There’s no shortage of things to do in Wetherby
- Credit: Archant
Martin Pilkington went along to West Yorkshire to meet the people who make the town tick
Wetherby’s medieval bridge looks over the market town it has served for almost 800 years, a symbol of continuity while so much around it changes. Actually, just like the scene around it, the bridge is far from changeless. ‘The bridge was started in 1230 and took five years to build,’ says Victor Hawkins, a town councillor active in Wetherby Historical Society. ‘Then it was widened in 1773, on the upstream side, and because wagons taking coal to smelt lead in Nidderdale damaged the sides, it was widened again on the downstream side in 1826, and flattened from the original humpback construction.’ Even the road that crosses Wetherby Bridge has altered. Until 1959 it carried the Great North Road, the A1, now it conveys cars taking the A661 to Boston Spa.
Of course, in a living town things do change, as the metamorphoses undergone by a stretch by the old weir demonstrate. ‘Two cereal mills survived there until the mid-1930s,’ says Victor. ‘Then it was used for all sorts of things, in 1944 it housed a firelighter factory whose products proved to be too good – it burned down and sadly the owner was killed in the blaze. That was pulled down in the 1950s to make a dancehall which everybody of a certain age in Wetherby remembers, then that was demolished about 25 years ago to build new apartments.’
A huge cogwheel unearthed during construction of the apartments now stands as a monument to its earlier occupants.
It’s not just man that instigates change. When the floods of 2015-16 hit the region, other ancient ways across the Wharfe at Tadcaster and Linton were severely damaged, but not Wetherby’s. ‘It was built on magnesium limestone, straight onto the stone, so survived without damage,’ Victor continues. ‘But all the gravel within the river shifted.’
And Ewan Coleman of Wetherby & District Angling Club says: ‘There are sections of the river that used to be 10ft deep that are now less than half that as debris brought by the flood waters filled them in, but the fish have survived, we’ve got chub, dace, gudgeon, barbel, bream...
‘We get quite a lot of trout and grayling in there, too, and reserve one section of our two-and-a-half miles of water for fly-fishing. Over the last few years we’ve seen a few salmon parr, which shows the river is cleaner than it used to be.’
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The club, celebrating its centenary this year, helps nature along, for example stocking their water with 1,000 chub and dace 18 months ago, and maintaining the banks.
A willingness to get stuck in seems to be part of the town character, exemplified by the way the weir, rooted in Roman times, was saved after another severe winter, in 1981, caused part to collapse. Ken Bennett, treasurer of the Weir Preservation Trust since its inception says: ‘Neither the authorities nor local landowners wanted to know so a group of civic-minded people got together and formed a charitable trust. We raised £30,000 in three months and repaired the hole and the salmon steps, and eventually restored the entire thing, which set off the whole riverside project there.’
The army of volunteers who helped reconstruct the weir kept going. ‘We rebuilt all the riverside walls, did terracing, and made picnic areas,’ Ken continues. ‘And every time we asked for money for projects we got more than we needed. Then we decided to mark the millennium by building a bandstand by the river and raised £60,000 in eight weeks – if you have a worthwhile project here Wetherby people will support it.’
From the Mayday Bank Holiday to late September the bandstand now hosts 22 Sunday afternoon concerts a year, with a different band every week drawing crowds of 400 and more to the riverside.
Generosity in funding local amenities is not new here: in the town’s Garden of Rest there’s a shelter known locally as The Old Man’s Parliament, where traditionally on Tuesday and Thursday mornings some of the town’s more mature citizens gather to put the world to rights. The building was paid for in the 1950s by a retired schoolteacher, and when it needed work last year funds and hands were again not lacking.
The town’s civic society naturally exists in part to protect Wetherby’s fabric, but chairman Roger Taylor sees its main aim as being to support its community, a mission that’s going very well. ‘There’s lots going on here, and people get involved – for example the University of the Third Age has over 1,000 members, the Civic Society has 200, there are all sorts of clubs and institutions which are thriving, the churches are going strong. What was done with the weir and the bandstand, real success stories, shows that people here have got enterprise, they don’t just sit on their bottoms, they get on with things!’
One of the things that the Civic Society got on with a few years ago was creating a Blue Plaque Trail around the town’s historical sites and finest buildings, taking in places like the rare Georgian Bath House by the river. ‘There aren’t many left,’ Roger explains. ‘The idea was that you bathed in the cold and supposedly health-giving spring water, then went back upstairs to the room above the pool where a fire was blazing to have a cup of chocolate or something stronger, met friends, perhaps played cards, and maybe sometimes there were ladies involved too.’ Members of the society guide frequent walks around the trail for visitors and locals alike.
As its mayor, Councillor Norma Harrington loves the entire town, but when pushed she like so many others would name the riverside, especially the bridge and bandstand as her favourite spots. ‘We get tourists come here from all over to see the bridge. The walk by the riverside itself is lovely, and you can stroll under the bridge itself up to the bandstand where, when we have concerts, the area is heaving, rain or shine. But I love to see people using it at any time, the kids there after school with their mums, the ducks and swans on the river, people meeting friends there at the weekend... it’s just a beautiful place.’