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The market town: where history meets the future

Friday 22 September 2006

As we launch Daelnet's new feature on market towns (See Yorkshire dales market towns) our countryside commentator John Sheard sings their praises - but also warns of the pitfalls ahead

I WAS brought up on the outskirts of Derby, a big and prosperous industrial town (now a city) and lived on the A52, the country road that led to the small market town of Ashbourne which, in turn, led to the Peak District.

It was two miles to the crowded centre of Derby, eleven miles to Ashbourne, known as "the Gateway to the Peak" and, as soon I was old enough to make the choice, I travelled those hilly eleven miles by rickety bus, then by bike, and later on by thumbing a lift. When I got my first car, my first drive was … to Ashbourne.

appleby market
Appleby: archetypal market town

I started these journeys at the age of seven or eight (kids were allowed to go on adventures unaccompanied by adults in those days) and although I didn't realise it then, I had already found my first and lasting love: the small, friendly, welcoming country town.

Half a century later, having worked in Nottingham, York, London (three times), Dublin, Belfast, America and - very briefly and illegally - Russia, my wife and I decided it was time to quit national newspaper journalism and build a new life in the country. The problem was: where?

For years, I had been fishing the streams and rivers of the Yorkshire Dales and Cumbria. But just where should we settle, because the choice was huge: Kirkby Lonsdale, where I fished the Lune; Settle, which I had visited regularly when my good mate Mike Harding lived in Selside; Sedbergh, where rugby union is king; or Hawes, on the lovely banks of the Ure, where the irascible Jeremy Paxton found peace casting a fly?

In the end, after a brief and unhappy sojourn in a village where we were treated as unwelcome offcumdens, we settled for Skipton. Its casting vote, as many other parents have decided, were the schools. Our teenage daughter got into the sixth form at the High School and, almost twenty years later, here we still are.

We could, however, have chosen any market town anywhere: we had scouted out similar communities in Devon and Cornwall and even looked abroad on the Med, all the way from Gibraltar to Cyprus with most of the bits in between. It took me some time to realise why Skipton had won (or lost, depending on your point of view).

Then, of course, it dawned: it was a twin of my first love, Ashbourne, with a national park just up the road and a bustling, active market; a town you can walk around and chat to half a dozen people on the way to the post office (which can, I admit, had hours to your day); and pop into a pub for a pint without breathalyser worries.

These attributes are shared by many market towns. Why the schools are better than big city establishments I don't really know, except that the teachers probably know the parents and vice versa. There is also a sense of community, which I never witnessed in any big city in all those wandering years.

hawes market
Hawes: a thriving market held every Tuesday
Photo: wensleydale.org

There is also the history, of course. My first tour of Skipton included the castle and the stories of the remarkable Clifton family. Market town people tend to know about their past, whereas in the larger towns and cities anything old tends to be sneered at. And, thankfully, most market towns escaped the vandalism of the cities, where councillors, architects and planners laid waste to thousands of historic buildings.

All this - and much more - can be entered into the plus side of the ledger for market town life. But there is plenty of red ink on the minus pages, ranging from drunken louts on the streets - often visitors deliberately looking for trouble - litter, traffic and what the Council to Protect Rural England call the "cloning of the English High Street" - the invasion of nationwide retails chains driving small, locally owned shops out of business.

This last worry is a major concern. After all, many people like my wife and I have chosen to move to market towns, and take an active part in their social and business life, because of their very uniqueness. Lose that and we might as well move back to the suburbs.

Fortunately, the answer to this is in our own hands: we should support local business and ignore the nationwide tat. We should also buy locally produced foods to help our hard-pressed farmers and even drink locally-brewed ale now that small local breweries are springing up all over the region.

If we don't, we will soon become miniature replicas of the big cities, with all the horrors that entails. The future of the country town, to me the absolute pinnacle of modern living, is in our own hands. Time, dear reader, to put your money where your market town is.

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