Have you ever had a flutter on who might win the Grand National or The Derby? If you have, there’s a very good chance that the horse you fancied might have trained at Middleham.
Middleham’s a small town in Wensleydale of 800 or so inhabitants. You’ll notice its fine castle (Richard III stayed here) even before you get there.
And when you arrive, you’re as likely to see – no, you’re likelier to see – horses rather than pedestrians. The principal industry of this little place, since about 1730, is training horses. There are some 15 training establishments in town, and each of them may have up to 150 horses or more, aiming to be among the next generation of racehorses.
Every day clusters of riders take their charges up onto The Gallops to exercise and train them. We citizens who come to the area to walk and take in the views have to play second fiddle, at least during morning exercises.
Who cares? On Thursday, we were happy to share the views and skyscapes with such magnificent beasts as we strode across the moorland.
Later on, we walked through Coverdale, past Tupgill, upwards through the tiny hamlet of Caldbergh along wild and little-frequented tracks. Then it was sheep who were obliged to share their pastureland with us. They were sure we’d have mangel-wurzels to offer them and hurried towards us. We hadn’t. They were unimpressed.
We left them to it. We had a walk to finish, preferably before lunchtime. And we rather hoped for something more appetising to eat than mangel-wurzels.
This was a fine day for a walk, and a fine day to have a few history lessons thrown in
This is what we did. Here’s our starting point at East Witton, about 15 miles from home. It’s a lovely small village of about 250 people, where most of the houses were built in the early 19th century round the extensive village green.
We passed through fields with views across the Dales. We walked along a green lane, through woods, and eventually reached a wooded gorge through which the River Cover runs, and where we crossed over the charming stone bridge known as the Hullo Bridge. It was quite a climb up the hill on the other side, and we were hoping for glimpses of Braithwaite Hall. Too many trees in full leaf. We hardly glimpsed it.
It’s built on the site of a grange belonging to Jervaulx Abbey. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it continued as a sheep farm, as it had been under the monks. This is an area where the monks of both Jervaulx and Fountains Abbey extended their influence widely: enormous numbers of sheepall over the region were managed from local granges where the lay brothers who cared for them lived.
We were nearly in Middleham now. This is above all a horsey town. The monks of Jervaulx bred horses, and brought them to the Moor to exercise them. When the monks eventually went, the horses remained, as did the training tradition . Middleham these days is home to around 15 racehorse trainers and 500 horses, yet it’s a small town of hardly more than 820 people. It was too late for us to see the horses out on the Gallops this morning, so instead the first thing we saw was the castle, which dates back to 1190 and was the stronghold of the powerful Neville family from the 14th century. Richard Plantagenet, later Richard III was sent here as a young man to be trained in arms by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, his cousin.
Warwick had the bad habit of changing sides throughout the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) depending on whether the Yorkists or Lancastrians had the upper hand. Eventually he came to a bad end when he was killed by the Yorkist King Edward IV and his younger brother Richard. Edward gave Middleham Castle, and much else to Richard who lived there with his wife, virtually ruling the North of England, for 11 years. When Edward died, Richard seized the throne and reigned for only 2 years before dying in August 1485 in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire. And there his body remained for 517 years, before being exhumed from a car park in Leicester in 2012.
For us, Middleham was the site for a rather good picnic, followed by a visit to a teashop for an indifferent cup of tea, and even more indifferent cake. But the calories were useful. There were stiles to cross into fields deep in cut grass, waiting to dry off into hay: a fine walled track Straight Lane – to walk along before reaching the River Cover, languidly passing over bleached white stones on its way to meet the River Ure. We briefly touched the road once more as we passed Coverbridge Inn. This dates from 1684, and was owned by the same family – the Towlers – till 1930. Local legend has it that when the monks of Jervaulx were forced to disband in 1537 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, they shared their secret recipe for Wensleydale cheese with the Towlers. We shall never know.
A final walk along woodland paths, open farmland, fields enclosed by characterful drystone walling and we were back in East Witton. A grand day.