LEYBURN is the undisputed capital of Wensleydale which is the broadest and arguably the most beautiful of the Yorkshire Dales, and yet it is the only one of the major dales that is named after a village rather than a river. In spite of Leyburn’s dominance, the dale gets its name from nearby village of Wensley and one of my regular queries is why this should be so.

The answer lies in the history of that area. Centuries ago, Wensley, little more than a mile from Leyburn, was of considerable importance, then being the only market town in Wensleydale. Its market had been established as long ago as 1202. In 1563, however, a plague devastated the population and the survivors left, turning this once proud and busy place into a near-forgotten community.

Prior to the 12th century, Wensleydale was known as Yoredale or sometimes Uredale, those being alternative names for its river. Yore and Ure were both used in different parts of the dale but it was Wensley’s early eminence that provided the dale’s modern name.

Nonetheless, Yore continues to feature in some local place names with Jervaulx being an example. One of its early names was Jorvalle or Yorevall meaning Valley of the Ure or Yore.

Wensley’s history tells us that it is the burial place of Peter Goldsmith, the surgeon on board HMS Victory, who attended Lord Nelson when he was fatally injured in the Battle of Trafalgar.

In addition, Wensley will always be associated with James Herriot because it was in the TV series, All Creatures Great and Small, that James and Helen were married in the village church of the Holy Trinity when it doubled as the parish church of Darrowby. This was most apt because Herriot loved Wensleydale.

In reality, Leyburn, with a population of just below 2,000, is the focal point for local residents and travellers in Wensleydale. It is the meeting of roads from Middleham, Bedale, Reeth, Richmond and Hawes and consequently attracts people from a wide area who come to shop or attend the Friday markets. It is a busy centre for tourists too with coaches halting in the spacious market place and cars bringing people who wish to walk in the district or break their journey for a while.

There was a small settlement here at the time of the Domesday Book but Leyburn has no claims to be an ancient market town. As recently as the 16th century it was a mere hamlet, its stature increasing when King Charles II granted the town a market charter in 1686.

About 50 per cent of the houses were built as recently as the 19th century, with others appearing after the Second World War and today the town also includes a light industrial complex.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was no Protestant parish church until an Anglican one was built in 1868, although there was a Catholic chapel of ease here in medieval times. It was behind Leyburn Hall. The present Catholic church of St Peter and St Paul dates from 1835. The town hall, later converted into shops, was built by Lord Bolton in 1856 on the site of an earlier hall, and it was about that time – the middle of the 19th century – that Leyburn’s population increased and the town became a busy and very dignified social centre.

It was patronised by the gentry, a theatre was built in Love Lane and fashionable people met in the Bolton Arms Hotel for lunch or dinner and other occasions.

One of Leyburn’s famous residents was Frances I’Anson, who was born at a house in the High Street off the market place. A plaque identifies the house and over the door are the letters WIA 1746.

These are the initials of Frances’s father, William I’Anson. The family later moved to our Yorkshire Richmond where Frances achieved immortality as the heroine of the famous song, Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill, written by the man she married, songwriter Leonard Mc- Nally.

Leyburn’s hilltop setting, almost 700 feet (213m) above sea level, makes it a chilly place when the winter winds blow through its wide streets, but I find it warm and welcoming, and it does provide stunning views across Wensleydale.

It also fulfils a modern role as the capital town of Wensleydale with Richmond doing likewise for Swaledale and Middleham for Coverdale.

In thinking of the broad views from this area, one of the finest can be enjoyed from Leyburn Shawl, a natural terrace of limestone extending almost two miles to the west of the town. There is a public footpath along the top which affords splendid views of Penhill and other parts of the dale but I dealt with this walk and Leyburn Shawl last October.

IT WOULD be remiss of me not to issue a reminder that today is not only Plum Shuttle Eating Day but also the Feast of St Valentine.

Plum shuttles were buns made from dough and shaped like shuttles containing caraway seeds and currants.

Eating them today was probably linked to the weaving industry, hence the shuttles, but my notes do not reveal the source of this custom.

One fairly common belief, which does not appear to have survived into modern times, was that crocuses bloomed on the Feast of St Valentine and it seems this belief related especially to Yorkshire but I have not come across any recent indications of its survival.

Far better known, of course, is that today is the Feast Day of St Valentine but there is a slight problem in that there are 52 saints called Valentine and three of them celebrate today as their feast day. None is a Yorkshireman.

The custom of sending cards to the object of one’s desire was practised centuries ago when maidens lovingly made decorated messages and placed them in a large urn, hoping a handsome fellow might pick out her message and so discover her name.

It was a type of lucky dip associated with the pagan feast of Lupercalia and possibly linked to the knowledge that many birds also selected their partners at this time.

In early Rome, the Church decided upon an attempt to spread the faith by substituting the names of saints but this apparently was not a great success. Then one of the Popes decided it was a good idea to celebrate love and romance on a single day instead of it being undertaken at varying times.

The feast of St Valentine was therefore selected, probably due to its association with the birds declaring their bonding about that time.

Young lovers continued to send anonymous declarations of love on their special day, hence the notes becoming known as Valentine cards.

Or so the story tells us!