Thirsk - There’s so much to love about the market town
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
With its cobbled charm, old-style cinema, great shops and restaurants as well as the James Herriot connections, Thirsk is a tourist dream at any time of the year, says Tony Greenway
Last May, the riders of the Tour de Yorkshire thundered through Thirsk. This year, the pretty North Yorkshire market town isn’t on the TdY route, which – if you ask us – means the organisers have missed a trick because Thirsk and its surroundings look lovely in spring. Actually, Thirsk looks lovely all the time. Maybe the race officials should consider an unofficial diversion.
Apart from anything else, it would bring in more tourists, who are the lifeblood of Thirsk. Not that the place is short of them, generally – and for that we can thank vet-turned-author James Herriot. As the world and his wife knows, Herriot (real name Alf Wight) worked in a surgery in the town which was the inspiration for his series of world-conquering books. In the 1970s, Wight’s/Herriot’s stories were turned into a film, All Creatures Great and Small, starring Simon Ward; and then a hit BBC teatime drama with Christopher Timothy. Now a popular Thirsk and Boroughbridge-set fly-on-the-wall Channel 5 documentary called The Yorkshire Vet – which follows vets Peter Wright (who knew and worked with Herriot) and Julian Norton – has given the Herriot brand an extra boost.
Peter is Thirsk-born and bred and, when we interviewed him a couple of years ago, admitted that he couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. ‘I tell all these young graduates that come here that Thirsk is the centre of the world,’ he said. ‘I used to say to Donald Sinclair (the inspiration for Herriot’s Siegfried Farnon character, played by Robert Hardy in the TV series): ‘Are you going anywhere on holiday, Mr Sinclair?’ And he’d say: ‘I don’t need to go anywhere! I have everything I want here!’ And he’s right. We have superb restaurants, fantastic pubs, fantastic sporting facilities and the countryside if you want to go out walking or horse-riding. Yorkshire is very diverse. But I think Thirsk is special.’
Paul O’Reilly – who lives with his wife and two daughters in a village a few miles from Thirsk – agrees. ‘We like it because it’s a small market town that’s managed to preserve its original centre and its history,’ he says. ‘It’s right in the middle of North Yorkshire and has some of the best scenery the county has to offer within easy reach.’
That’s true: but the town itself is achingly pretty, too. And there’s lots to do and see. There’s the cobbled market place (with markets on Saturday and Monday), The World of James Herriot Museum, the mix of shops and the vintage Ritz Cinema, run by volunteers. This is how film shows used to be
“The cinema is happy to be thought of as part of the fabric of Thirsk,’ says Marc Davies, one of the large group of volunteers that keeps the Ritz running. ‘We’ve been an important point, not just for allowing people to see films, but offering genuine local ownership.
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‘We love the fact people keep coming back: not just customers – volunteers, too. Thirsk is a friendly market town that is large enough to be diverse, but small enough to have community and to care. It gets a lot of passing trade due to its location, and many folk return again and again, just like at the cinema.’
For food and drink in the town, visitors are spoilt for choice, he says. ‘Our favourite cafe is Yorks of Thirsk which does superb breakfasts – for carnivores and veggies – while our favourite restaurant by far is Racha Thai, just down an alleyway next to the police station, serving authentic Thai food.’
Retail in market towns has struggled over the years; and Thirsk is no exception. ‘I think Thirsk hasn’t suffered as badly as some market towns, but it is hard for individual shops,’ admits Margaret Broadley, the Assistant Town Clerk. ‘The ones that seem to do well are the ones that appeal to tourists, such as the coffee shops, and the fish and chip shop (the White Rose Cafe) with the seating outside and the flower tubs.’ It must be doing something right. Last year, Thirsk made it into the Special Mention category in the Great British High Street awards.
Apart from the Yorkshire Vet, the town has scored other big PR coups recently with the Yarnbombers (a regular event where items of knitting suddenly appear all over town, including on one occasion a replica crocheted Spitfire) and a TV programme called The Heist. We had to Google that one, but it turns out to be a Sky One reality series broadcast last year from the people behind Channel 4’s Hunted. More than that you do not need to know – but it did the trick. ‘It was great for the area,’ says Margaret. ‘It showed some lovely shots of Thirsk, the weather was nice – and everything was looking so good. For a small town, we’ve got an awful lot going for us.’