Village focus: Wetwang - Old Bailey of the Wolds

Wetwang. Picture: Ross Parry Agency
Wetwang. Picture: Ross Parry Agency
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WITH FEWER than 1,000 residents and an isolated location deep within the Yorkshire Wolds, it was the last place anyone expected to gain a national profile.

A name that sounds vaguely like an arcane Northern sport may have helped. Certainly, the late Richard Whiteley derived endless amusement from it when in 1998 he was named its Mayor.

Wetwang, six miles from Driffield and 14 from Stamford Bridge in the opposite direction, is a charming community hewn of the malt-brown brickwork typical of the area, replete with two pubs and a large village pond.

Its name appears in The Lord of the Rings, a fictionalised version of which JRR Tolkien describes as “a desolate lonely place between Rohan and Gondar”, and it appears in the glossary of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

In fact, though it is remote it is neither desolate or lonely. It still has its own primary school and a thriving village hall. Its farming community, however, is thinning out.

“When I was a lad going to school here, there were about a dozen farms,” said Chris Whitfield, now in his 80th year and still farming 70 acres of arable land on the road out to Fridaythorpe. “Now there are only two left.”

The Post Office and the last village shop have also gone now – though on tuesday mornings, staff from Nafferton, the other side of Driffield, drive over to set up a mail counter in the village hall, where there is also a coffee morning.

“It’s a lively community,” said Ann Hope, who chairs the Community Hall committee. Spinning, yoga and karate classes are on its weekly calendar and in the May half term the annual nine-day scarecrow festival, one of the oldest in the region, will see up to 80 straw figures decorating the village.

The consensus on the origin of the unusual name is that it derives from the Viking word Vertvanger, meaning field of witness. It was here, believes Chris Whitfield, that primitive courts of justice were held. The place might have been an early Yorkshire version of the Old Bailey.

It was also a significant trading centre in the centuries that followed. Around 150 years ago it could boast joiners, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, boot and shoemakers, a rope maker, corn miller, three grocers and three dressmakers.

Today, however, it is something of a dormitory village – the railway station at Driffield taking commuters to York and even as far afield as Leeds.

It still has a local celebrity as its Mayor – after Whiteley’s death, the honorary title passed to the weatherman Paul Hudson, following an informal vote among villagers.

“But everyone still speaks very fondly of Richard,” said Ms Hope.

• Wetwang is the site of one of the most significant Iron Age burials to be unearthed in Britain.

Archaeologists discovered a chariot used in battles against Julius Caesar, and the skeleton of a high-ranking female warrior.

More recent ironware, still visible, are the three pumps that brought up water from underground cisterns before mains water began to be piped into the village as late as 1938.