals Ian, who went on to take his professional qualifications.

“As I got older I got a bit more outgoing and haven’t really looked back.

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“I think it helps you relate to the farmers when you’re actually a farmer yourself.”

A bit of help comes in the form of David Moxon, from Holmfirth, who travels over to Otley to sell the calves on a Friday.

Of course, no mention of this market can be made without talk of two other things.

Firstly, the fact that there used to be two markets in Otley – Bridge End (at the Otley Show side of town) has long been closed.

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Secondly, reference needs to be made to the late auctioneer Ben Atkinson.

Otley was brought to a standstill when earlier this year his funeral took place.He had worked at Wharfedale Mart for nearly 50 years

Ruth Priestly, a farmer’s daughter who went on to become a farmer’s wife, worked with him for 32 years, ever since she left school.

Ruth can still be found in the market office, which she manages with the help of Jenny Dibb, Norma Butler and Cathy Stancliffe.

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“You could go pretty much anywhere in the country and you’d always bump into somebody who knew Ben,” she said.

“He was a gentleman, one of the best. He would do anything for anybody.” Well over 100 years ago, the market was formed on Valentine’s Day 1893.

It is owned by shareholder farmer and butchers, headed by a board of 11 directors.

There are weekly sales of primestock on Mondays and fortnightly sales of store stock on Fridays, with a monthly poultry and machinery sale.

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This correspondent’s visit was on a Monday and the atmosphere, as it’s bound to be with butchers and busy buyers, was more businesslike than banterful.

Presumably, if the trip had been made on a Friday there would have been more farmers to lean on a gate with and have a more old-fashioned market natter to.

Talking of gates, the old original sheep pens in this market are beautiful. They would take many a visitor back to the good old days.

There was evidence of the more veteran farmer in the ring where the cattle are sold.

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They obviously do come as there were a few old cushions scattered around for, presumably, the comfort of older visitors to the market.

There was also a wooden pew – “must have come from a sale somewhere” says Ian the auctioneer – at the top of the seating area.

Sellers come from a wide area including the East Coast, Selby, Skipton, Halifax and the Yorkshire Dales; with all the big meat firms represented among the buyers.

Cattle are more this writer’s area of expertise, but even for a novice it was easy to see that the sheep being sold were of an incredibly high quality.Some Indian gentlemen were dotted among the buyers.

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Hopefully it’s not too much of a presumption to say some of this prime locally-sourced meat ends up in the district’s Indian restaurants. They must be among the finest curries in the land.

As with all markets there’s a lot of help that comes in part-time, as and when needed.

A regular face is yard foreman Howard Marshall.

So too is Alison Woodhead, who has run the market café for about 12 years.

And there is, as with so many people here, a “Ben Atkinson connection”.

“His son is married to my sister,” Alison explains.

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“He knew I did outside catering so asked me if I wanted to take on the café.” The menu preference at most of the markets visited is repeated here. The best seller is steak pie.

“I can do different stuff,” laughs Alison.

“But blow me, if I put on a nice piece of pork, or do something like liver and onions, they ask me where the steak pie is.”

Alison arrives at around 6.30am on market days and there’s an unwritten rule that the first customer through the door turns the lights on.

Some farmers buy a cake to take home. With others, she wonders – those that are older and live on their own – that market lunch is the main square meal of the week.

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“My dad’s a farmer and when you’ve grown up with it you know how important the trips to market are,” she says. “There’s a lot more to it than simply buying or selling stock.

“There’s a huge social side that people from outside probably don’t understand.

“Market day can often be the only time of the week when farmers see anybody else apart from their animals.

“Markets provide a real service – much more than simply somewhere to sell livestock.”

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Gill Airey has been coming to work in a little wooden hut weighing out the animals for the last 21 years.

“I’m here very Monday and every other Friday,” says Gill, who lives near Beckwithshaw.

She too possesses the local “Ben Atkinson connection”. He was her uncle.

After all these years she has a fair idea what something is going to weigh before it even steps onto the scales. “I have to get it right though,” she says. When her cheerful demeanour is commented on, she reveals that she has a little heater in the wooden hut which does a great job in keeping her spirits up.

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“I love the atmosphere here,” she adds. “Sons send their dads to get them away for the day.

“There’s a real family feel.”

Otley Mart factfile

Wharfedale Farmers Auction Mart Ltd, Chevin Lodge, Leeds Road, Otley, LS21 3BD

Telephone 01943 462172 or visit www.wharfedale-farmers.

Running weekly sales of primestock on Mondays, fortnightly sales of store stock on Fridays.

Monthly Machinery / Fur & Feather Sales on Saturdays and seasonal sales of breeding and feeding sheep.