Why market towns are Yorkshire’s heart and soul – Andrew Vine

MARKET day in Skipton, and browsing the stalls, instantly transports me back 50 years to going shopping with my parents in an era before supermarkets dominated.

The Yorkshire Post is launching a week-long series on market towns, like Skipton, that will feature espoke illustrations by Graeme Bandeira.

It’s that sight of a main street coming to life with striped awnings and the chatter between stallholders and customers, the timeless charm of a market town doing business the way it has for centuries.

The goods on sale may have changed, but the rapport between stallholders and customers essentially hasn’t.

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And for the shopper, the market town’s temptation to impulse buy is exactly the same as it was when I first remember seeing a street full of stalls. It’s the joy of discovery, the thrill of not realising you want something until you see it, and that’s the magic of markets.

Skipton continues to embody the best of Yorkshire's market towns, writes Andrew Vine.

This time, I’ve ended up with a delightfully eclectic bag of shopping – a pheasant, half a dozen eggs, a pork pie still warm from the oven, lens caps for a pair of binoculars, heavy socks to wear with walking boots and a dried pig’s ear as a treat for my cousin’s dog.

I couldn’t have written a shopping list like that in advance, but there it is. What’s on offer on the stalls draws us all in, and long may that continue.

It’s shopping the way it used to be when I was a lad, and happily it’s alive and well in Yorkshire’s market towns, with friendly, knowledgeable traders pleased to see you and always ready to pass the time of day.

And this great tradition is the best of reasons to celebrate our market towns this Yorkshire Day, because in so many ways they embody the heart and soul of this glorious county of ours.

A signpost on Skipton Town Hall - but what is the future of Yorkshire's market towns?

It isn’t just Skipton, of course, but all the others as well, spread across the length and breadth of the county. All of us will have our favourites, places that draw us back year after year, maybe to visit a favourite shop or stall, or maybe just to browse and then sit awhile to enjoy the atmosphere.

For me, there are regulars that always feel like old friends whenever I visit. Elegant Wetherby, or Driffield, nestling at the foot of the Wolds. Thirsk, backed by the grandeur of the moors, or Knaresborough, with the rowing boats on the Nidd passing through the arches of the viaduct. Malton, with its array of wonderful artisan food, or Pickering with the hiss and whistles of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway steam trains as its soundtrack.

Everybody could come up with their own list of favourites, and for different reasons. It may be the beauty of their buildings and churches, or their setting beside a river or sheltered by a heather-covered hillside.

Yet for all the variety in Yorkshire’s market towns, and the uniqueness of each, there is something they all share. It’s a sense of identity, of place and of community.

Knaresborough is another market town champoned by, amongst others, columnist Andrew Vine. Photo: James Hardisty.

That’s what makes them such desirable places to live, and so attractive to visitors, especially from cities where a sense of community is harder to find. But in the market towns, it is there at every step. Talk to any resident, and it isn’t long before they will mention that a sense of belonging is one of the things that they love about living there.

Our smaller towns seem to epitomise the qualities that define Yorkshire – decency, neighbourliness, determination and plain-speaking among them. And they are living, breathing repositories of tradition, so ruggedly individual in their construction from the local stone that they seem an extension of the natural landscape, a world away from the anonymous steel-and-glass skylines of cities.

That individualism is there in the shops, as well as the market stalls. Go shopping in any pedestrianised precinct in any city, and all feel much the same thanks to the presence of familiar chain-stores with branches everywhere. Go inside any of the shops, and you could be in any British city. A London branch of M&S looks exactly like one in Leeds or Sheffield or York.

The special character of our market towns has escaped that sort of pigeon-holing. These are places where independence thrives, whether in family-run businesses that have been local landmarks for generations, or newcomers with bright ideas and the drive to establish their own traditions, whether selling food, fashion or homewares.

Such businesses make for lively, engaging high streets, adding to the character of towns and their sense of identity. And not coincidentally, they are where customer service really means something and repeat business is prized. Given the choice between giving my money to a chain-store, or a shop where the owner is smiling a welcome from behind the counter, the independent gets my trade every time.

So we need to cherish these towns of ours, as well as celebrate them as places of both business for their customers and leisure for their visitors. That means supporting the traders, and the festivals so many stage now to bring in extra visitor income.

It also means speaking up for them and making sure they are not forgotten by politicians who hold the purse-strings and whose first thought when investment decisions are being made is to push whatever money is available the way of cities.

Market towns are too often overlooked by Westminster, lumped together with that strange and unfamiliar place called “the countryside”, which too few politicians of all stripes understand properly. They don’t get a fair crack of the whip on spending, the assumption being that they are affluent places, which can be a long way from the truth.

Deprivation sometimes lurks only a few streets away from where the stallholders are busy on market day, aggravated by a shortage of affordable housing, lack of local services and few employment opportunities.

All those things need to be far more to the forefront of decision-makers’ thoughts than they are. Our market towns are precious places. Let’s all do our bit to keep them that way.

Read Andrew Vine in The Yorkshire Post every Tuesday.

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