Howden - an East Riding town with a colourful past has a lot to offer the history buff

An East Riding town with a colourful past has a lot to offer the history buff, as Chris Titley finds out Photographs by Neil Holmes

Howden is a town which knows how to reinvent itself. With its own minster, well-heeled Georgian townhouses and charming market place it has an air of prosperity – all thanks to an uncanny ability to adapt to changing times.

The town’s first boom period followed William the Conqueror’s invasion. He gave the land to a baron who became Bishop of Durham. ‘When he was called upon to answer for his misdemeanors and had to travel to and from London, he found Howden a very convenient stopping-off place,’ said Bernard Nield, vice chairman of Howden Civic Society. ‘He decided this was the place where he would build a small palace. During the same period the canons of Durham started to build a big church in Howden, which became very wealthy.’

The town’s status was further enhanced by the decision of two kings, Edward II and Henry V, to hold court there. But after the Reformation and the church’s suppression by Edward VI, Howden went into decline.

Only part of the minster was maintained, and the remaining ruins of the choir are testament to the town’s ecclesiastical downfall.

But it was to prosper again. Howden was granted an annual fair in 1200. By the 18th century this had developed into a horse fair which was to become renowned across Europe. ‘The fair lasted more than a week and sometimes almost a fortnight,’ said Bernard. ‘On one occasion it was recorded that 16,000 horses changed hands.

‘We understand that most of the horses were being bought by foreign armies. There was a great deal of activity in Europe in those years and horses were vital for the transport of large numbers of men and equipment.’

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These fairs continued into the early part of the 20th century. There followed another slump in Howden’s fortunes which probably saved it from the fate of many other towns: wholesale demolition and rebuilding. Happily, Howden’s Georgian architecture was left largely untouched by developers.

Today the civic society works hard to protect, conserve and promote Howden’s attractions. It has extended the conservation area outwards from the heart of the town, and keeps a close eye on planning applications to ensure new buildings and alterations are in keeping with the special surroundings.

A series of grants has helped restore town centre premises, and prosperity has returned. Bernard only knows of one vacant shop, a remarkable fact in difficult times.

Howden’s good fortunes today are closely linked with one of its major employers, global news organisation the Press Association. It built a new operations centre on the site of the old police station in 2003 and employs several hundred people. So the ancient town is reinvented once more: from horse fairs to current affairs.

If you want to experience the history of Howden first hand, collect a copy of the Blue Plaques Trail leaflet from the library. This takes you on a tour of the 25 plaques installed by the civic society to commemorate places of interest.

One of these marks the lodging house of Nevile Shute Norway, drawing attention to another brief but remarkable moment in Howden history.

During the 1920s airship building was brought to the town.Nevil Shute Norway, later to find fame as the author of A Town Like Alice, was deputy to bouncing bomb inventor Barnes Wallis as they worked on the R100 airship design.

With such a remarkable history, the lack of a Howden museum is striking. This is an omission the civic society would love to put right.

‘There are artefacts around which we feel should be gathered together and protected as best we can,’ Bernard said. ‘But we are some way short of being able to afford to set up a museum and to maintain its ongoing costs, even if it’s run by volunteers.

‘We will continue to look for opportunities to create a museum, an archive, a holding place for the vital artefacts and information about Howden.’

Many of the town’s old buildings have been repurposed over the years. Lots of premises built as townhouses for wealthy residents are today home to shops and a variety of businesses.

Perhaps the most remarkable transformation is that of the Shire Hall. It looks like nothing else in Howden – or anything nearby, come to that. ‘It doesn’t look very English,’ admitted Sarah Hardcastle, manager of the Shire Hall. ‘It was built in the 1800s as a market hall. With the big sloping roof it looks very Danish. It’s unique.’

A weekly market is still held on the ground floor every Friday. Yet Shire Hall’s main purpose is as Howden’s cultural hub, hosting performances, concerts and film screenings, as well as being hired out by residents. ‘It’s lovely to work there,’ Sarah said. ‘You could have a wedding there one day, a karate group the next.’

HowdenLive, run by volunteers, puts on a series of music and theatre events at the hall. Artists as diverse as Geno Washington and Midge Ure have performed there. Run as a charitable trust, the hall is well supported by the local community. ‘Wherever I go people are talking about it,’ Sarah said. She is not surprised by this reaction, as she loves living in Howden. ‘I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else now. It has such a lovely community spirit.’

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

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

What to do: Explore the Minster and beautiful open spaces Howden Marsh and The Ashes. Follow the Blue Plaque Trail to discover the hidden history of Howden. Look for cinema screenings, live performances and exhibitions at the Shire Hall.

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