by ANTONY CLAY
THE Yorkshire Dales are a national treasure. A landscape of rugged mountains and bleak but beautiful moors and fields which attract thousands of visitors every year.
So, for a town to call itself the “Gateway to the Dales”, it really has to live up to a big expectation.
Thankfully, the town of Skipton – north-west of the city of Leeds – is that mixture of old and new which gives it a distinctive Yorkshire character and makes it a vibrant place.
A rural market town with a toe in the modern world, it has always provided a welcome relief to people from nearby Bradford as a retreat from urban life, without having to travel miles down winding country lanes.
And it is a town with a distinctive character, often heroically protected against the advance of the 21st Century. Until relatively recently, for instance, the local paper the Craven Herald stoically remained as one of just two newspapers which kept news off the front page in favour of announcements. It looked like something from the 19th Century, deliberately so, and people loved it because it was distinct and had character. Alas, today it has taken the standard tabloid route.
I will admit to a certain bias in the matter as I worked on the paper in its ‘old look’ days. It had always looked like that and the modern expectations of what a newspaper should be could just ‘go away’.
Skipton itself has that rough Yorkshire resilience which is bred into those born in the county. But that very sense of self pride and identity is, ironically, what makes it such a welcoming place for visitors.
Yorkshire folk can be very friendly, contrary to popular opinion. It’s principally because we just want to show everyone else that they should have the good life like us!
A surprising amount of excellent things are packed into a relatively small town in Skipton, and it has certainly developed in terms of its shops in recent years. Outlets offering clothes, walking gear, artists equipment and even New Age paraphernalia have sprung up in tastefully developed shopping streets using old buildings in imaginative ways.
For instance, attractive small businesses have flourished along Coach Street, which leads from Swadford Street to the town’s main (and rather ample) car park, as well as on side roads from High Street.
Pride of place off High Street is Craven Court, a lovely collection of shops ranging from eateries to clothes outlets and gift traders which has been covered and protected from the elements to create an airy and restful environment.
The High Street itself is always a busy place, particularly on market days when stalls are strung out along the main road and attract customers from miles around. And it is a good market which seems to contradict the current business assertion that such venues are on their uppers. Meat, clothes, household appliances, even wooden art can be found. A great place to browse.
But shops can be discovered in all directions as you head off on streets leading off from High Street, and there is an air that quality is an important element in the commercial offer here. Even the charity shops – and there are many of them – have a slightly more upmarket air than can generally the case. There is a rather good Oxfam store specialising in books and music, one of the few charity shops I’ve ever visited with an impressive opera provision.
But, let’s not get bogged down by this modern obsession with shopping. There is more to life than that. Skipton offers other enjoyable pleasures, both in the town centre itself and nearby.
In the heart of the town, you can take a delightful boat trip along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Settle back and experience the slower pace of life when water transport was king and all those johnny-come-lately steam trains and cars weren’t even a thing.
It is delightful to head along the water, perhaps on one of the trips offering a recorded commentary by comedian Dave Spikey, and look at the wildlife alongside the banks such as voles, ducks and the occasional curious sheep or cow. Or walker.
Ofcourse, one should not dismiss the lure of the technology that followed the canal boats and a trip to the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway just a short distance out of the town is worth the effort. If you’re going from Skipton you will head to Embsay Station to experience such delights as steam locos at full throttle, the electric autocar, Victorian and Edwardian carriages and special event days.
Indeed, on certain dates, a vintage bus service will take visitors from Skipton to the railway – an extra treat.
The countryside around Skipton is stunning and you can certainly see it from trains – modern or steam ones – and by car. Birdwatchers, for instance, can see some surprising species in the often waterlogged fields around the town and further out there is the potential for such avian beauties as the Ring Ouzel, the Curlew and (surprisingly often following a release programme a few years back at nearby Bolton Abbey) the stunningly majestic Red Kite.
On the subject of modern trains, Skipton has a well-served and busy station with very regular services to both Leeds and Bradford, and a northern connection to the famous Settle-Carlisle railway. It would be a good opportunity to experience this route if you are staying in Skipton.
Back to the Skipton’s rich history.
It has a castle and any town with a castle must be worth a look, in my humble opinion.
The medieval pile was erected by the lord of the area Robert de Romille in around 1090 to stop those pesky Scots trying their luck down south.
In the English Civil War, the castle was a Royalist base until Oliver Cromwell got his hands on it after a three-year siege in 1645.
Today it is a big tourist attraction as well as a private dwelling. Well worth a visit.
Pop into the town’s Craven Museum – although it is currently closed for redevelopment so check its status before you go – and discover a lot about the history and culture of this charming town for yourself.
Skipton itself dates back well before the Normans. Its ‘sk’ element in the name is indicative of a Scandinavian settlement. Much of the North was under the Danelaw in Anglo-Saxon times, ofcourse (a north-south divide in the country back then which might explain part of the north-south divide now, in another one of my humble opinions). Skipton could have meant something along the lines of ‘place for sheep’ or ‘sheep farm’ in those days.
There are business developments around Skipton, ofcourse, and some are quite substantial but somehow they don’t impede on the historic look of the town.
Skipton is well worth making the effort to visit and decent roads make it a cinch to get to. You might choose to go for a specific reason but I think it’s the sort of place where a good amble is the right way forward. Amble around and see what you find. Ambling is good.