Why Leyburn has become a welcome detour on a Yorkshire Dales trip
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You don’t have to be an artist or a writer to be moved by the North Yorkshire market town of Leyburn, says Tony Greenway.
Leyburn, in North Yorkshire, is both pretty and pretty special. Er... isn’t it? Local artist Lynn Ward, who has a studio in the town, sometimes forgets that. ‘But I think that’s because I’ve lived here all my life,’ she says. Well, fair enough. You can take a place for granted when you look at it day in and day out. But come on. Leyburn, a cobbled market town sitting on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, surrounded by dramatic countryside, is undoubtedly picturesque, and a big draw for ramblers and tourists. It also has a mix of quaint and quirky shops (one of them is even called Quaint & Quirky), decent pubs and good cafes.
Fancy a Costa coffee? Well, bad luck, because you won’t find one here. There are no high street chains (well, apart from the Co-op), just a string of quality independents and that makes a rather refreshing change. It helps Leyburn stand apart, somehow. ‘I do get people coming into my studio and telling me how nice they think Leyburn is and how friendly the people are,’ says Lynn, who also plays cornet in Leyburn Band. ‘When you hear that, it makes you appreciate your surroundings a lot more.’
Visiting Leyburn in late July with Betsy, my 10-year-old daughter, was like being whisked back in time because it was the 10th anniversary of the town’s 1940s Weekend. If truth be told, I’d forgotten the event was on and only remembered when I pulled up in the car park and saw Winston Churchill talking animatedly to an American GI. So I was expecting to see maybe a few people dressed in military uniforms and 1940s fashions but practically everyone wore some kind of vintage gear.
There were women wearing high-waist tops, knee-length A-line skirts, victory roll hairstyles, fake fur and drawn-on stocking seams and men with slicked back hair dressed in double-breasted pin-striped suits (parts of the market place looked like a Jacob Rees-Mogg fan club). There were infantrymen, RAF officers, naval types and members of the Home Guard and French resistance. There was even, honestly, someone dressed as a German officer, which was either extremely brave or foolishly naive. But then Leyburn locals don’t do things by halves.
Entrepreneur Hannah Russell organises the 1940s Weekend through her company, Hannah Russell Events. She’s a busy woman because she also runs Believe It Yorkshire, an organisation which motivates, inspires and coaches small and large businesses and she’s the author of the Little Alf series of children’s books, about the adventures of her miniature Shetland pony.
In July she opened a shop in Leyburn – her first anywhere – selling a range of Little Alf merchandise, from books and clothes to toys, mugs and bunting and this October, Little Brown Book Group – who also publish an author called JK Rowling – will be releasing Hannah’s autobiography called Little Alf: The True Story of the Pint-sized Pony Who Found His Forever Home (‘I know,’ says Hannah. ‘It’s a bit of a gobful’). And she’s still only 20.
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So what’s it like to do business here? ‘For me, it’s great to have a base in Leyburn and to work with other organisations and businesses,’ says Hannah. ‘I’d like to have more Little Alf shops eventually, in different locations around the Yorkshire Dales. But Leyburn was definitely my first port of call. The Tour de Yorkshire really put Leyburn on the map (as far as cycling is concerned) and has had a long-lasting effect on the town. We get lots of cyclists now. It’s a real tourist area through the summer months, the car park is constantly busy and all the campsites are fully booked. It’s a niche, small market town – and it’s so nice to be part of the community.’
Next year, the ever-enterprising Hannah is planning to open a tourist trail to attract people who know and love the Little Alf brand. ‘The idea is that the trail will start from the shop and go around the Yorkshire Dales,’ she says. ‘There’ll be a trail package with a map and a full programme and a Little Alf teddy bear they can take with them. On the way they’ll see different sights like Aysgarth Falls and Berry’s Farm Shop and the Wensleydale Creamery.’
Of course, there’s no point in living in a place that doesn’t have heart. Luckily, Leyburn has lots of it. In fact, there’s a real sense of community in the town, says Lynn Ward. Betsy and I immediately see what she means when we go for lunch in KTea’s Tearooms on the marketplace which has an Alice in Wonderland-style theme and an amazing range of bespoke cakes. The waitresses are chatty, friendly and on the ball when it comes to taking our order (Yorkshire rarebit, made with cheddar from the Wensleydale Creamery, since you ask), even though the place is full to bursting. ‘It gets really busy in here during 1940s weekend,’ says one, who has plainly got into the 1940s spirit with an Ava Gardner hairstyle to match her bright red lipstick and red polka dot vintage dress. But she keeps calm and carries on.
Then, later, over in the Wobbly Dog gift shop and sweetshop, Betsy can’t make up her mind whether to have a bag of lemon sherbets or a bag of strawberry sherbets. Well, being 10 can be tough sometimes. ‘That’s OK,’ says the owner obligingly. ‘I’ll do you a mixture.’ Little things, maybe but they make a big difference. We would – and will – go back to both places next time we’re in town.
Leyburn is an inspirational place, says Lynn Ward, and particularly if you’re an artist with an eye for an arresting view. ‘Many people like to walk up to the Leyburn Shawl, and take in the view up Wensleydale towards Penhill,’ she says. ‘It’s where Mary Queen of Scots is supposed to have dropped her shawl – hence the name. I’ve painted that view lots of times.’
Hannah Russell, meanwhile, channels her love for Leyburn into her writing. ‘In all my Little Alf books I mention Penhill, dry stone walls, unmarked roads, and all the wildlife around here,’ she says. ‘And in my Christmas book published last year, I mentioned the town’s choir groups, the Christmas fair and market. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Everything I see in Leyburn inspires me.’