Uncovering town’s hidden history

TRIBUTE: The clock in the market place at Thirsk, which was built in 1896 to commemorate the wedding of the Duke of York to Princess Mary of Teck

TRIBUTE: The clock in the market place at Thirsk, which was built in 1896 to commemorate the wedding of the Duke of York to Princess Mary of Teck

First published in Countryman's Diary by

THERE was a time not long ago when Thirsk was widely regarded as a somewhat dismal place with more than its fair share of heavy goods vehicles parked in the market place. There were lots of transport cafes to cope with their drivers’ hunger and, in turn, they attracted customers, not all of whom were very pleasant. It was widely considered to be not the sort of place to visit for a happy day out, except perhaps the racecourse.

Then the bypass was constructed to carry away that traffic and today the lorries and transport cafes have gone.

Thirsk has enjoyed a visible regeneration that has highlighted some of the town’s past and present glories. In addition, there are now some attractive shops and inns, not to mention thriving markets on Mondays and Saturdays.

It has become a tourist centre thanks to the books of James Herriot and its association with Lord’s cricket ground, but it also lends itself to exploration along some of its quiet alleys.

Thirsk’s large cobbled market place is a reminder that this is a very historic town with a splendid parish church and other attractions.

Few can ignore the spacious cobbled market place, but it is never easy to find the former bull ring that is marked out in the pebbles. This used to be the site of the town’s former manor house, while the clock tower was built in 1896 to commemorate the wedding of the Duke of York to Princess Mary of Teck.

The bull ring is a reminder that the area used to be a huge cattle mart and it marks the site where the animals were paraded before potential buyers. Now, it is where the buses park.

Another feature of the market place was a huge elm tree, under which it is said Lord Henry Percy was murdered in 1489. He was dragged here from Topcliffe to meet his doom. The tree has now gone, but the story lingers on, albeit with some doubts. It had been said he died at the hands of some rioting peasants during trouble that had sprung up due to excessive taxation by the ruling classes.

One prevailing mystery in Thirsk is the precise site of its former castle. Indeed, was there ever a castle in Thirsk? Some reports suggest the market place used to be part of the castle, while others say it stood beside Cod Beck and still more suggest it stood near the fire station, not far from the rear of James Herriot’s surgery.

Names like Castlegarth remind us of the castle. It was built by Roger de Mowbray in what became known as New Thirsk. The date of its construction is not clear, but when, in 1174, Mowbray unwisely took up arms against Henry II, being forced into surrender, the castle was confiscated by the king and then demolished in 1176.

No trace remains and it is rumoured that the stones were used to build the parish church, the work commencing around 1430.

Even if the castle stones were not used to construct the church, there is a link between the church, the castle and the town’s origins. At the head of the south aisle is the tomb of Robert Tresk. He is believed to be the founder of the church, being the last of the Tresk family, and it is from him that Thirsk gets its name.

There is more in Thirsk, such as the Parvis Room above the church porch which, for years, was the home of a hermit called Thomas Parkinson and, of course, the town’s links with Lord’s. It was Thirsk-born Thomas Lord who in 1787 established the first cricket ground at Marylebone in London. It was later to become Marylebone Cricket Club, better known perhaps as the MCC.

Tucked away, almost out of sight, is the splendid curved row of town houses known simply as The Crescent, while in Old Thirsk is St James’ Green, once the village green and the first market place. Then there is the site of a tollbooth and market cross and much more.

One noted part of Thirsk’s history was its role as a coaching halt. For a town of such a small size, it was one of the country’s premier posting stations, as the coaching halts were known.

This led to a proliferation of coaching inns and it has been said there were more inns in Thirsk than in any other town of comparable size – and it was inside one such an inn, with its open fire, that the inspiration for this week’s column arose.

B EFORE the Christmas and New Year holidays, our late afternoon sky was brightened by what appeared to be part of a rainbow. But it was no rainbow.

It was a sight among the clouds that is often called a sun dog, and when these curious appearances are spotted they do produce some excitement and curiosity.

These can differ from place to place in this country and vary considerably around the world. Here a sun dog tends to be rather like a small cross-section of a rainbow, but in some parts of the world they are bright enough to be considered mock suns or phantom suns.

In reality their rainbow effect is produced by sunlight passing through ice crystals among high and cold clouds.

The crystals act as prisms to bend the rays of the setting sun with a minimum deflection of 22 degrees. They can appear to the left or right of the sun and most of them appear when the sun is very low in the evening sky.

The ones I have seen from our village have all been to the left of the setting sun.

Because the refraction of light is at an angle of 22 degrees, there is a simple means of determining whether the patch of light in the sky is a sun dog. If it appears to the left of the sun, stretch your arm forward to its full extent with your hand vertical. Open wide your fingers and thumb and place the ball of your thumb directly in front of the sun.

This will result in the tip of your little finger being in front of the sun dog – at the angle of 22 degrees.

The official name for a sun dog is parhelion, which derives from the Greek meaning “beside the sun”. In some parts of the ancient world the appearance of parhelia were forecasts that doom and disaster were to follow, but I have not come across any British beliefs associated with sun dogs.

T HIS morning I should have been visiting the historic village of Brompton near Northallerton where the Brompton Heritage Group, with valued collaboration from the children of Brompton Primary School, have produced three interpretive boards that provide information about Brompton’s long and interesting history.

The project has received backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Sadly, I have caught flu and cannot attend.

This is a very worthwhile project especially as it involves the children who will now take a keener interest in their own village. Their part in this event is, of course, the most recent occurrence in the history of Brompton. It shows that history is always moving forward – it is much more than a collection of old dates!


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