Pontefract - a shopper’s paradise

Emma Stock with Logan, a blue and gold macaw, at her shop - Ponte Pets.

Emma Stock with Logan, a blue and gold macaw, at her shop - Ponte Pets. - Credit: Joan Russell

David Marsh shops till he drops in Pontefract’s retail hub

Helen Ward serving in Maud's Cafe, Maud's Yard.

Helen Ward serving in Maud's Cafe, Maud's Yard. - Credit: Joan Russell

It is not every day you walk into a shop and get whistled at by a beautiful bird. However, on this occasion the incident does nothing to stoke the ego.

Ken and Christine Johnson in their shop Seen and Heard.

Ken and Christine Johnson in their shop Seen and Heard. - Credit: Joan Russell

The bird in question is a lively and colourful parrot by the name of Logan, who is to be found entertaining customers at Ponte Pets, a relatively new independent business making its mark in the historic West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract.

‘He’s a bit of a character,’ admits Emma Stock who co-owns the shop in Mill Hill Road on the edge of the town centre. She and Mark Kelly launched the business nearly 12 months ago and, despite the tough economic times, it is proving a success. They had both previously worked in the pet business and, when made redundant, decided to set up on their own.

Emma said: ‘It’s gone surprisingly well. We thought it would take quite some time to build up but the response from customers has been good. Pontefract is a good place to do business.’

With cities like Leeds and Wakefield just a bus ride away and a major retail outlet on its doorstep at junction 32 of the M62, Pontefract has to fight hard for its share of trade and its independent shops, cafes and restaurants are important weapons in the battle. Coupled with the town’s historic buildings they help give Pontefract its distinctive identity.

While Mark and Emma work to grow their new business, Hilda Tasker is preparing to bow out and retire after more than 30 years running ladies clothes shop ML Jennings in Ropergate.

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She said: ‘The business has been going since the 1930s and there have only been four owners. I have enjoyed every minute and met some lovely people but now’s the right time to go.

‘When I started there were no big out-of-town developments and business is much harder for towns like Pontefract these days.’

It is a view echoed by Ken Johnson who, with his wife Christine, has for 10 years run Seen and Heard, which sells an extensive and eclectic mix of CDs, DVDs and pop memorabilia such as framed albums.

Sitting behind the counter on a quiet Monday, he says: ‘It’s definitely hard for small towns like Pontefract to compete with the likes of big centres and out-of-town developments and I’m not sure what the answer is.’

It could be argued that individual shops like Seen and Heard are the answer. They are, in business-speak, Pontefract’s USP (Unique Selling Point) – friendly, helpful shops offering a personal and often specialised service.

As Ken says: ‘We get requests from our customers for specific CDs and we do our best to track them down for them. Some of our customers are very knowledgeable and really know their stuff. Mind we do get all sorts – some bloke once came in and asked me if we sold shovels.

‘We have a lot of regular customers and some will come in for just a browse and a natter. People can talk for ages about their favourite films and music and at the end of it all they buy nowt, but we don’t mind.’

It’s a grey and cold morning but at Maud’s Cafe in Maud’s Yard the welcome is warm and business is brisk.

The cafe, which also operates as a bar on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, was opened nine years ago by Helen Ward.

She said: ‘There are always challenges but things have gone well. We try to create a friendly atmosphere and it seems to work. Pontefract people are good folk and we have some really friendly customers. Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days and they are particularly busy.’

For many people who want to say it with flowers, a visit to Jackie’s Florist in Gillygate is a must. Jackie Rix opened the shop in 1987 with her mother, Mavis Moxon, and it is still going strong.

Jackie said: ‘We try hard to give people exactly what they want. Our very first customer is now 92-years-old and still comes in so we must be doing something right.’

The gory so far

Pontefract has a proud and, indeed, quite bloody history much of it centred on the Norman castle built by Ilbert de Lacy.

A notorious and feared stronghold, Richard II was held prisoner there in 1399 and some sources suggest he was murdered in the dungeons. Edward II had his cousin, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, executed at the castle along with the beheading of 20 other rebels.

Much of this formidable fortress was destroyed as a result of the Civil War, during which it was besieged three times by Parliamentarians.

The story of the town is well told in Pontefract Museum, a fine 1904 art nouveau building which was originally a library funded by Scottish steel industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

A big part of that story unsurprisingly features liquorice and the famous Pontefract Cakes. Originally from the Middle East, it is thought liquorice was brought to the town by the de Lacy family during the crusades or by Benedictine monks.

Sap from the roots was originally used as a medicine. In 1769 apothecary George Dunhill added sugar and started to produce Pomfrey or Pontefract Cakes as a sweet. Liquorice sweets are still made in the town which every July holds a liquorice festival.