More than a market, a hub for rural life

Modern, vibrant Thirsk livestock market has a long history and years of experience behind it. Sarah Todd meets some of the people behind its success in our ongoing series.

“THAT’S my sister Nancy playing the piano,” gestures 93 year-old Harry Woodhead, chairman of Thirsk Farmers’ Auction Mart.

Normally practical rather than poetic; this correspondent was really moved by the juxtaposition between this modern building and the gentleman of such senior years at its helm.

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This is a market of contrasts and surprises.

Who would have expected someone playing on an old piano in a busy modern livestock market?

There was more to come. Bishop James Bell was visiting. The Church has an office for its Farm Business Support and Development Project here and was running one of its regular health checks in the reception area.

Nurse Anne Reed describes herself as “married to a farmer” rather than a traditional farmer’s wife.

Within three minutes she can have a farmer’s blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar tested.

The results are discreetly written down on a slip of paper and anybody with high readings urged to make an appointment with their doctor.

“The truth is most farmers don’t like doctors’ surgeries,” says Anne, who deliberately leaves her nurse’s uniform at home so as to be more approachable.

“They have to make the effort of ringing for an appointment, have to have a bath and get changed out of their work clothes. With us they just give a few minutes as they’re passing.

“There’s huge competition between some of the farmers now. They compare their results with each other and come back regularly to see if they can improve them.

“We’ve had a lot of success stories. One chap who we told to go to his doctor came back to thank us, saying we’d saved his life.”

Anne says farmers are particularly prone to problems such as high cholesterol because many are still eating like they did 50 years ago when it was a more physical job. “These days many go straight from the pick-up truck onto the quad bike, then the tractor,” she says.

“But yet they’re still eating like their fathers did when they were doing a much more manual day’s work.”

Auctioneer Tony Thompson has been behind the rostrum for 40 years, starting out in the old Thirsk market.

“We have great support from the local farmers,” he says.

“But the quality of the cattle, sheep and pigs that come through here mean buyers come from as far afield as Scotland and South Wales.”

Freemans Auctioneers ran Thirsk’s original auction mart. In 1906 they were approached by a co-operative of farmers to buy them out.

The offer was turned down but 19 directors, including local farmers, a bank manager and a JP then went on, in 1907, to set up Thirsk Farmers Auction Mart with 2,500 shares floated at £1 apiece.

A purpose built mart was built on Station Road with two sale rings at a time when most marts only had one.

In 1965 the directors stopped trading and leased out the market to auctioneers Seth Kirby & Sons.

In 1972 the board of directors took back the running of the company when turnover was about 80 cattle, 250 sheep and 100 pigs per week.

Massive improvements to the facilities began and continued over the next 20 years as throughput continued to increase, reaching peaks of over 1,000 fat cattle, 7,000 sheep and over 3,000 pigs.

More land was then purchased for expansion.

The aforementioned chairman, Harry Woodhead, was the driving force behind the new market, a cat’s whisker from the A19 and off a feeder road to the A1.

It opened in August 2006 and his forward-thinking vision for the 20-acre site was for it to become an all-round an agribusiness centre,

I have never visited such a vibrant and diverse market.

Askham Bryan Agricultural College has a training centre here, it’s where the young farmers meet, there’s a hairdresser, accountancy and surveying firms, a country store and a great deal more.

It’s a popular venue for 18th and 21st birthday parties and holds regular charity events, including a grand annual British Red Cross Ball.

Harry Woodhead trained as a pharmacist but he has farming links.

He served in the Second World War while his brother, who had broken his leg badly in a motorcycle accident, was allowed to stay and keep the family farm and butcher’s shop going.

He became the supplier to the stallholders on Bradford market, one of whom had larger horizons.

And when Ken Morrison, now Sir Ken, opened his first supermarket he asked Harry Woodhead’s brother to supply him with the meat.

Morrisons eventually bought the Woodhead family meat business, but it kept its farm which Harry Woodhead’s son, Ian, now runs.

Of course, no trip to a market is complete without a visit to the café.

Carole Johnston took on the The Gavel Café about six months after the market opened.

It’s not unheard of for some customers to comment (with all due respect to Tony and his colleagues) that there aren’t many markets “where the best auctioneer is in the kitchen”.

Carole’s family ran Boroughbridge Auction Mart. When her father, James, died when she was just 18 the young Miss Johnston vowed to follow in his footsteps.

She went to the famous Royal College of Agriculture in Cirencester and trained to be a chartered surveyor.

Following that she achieved am ambition to be the first female to sell fat cattle.

Spells followed helping at York Livestock Centre, especially with the horse sales.

Then she went on to work as a land agent for Lancashire County Council.

“I didn’t go into private practice as I have a back problem,” she says.

“I didn’t think it was fair to lumber a company with somebody who may well have times unable to work.

“So I took a job with ADAS in Leeds and they eventually retired me on ill-health grounds because of my back.”

Carole uses beef for her popular market roast dinners from Castle Meats at Sheriff Hutton.

She says she had always enjoyed baking and started a successful business making wedding cakes and dinner party puddings.

“When the opportunity to take on the café came up it seemed a natural progression, coming full circle back to a market,” says Carole.

“I sometimes miss selling and like to keep my hand in, doing charity auctions such as the one at the recent Bedale Hunt Ball.

“I think my dad would be proud of me, but he’d probably tell me to get back auctioneering.”

Fruit cake with cheese is a popular choice at Thirsk, as are Carole’s meringues.

“I pander to the farmers by sticking to a traditional roast.

“But puddings are my love and I make what I fancy and they’ve learnt to be a bit more adventurous.”

Carole’s chef is Matthew Johnson and she employs a team of up to ten staff on busy days.

Her partner Albert Hickson runs the bar. “Sometimes people tease him ‘has she done a Basil?’ if tempers have got a little frayed.

“Basil Johnston, also an auctioneer, was my grandfather and many older readers will remember him for being a forthright fellow.”

An auctioneer in the kitchen, a Bishop wandering around among the cattle, a nonagenarian as chairman …

There’s no need for a nurse to tell us this market is in fine fettle.

Thirsk Farmers’ Auction Mart

Thirsk Farmers’ Auction Mart, Thirsk Rural Business Centre, Blakey Lane, Thirsk. 01845 523165 or

The present market opened in August 2006.

Weekly fatstock sale on a Thursday of prime pigs, sheep and cattle.

Fortnightly Tuesday sale of breeding and store cattle and sheep.

Monthly fur and feather sale and fortnightly furniture sales.