Otley - Upwardly mobile in the Wharf Valley

Retailers across the country are feeling the economic squeeze but Nick Marks discovers how a Dales market town is bucking the trend Photographs by Joan Russell

They know a thing or two about hard work and self reliance in Otley. While other towns and villages along the picturesque Wharfe Valley have slipped comfortably into the commuter belt, Otley remains resolutely independent.

Despite now being officially part of Leeds, it is a market town with a vivid life of its own - a characteristic that is paying dividends by helping it not just to survive but thrive during economic hard times.

Like a lot of towns up and down the country it has seen its share of high street closures, but as national names, like the ill-fated Woolworth’s, have pulled out they have been replaced by local and regional businesses.

Tim Wilkinson of the local Chamber of Trade and Commerce says Otley is managing to buck the national trend. As proof he point to statistics that show that in July 2009 there were 27 empty shops in the town centre, whereas now there are just 17, and more businesses are moving in all the time. Elsewhere pubs are closing down at an alarming rate but in Otley, where there has never been a shortage, new ones are opening and existing hostelries are being given expensive facelifts.

The secret, he says, lies in the way the townsfolk pull together: ‘The whole town runs on community spirit. Otley’s never been short of that.’

It’s something that stretches from the picturesque riverside and park, which draws visitors from the surrounding cities, to the great whaleback of The Chevin which rises 900ft (280m) above the town and is a popular playground for walkers, cyclists, horse riders, climbers and nature-lovers.It is home to a 450-acre country park with miles of footpaths weaving through the trees.

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Two new waymarked trails have been recently added to highlight the town’s history. A geology trail points out the events which have shaped the local landscape while a series of sculptures tell the human story. They include an elephant to mark the fact that the artist JMW Turner used the Chevin as the backdrop for one of his most famous works, Hannibal Crossing the Alps.

But Mr Wilkinson believes it is more modern efforts that are powering Otley’s revival: ‘For example, we get a lot of visitors, so many in fact that sometimes the litter bins overflow. The council said it could not help so the Otley in Bloom group volunteered to step in and empty them at the weekend so the park would still look its best.’

The traders haven’t been idle either. Following TV cook Rick Stein’s lead on establishing Food Heroes they have identified their own Shop Heroes as a way of highlighting the town’s wealth of individual and quirky retailers.

First in the spotlight was George Middlemiss, an award-winning family butcher now on its fifth generation, having been started in 1881 by John Middlemiss on a market stall which he placed under a gaslight so he could trade until 9pm. Since then, successive generations have garnered a shelf-load of national awards and feature spots on TV food programmes.

Others in the pipeline for recognition include another multi-generation business, James Barber tobacco merchants, which was founded in 1867 by Joseph Barber who had his own plantations in the US. A potentially more healthy hero is medical herbalist Bel Charlesworth, who dispenses herbal tinctures and potions at Otley Apothecary.

Mr Wilkinson said: ‘Eventually we hope to have a heroes’ trail to show people the interesting and individual shops we have here. It’s a bustling town with a lot to offer. We have supermarkets but some people will always want to go to the local baker for a bespoke loaf and we can cater for both because we are still very much a genuine market town.’

And what it doesn’t have it will try to provide. When shoppers were asked what was missing from the town, they said antiques. Trevor Backhouse, who has just stepped down as president of the local traders, says: ‘We could not just magic up an antique shop, so we decided to do the next best thing and organise an antiques fair in the court house instead. It proved so popular we are having another.’

Having proved the demand, the town is also now to get a full time antique shop.

Mr Wilkinson, who runs Dowgill House B&B in the town centre, adds: ‘The town is in a lovely position and handy for the Dales but guests have told us that what they really like is that Otley still has heart. In our town centre we have a market place and a clock. Others just have car parks.’

Getting there: Otley lies 28 miles south-west of York, 10 miles north-west of Leeds and 10 miles north-east of Bradford. The main roads through the town are the A660 to Leeds, the A65 to Ilkley and Skipton, the A6038 to Bradford, and the A659 which connects with the main Bradford-Harrogate road. The X84, 33A, 967, X52, X53, 923 and 940 bus routes all run into Otley bus station from around the region. The railway station closed in 1965, but the 967 bus runs into town from Menston station. Otley’s closest airport is Leeds-Bradford, which can be reached via the 757 bus.

Where to park: There is a good supply of on-street parking available in Otley, with 24 car parks also available in Courthouse Street, Beech Hill and North Parade.

What to do there: When you’ve spent up in the numerous shops, there are plenty of outdoor pursuits available at the Chevin Forest Park, a wooded escarpment overlooking the town with magnificent views right across the Wharfe Valley. The park was designated as a local nature reserve in 1989 in recognition of its wealth of wildlife.

Otley hosts lots of popular annual events including a an agricultural show, reputed to be one of the oldest in the country, in May, a carnival in June, a folk festival in September, a beer festival in November and a Victorian fayre in December.

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