For a small working-class Yorkshire town, Thirsk has got plenty to say for itself. With a history that dates back to 600BC and a strong social past, this is a town steeped in tradition that uses just that to thrive in the modern world. Immediately, Thirsk’s cobbled appearance epitomises an outsider’s image of a Yorkshire market town, and it takes little exploring to exploit those credentials.
Situated in between the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorks Moors provides a backdrop that confirms preconceptions and makes for a great base to head into the miles of open countryside on either side. The brief journeys there are only slightly shorter than that to or from York, a quick 29 miles drive away that takes an hour on the 30X bus or just 20 minutes on the direct train.
The area is referred to as Herriot Country, due to the renowned vet and celebrated author James Herriot, who lived and worked in Thirsk from the 1940s. His first veterinary practice here was at 23 Kirkgate and now this address has been restored as The World of James Herriot, a visitor attraction to his life, work, books and tv series All Creatures Great and Small.
Across the road is Thirsk Museum, a cute free exploration into the town’s past. As well as telling local stories through the generations, it commemorates Thomas Lord, who was born in this very house in 1755 and went on to be the founder of the world-famous Lord’s cricket ground in London.
Only a few steps away on the same street, things are brought back up to date by Zillah Bell Contemporary Art, a great gallery of fine art by local, national and international artists. The newer upper gallery pays homage to Norman Ackroyd CBE RA, housing the largest collection of the acclaimed printmakers’ works.
Continuing the cultural discoveries, Ritz Cinema is another entertainment hotspot merging the present with the past. This is a charming 1912 picture house that plays modern big screen movies in its 200 seater atmospheric theatre.
Next, head a little out of town to Thirsk’s Birds of Prey Centre, where you can learn about the dozens of species kept here and be thrilled by masterful displays of falconry. Eagles, falcons, hawks, kites, vultures and owls swoop and dive in a mesmerising visit that is safe and fun for all the family.
Of course, one entertainment venue that attracts many folk to Thirsk is its racecourse. Having hosted horse racing in the town for over 200 years, the current course opened in 1923 and remains a regular part of the racing calendar from April to September.
Other nearby events have also brought in the revellers in recent years, in particular a music festival just out of town at Baldersby Park in Topcliffe. Deer Shed is a three day summer extravaganza in a beautiful setting that regularly wins awards for the best family music festival, somehow combining entertainment for the kids without diluting what is always a seriously good line up for the grown- ups.
Back in the centre, as signified by the clock tower rising out of Thirsk’s market square, there are a pleasing selection of shops all serving a purpose for the local community. There’s The Greengrocer, an excellent and enjoyable fruit and veggie, there are quality butchers Johnson’s and H Lee, there are specialist stores of gifts, materials, clothes, books, antiques, flowers and more, plus on a Monday and a Saturday the open air market comes to town.
For a bite to eat and a liquid lunch, you can easily find a English caff here in the daytime; try Bliss Café or Upstairs Downstairs for coffees and cakes or teas and sarnies respectively. And into the evening, Thirsk ventures into further flung cuisines, at the likes of Racha Thai and Fantinos Italian. Though pubs remain reassuringly local, serving Yorkshire ales and traditional atmospheres at Little Three in town and at The Bay Horse in Rainton. Let’s drink to Thirsk.