Why the retreat from religion runs through the market square in Helmsley

Rev Tim Robinson in Helmsley Market. Picture by Simon Hulme
Rev Tim Robinson in Helmsley Market. Picture by Simon Hulme
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The retreat from religion appeared last night to run through the market square of a picturesque town on the edge of the North York Moors.

In a debate for our times that pits high church against high street, the local vicar put his finger on what it was about Easter that made him cross.

“Do we have to take away the one quiet day we still have?” asked the Rev Tim Robinson.

A solemn procession takes place each Good Friday from William Duncombe’s statue in the Market Place at Helmsley, along the 360ft to All Saints’ Church.

This year, those taking part will have to make their prayers heard above the cries of market traders.

The town’s weekly Friday market, held under the gaze of Duncombe, its MP in the early 19th century, has traditionally been moved forward by a day, to Maundy Thursday, so that the commemoration of the crucifixion might be uninterrupted.

An edict by the district council that “times had changed” fell on stony ground.

“When I was in my 20s, I could walk along the Vauxhall Bridge Road, one of the main arterial routes in London, and it would be completely quiet,” said Mr Robinson, who is also rural dean of northern Ryedale. “I don’t particularly want to return to times past, but could we not have some days where there remains some quiet time?

“Good Friday is the most solemn day in the Christian year. We now have Black Friday, just before Christmas, where we’re encouraged to go out and consume – can we not please have one day in the year where we can take our collective foot off the consumer pedal?”

Helmsley had been a last bastion of Easter traditionalism, Ryedale District Council – headquartered 15 miles away in Malton – pointed out. “Skipton market runs on Good Friday alongside a religious procession, with no problem,” said Angela Jones, customer lead officer for the council.

“We have supported the procession at Helmsley each year by not charging for parking spaces and the intention is to continue to support the procession event and to work with organisers and market traders to ensure there is sufficient space for both events.”

But that, said Mr Robinson, was not entirely the point. “Good Friday is a solemn day and that, I hope, still remains within our British culture. I would still call this a Christian country, although that’s arguable.

“One letter I had from the council said that fashions were changing. Well, they don’t have to.

“We can hold on to what is a good, and one of those things is quietness on Good Friday.”

Some on the town council, which sits below the district authority in the administrative hierarchy, were equally unhappy.

“It was already a fait accompli when we heard about it,” said its chairman, Carol Swift. “There was no consultation at all.

“It has been a tradition for many years that the market is held on the Thursday of Easter Week, and not Good Friday.”

Chris Parkin, another town councillor, added: “I’m not particularly religious but I do think there is an element of tradition here, which there was no need to change. And there has been no reason given as to why it should have changed.”

The revised arrangements were unlikely even to benefit the market traders, he said. “There is a gathering in the square so the market is going to have to move, and that means taking up the available parking spaces, which is not going to be great for anyone.”

The Sunday Trading Act, which in 1994 removed the need for retailers to observe the Lord’s Day, made a special exception for the Easter weekend.

Large shops are prohibited from opening on Easter Sunday, and an amendment proposing that garden centres be exempt from the restriction was defeated.

But Good Friday is not subject to special conditions.

In Helmsley, which was named in 2015 as the best market town high street in Britain, council officials have been urged to rethink their position over the Easter market.

Ms Swift, at the town council, said: “It suits the traders because they have other markets on a Thursday.”