A 14th Century Bolton Abbey monk, returning today to stand outside Holy Trinity Church at the north end of Skipton High Street, would be greeted with a scene not entirely unfamiliar. The buildings may have changed in design, and cattle and sheep no longer roam the street. However, market stalls still spread out in lines down both sides of this main thoroughfare and on into Sheep Street, as they most certainly have since the poet Thomas Gray made his visit in 1762. They probably did much the same in 1300 when the monks were rebuilding the church. For Skipton is an ancient market town, well known to centuries of people as a gateway to the Yorkshire Dales.
Today, the brightly coloured stalls are present four times per week, pitched on wide cobbled areas called setts, sandwiched between the pavements in front of the High Street shops and the busy main road. A wide variety of goods are there to tempt locals and tourists. Plants, flowers, electrical goods, jewellery, pictures, sportswear, china, rugs and books sit alongside stalls where local farmers sell their eggs, fresh meat and fish, cheese, fruit and vegetables.
One cannot help being drawn into the cheerful bustle and friendly banter of the traders as they stand clutching mugs of soup with hands swathed in fingerless gloves, money belts fastened around their waists, the collars of their fleece jackets turned up against the cold wind. The shouts of ‘all at half-price’, ‘two for the price of one’ and ‘best bananas you’ll see all week luv’, follow you like some ritual chant, vying to be heard above the noise of the traffic. Through it all, the chiming of the church bell brings a timeless quality to the scene.
My favourite stall is the Lawson family’s cheese stall. Such is its popularity that Saturdays see two stalls, one each side of the road, the green and white striped canopies beckoning from a distance. Few can pass by without being tempted by the enormous variety of cheeses on display or the mountain of rich, homemade, mouth-watering fruitcake.
Walking along the stalls exposes one to snatches of history which enhances, rather than distracts from, the market. The Black Horse Pub, situated just below the church, is a good example. An old coaching inn, it has a large stone mounting block outside the courtyard entrance and a plaque stating that it was once a Royal Mews, when Richard III was Lord of the Castle.
Further down the street other plaques indicate sites on which once stood the Bull Baiting Stone, Pillory, Market Cross and Stocks, whilst intriguingly named alleyways, such as Bay Horse Yard and Hallam’s Yard, punctuate the buildings, leaving the passer-by with unanswered questions.
Finishing back at the north end, the statue of Sir Mathew Wilson Baronet gazes down at the benches where cloth-capped locals sit alongside weary tourists, their feet surrounded by bags containing the prizes of their foray into this splendid and enchanting market.