Howden – an East Yorkshire town steeped in history

Howden is an East Yorkshire market town steeped in history as Chris Titley discovers

The legacy of bygone days seems more important than ever to a town or village because history and heritage often attract visitors and in turn their spending boosts the local economy

There’s so much history here in Howden that the town’s future should be rosy, in fact one resident described the place as a mini York – its own minster which took centuries to complete. The monks of Durham began expanding what was Howden Church in 1228, but the final addition, an octagonal Chapter House, wasn’t completed until the 15th century.

Having gone to so much effort to create Howden Minster, you would have thought everyone would have rallied round to preserve it. But after Henry VIII’s Reformation, the locals kept the nave as their parish church and left the rest to go to pieces.

Today’s more enlightened approach means that on my visit a team of specialists were busy restoring what remains of this unique half church, half ruin, now in the hands of English Heritage. What’s left is very beautiful and worth preserving.

As part of its regeneration, the town commissioned a series of sculptures around the Minster by John Maine on the theme of the Four Elements. These are striking works with spirals and drums hewn from different stone and are a fitting addition to the townscape.

Howden, found about three miles north of Goole, has an extraordinary ability to mix the old with the new. For every traditional butcher with striped canopy there is a 21st century deli. For each long-established pub there’s a modern coffee shop. Sadly this mix of now and then extends to the war memorial: under the names of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in two world wars is the name of a soldier lost in action in Iraq three years ago.

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Most Howden businesses are housed in charming old brick buildings, and the visitor has no excuse for not knowing their origins. One of the joys of the town is the potted histories you find peppered about the place. There cannot be a more active civic society in Yorkshire: it has decorated what sometimes seems like half the properties with blue plaques.

One tells the importance of Bishop’s Manor, the sturdy stone banqueting hall which is all that remains of a larger palace. Among its eminent visitors was Prince John who spent Christmas 1191 here. Part of the palace grounds are known as The Ashes, donated to the townsfolk for use as a recreation ground by the owner in 1927. A competition was held to design the layout. Much of the Ashes were ploughed up for planting as part of the war effort in 1940, but today this is a pleasant and welcoming park and playing field, which caters for all ages – a bowling green sits next to enclosed basketball and football pitches.

Howden Marsh is another spot for a stroll, a local nature reserve which attracts all manner of bird and wildlife.

You are spoiled for choice of pubs, restaurants and hotels in Howden and, inevitably, these serve up a hefty dollop of history too. What was once the Nag’s Head on Bridgegate became the more impressive Bowman’s Commercial Hotel and Posting House in 1851 when John Bowman took it over. He could spot an opportunity when he saw one, extending the hotel when the Yorkshire Show was held in Howden in 1864. Soon it had 18 bedrooms, stabling for 85 horses and a smithy in the yard.

The Bowman’s stands next to another original coaching inn, The Wellington. Nearby another blue plaque marks the premises once occupied by the Half Moon Inn, which ‘was for many generations the town’s largest and most important inn with fashionable Assembly Rooms and extensive outbuildings’.

Shire Hall in the Market Place proves that Howden’s prosperity continued in Victorian times. Built in 1872 as a covered market it has undergone many incarnations, serving time as theatre, roller-skating rink, concert hall and cinema down the years. Like The Ashes it is now run by a trust, and Howden Live stages a variety of music events at the hall.

Howden’s most prominent new building is the HQ of national news agency the Press Association which was completed a few years ago on the site of the old police station. It’s fair to say this is not the townsfolk’s’ favourite structure. But the agency continues Howden’s tradition of mixing old and new – and you don’t get much newer than journalists’ copy beamed to newsrooms and internet sites the instant a story breaks.

A century ago Howden was a leader in another cutting edge technology - the airship. Hundreds of local people were employed at the airship station just outside the town which opened in 1916 to counter German U-boat attacks on East Coast shipping.

After the First World War the site was reopened as the Airship Guarantee Co, where two famous engineers worked together. One was Nevil Shute Norway, later to find fame as Nevil Shute, author of A Town Like Alice; the other Barnes Wallis, creator of the dam-busting bouncing bombs. Nevil Shute’s Howden one-time residence on Hailgate is marked by, what else… a blue plaque.

My town Sarah Colclough has run the Blue Sky gift shop in Bridgegate, Howden, for five years. She came to know the town through visits to family and ‘always thought it was really pretty’ so when suitable retail premises came on the market she snapped it up.

Selling cards, gifts and toys, the shop has gone from strength to strength thanks to local support. ‘Everyone’s lovely, they’re very friendly, they just come in for a chat and see how you are.

‘People still use the greengrocer, the butcher. There’s a small hardware shop. It’s one of those kinds of towns.’

Unlike many places, Howden is thriving Sarah says. ‘Since I opened many more shops and restaurants have come into the town. We don’t have many empty shop units which is very rare these days. Touch wood, we’re all doing OK.’

Sarah lives nearby but is looking to move to Howden as soon as she finds the right place. ‘It has a lovely atmosphere. You’ve got everything you need on your doorstep.

‘You can go for lovely walks round the marshes or the park, come into town for your coffee and get your paper. And there are always different plays and entertainment at the Shire Hall. The history’s wonderful. There are interesting little nooks and crannies – it’s a nice place to live.’

Getting there: About three miles north of Goole, Howden is approached on the A63 from the west and the A614 from the east. Howden Railway Station is about a 1.5 miles north of the town centre.

Where to park: There are car parks at Hailgate and behind Bishops Manor House offering long and short stay spaces.

What to do: With its history and beautiful open spaces Howden Marsh and The Ashes, Howden is the perfect place for a walk. There are plenty of pubs and caf�s for refreshments, and The Shire Hall puts on entertainment all year round.

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