Follow in the footsteps of Mary Queen of Scots in Leyburn

Market Place Leyburn, which for over a thousand years has been a prosperous place

Market Place Leyburn, which for over a thousand years has been a prosperous place - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Richard Darn visits a beautiful market town

View from Shawl Fields into Wensleydale Photo Alamy

View from Shawl Fields into Wensleydale Photo Alamy - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

In 1568 Mary Queen of Scots escaped from Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, and fled on foot toward nearby Leyburn. Short on bush craft skills (she ‘struggled’ to cope with a courtly retinue of 51 servants, including a hairdresser, during her six month imprisonment) the deposed monarch was speedily recaptured by her guards, much to the relief of her cousin, Elizabeth I.

As I walked in Mary’s footsteps through the same serene countryside one question kept springing to mind. Why on earth did she want to leave? I mean this is one of the most staggeringly beautiful parts of England. Views comes thick and fast and one of the finest in all Yorkshire is found a few yards from Leyburn market square.

Take a left at the imposing Bolton Hotel and Wensleydale opens up in all its majestic glory, beckoning the traveller on. On the day I visited, rays of sunshine danced across the distant fell-side and dark clouds provided the prerequisite brooding backdrop. Stupendous. Leyburn has the good fortune to be the gateway to these riches.

And for over a thousand years it’s been a prosperous place. The Domesday Book reveals it paid a relatively high tax of 7.5 gelds and was controlled by Alan the Red – one of William the Conqueror’s henchmen. He was granted vast landownings stolen from previous Anglo Saxon and Scandinavian lords and also built nearby Richmond Castle, as much to subdue the locals as repel invaders.

A steam train engine arrives at Leyburn station, part of the Wensleydale Railway Line

A steam train engine arrives at Leyburn station, part of the Wensleydale Railway Line - Credit: Alamy

Today, Leyburn is home to 2,000 souls and it remains a small town that packs a big punch. Huddled together around the lovely square, the buildings proudly face each other across the cobbles, creating an intimate setting that encourages you to linger.

With its schools, restaurants, independent shops, cafés, a mini department store (Milners, established 1882), hotels and hardware shops, two things are apparent.

This is a thriving tourist destination, having a ‘very good year’ for visitors enthused one tea shop owner. And it is also an important commercial centre serving a large hinterland who don’t have the dubious pleasures of shopping malls and retail parks.

Antiques is also big business with Tennants Auctioneers, a presence for over 100 years and one of the leading establishments of its kind in Britain, attracting thousands of visitors.

This little town also has a railway station. It comes as a shock to discover how much of Yorkshire was once accessible by rail and Leyburn took its place on the mid-19th century line connecting Northallerton to distant Garsdale on the Settle to Carlisle route. But in a familiar post-war tale, traffic declined and parts of the line were ripped up and bridges demolished.

One small stretch survived because mineral trains continued to ferry limestone from Redmire to Teesside, but when these ceased the threat of total closure became very real. Enter the Wensleydale Railway Association, who together with the Ministry of Defence – keen to use the line to transport its armoured vehicles – repaired and re-opened it to passengers from Northallerton to Redmire in 2003. There is even a long term plan to reopen another 18 miles to link up with the Settle to Carlisle route once again. Take a bow all concerned.

Needless to say that the view from your train seat is tremendous and what better way can there be to arrive at Bolton Castle, via Redmire? Much to my shame I’d only ever seen the fortress from afar, but close up you really appreciate its bulk and setting. It is still owned by Lord Bolton, the direct descendant of the man who built the castle, Sir Richard le Scrope, in 1379. And over the valley the ruins of another of England’s great bastions can be seen – Middleham Castle, childhood home of Richard III.

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One of the joys of visiting Leyburn is that such wonderful places are right on the doorstep.

The Forbidden Corner is nearby too with its labyrinth of tunnels, chambers and follies, originally created as a private garden for owner Colin Armstrong, but opened to the public in 1997.

And of course this is wonderful walking country and the adventure begins from the town centre. The Leyburn Shawl is a beautiful limestone outcrop, located just a few hundred yards away, and also the path supposedly followed by Mary Queen of Scots in her bid for freedom. Legend suggests that she snagged her shawl on branches, hence the name, but killjoys insist the shawl or shaw’el means a combination of woodland, hill and shady places. It might even derive from Old Norse. Whatever its origins, walkers can enjoy a sublime stroll, or push on to Bolton Castle and Aysgarth Falls.

Back in town I sat down with a coffee and fat rascal browsing through my wad of tourist leaflets. Not satisfied with having a heritage railway line, I read that Leyburn also has a vintage bus service calling once a week in season from Ripon – what a great idea. In truth I could have stayed for a month and still only touched the surface of what this marvellous area has to offer. Mary Queen of Scots really should have stayed.

Need to know

Where it is: The market town of Leyburn is on the A684 in Richmondshire, North Yorkshire, about nine miles west of J51 on the A1(M) at Leeming Bar. Typing DL8 5AQ into your satnav should take you to the town centre.

What’s nearby: Steam trains will be running on the Wensleydale Railway on dates through October, go to for more details. Bolton Castle – from where Mary Queen of Scots fled – is a well preserved mediaeval castle and hosts all sorts of events throughout the year.

Did you know: Tennants Auctioneers holds more than 100 sales each year at their action house in Leyburn. There’s also a restaurant, café, shop and galleries.

Diary dates: Leyburn hosts a variety of events and festivals each year celebrating food, music and walking. The highlight of the events calendar is arguably the 1940s weekend each July.

Find out more: The has plenty of information about the town.

7 things you should know about Leyburn