Steve Dennis with a guide for a perfect day out in Middleham
First published on Thursday, February 2, 2012
If you seek the perfect example of the progressive present in harmony with the historic past, come to Middleham and look around you. And then walk through it.
Leave your car parked in the middle of town, a tiny town clinging to the hillside as a stamp cleaves to the envelope. If you stand at the cross at the top of the car park you can look to the right down Kirkgate to where Mark Johnston's empire flourishes, Kingsley House on the left and Warwick House on the right.
These days Warwick House is s to a small army of two-year-olds, but in its sepia-tinged previous life it was the base for Neville Crump, who trained three Grand National winners – Sheila's Cottage, Teal and Merryman – and was twice champion in the 1950s.
The other side of Middleham is dominated by the ruined castle in whose shadow sits Ben Haslam's yard. Chris Fairhurst trains across the way in Glasgow House Stables, from where James Croft trained the first four home in the 1822 St Leger.
Follow the road west towards the Low Moor, the road always climbing and twisting. On the right-hand side a cross made shapeless by time that marks the granting of Middleham's market charter by Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III, who would have given his kingdom for just one of Middleham's 500 horses) in 1479.
The Low Moor is the workbench of the town, but on this blue-skied and blustery afternoon it's dog-walkers who dominate.
Forge your own path over the moor between the two all-weather strips and the grass gallop upon which countless winners have been prepared, noting the wildlife conservation area between them where the skylarks build their vulnerable nests. Here you are literally walking in hoofprints, the horseshoe imprints of that morning's gallopers still clearly visible in the gravel and the grass.
On the left rises the dark bleak bulk of Braithwaite Moor, to the right the Low Moor falls away to the plateau of Wensleydale, the towns of Leyburn and Wensley two smudges of grey against the green. The River Ure wriggles its way along the bottom of the valley, a tangled skein of water that drains half of North Yorkshire.
Now and then a jet from nearby RAF Leeming fractures the silence, comes tooling lazily down Wensleydale, sunlight winking off the fuselage. Under the flight path is Johnston's third, newest and largest yard, the big US-style barns of Park Farm contrasting with the stonework of the walls that hem it round like fine lace.
Keep walking west, towards but never reaching what may well be the Height of Hazely, although with the wind making a fluttering flag of the map it's hard to be sure. At the highest point of the Low Moor is a memorial topped by a twisted horseshoe to one Brenda Selby, who died a few years ago at the depressingly young age of 48 and, according to the inscription, "who rode these moors for 30 years".
Away to the left, on the edge of Coverdale, is Manor House Stud, where Yorkshire's last Derby winner was bred. The dim-eyed Dante, prepared to perfection by Matthew Peacock despite the colt's incipient blindness, won the last of the wartime Classics at Newmarket in 1945. Tend instead to the right, where the footpaths lead through the low gorse and dogs run panting back and forth, and on the right-hand side where the Low Moor runs out is Spigot Lodge Stables.
Elaine Burke holds the licence here, but Spigot Lodge's heyday was in the 1970s and 80s when occupied by Sam Hall and then Chris Thornton. This was the outlet for the many fine horses owned by Guy Reed, whose shocking pink, yellow and black silks were carried by such as Derby fourth Shotgun, Warpath, Ebor winner Dakota and Apache.
Straight ahead, a sharp tarmacked incline winds over the last vestiges of the Low Moor, with Common Lane leading off it. This is the entry point to the High Moor, a name redolent of a wistful, brooding desolation. When the winter wind blows up here it can drive through like a locomotive, but today is calmer if not especially conducive to map-reading.
The drystone walls of Common Lane play host to a macabre gallery of death; the small velveteen bodies of moles hang twisting upon the barbed wire in several stages of decomposition, no doubt set there by some flint-hearted farmer as a warning to their burrowing brethren. It is unpleasant; press on quickly to the summit of Limekiln Hill where the High Moor gallops curve round.
A racecourse was laid out here in 1739, staged sport until 1873, and the modern gallops follow its antique contours. To the right, an unprepossessing and derelict stone barn is the only remaining evidence of one of the great eras in Middleham's history (judging by the sight of empty beer bottles littering the floor, its shelter still serves a purpose for the local youth).
This is the Rubbing House, where in the 19th century horses were rubbed down between workouts or between raceday heats when the in-vogue practice was not interval training but the Yorkshire Sweats, a short-lived method of conditioning.
The most famous occupant of the Rubbing House was The Flying Dutchman, trained by John Fobert at Spigot Lodge, who won the Derby and St Leger in 1849 and the Ascot Gold Cup the following year.
Notwithstanding that roll of honour, his finest hour came when victorious in the 1851 match race against Voltigeur, which drew unaccountable thousands to the Knavesmire, many walking for days to see the race and in so doing demonstrating a fervour for the sport we will never see again.
If you have the energy you might turn left at Penhill Farm and return to Middleham by a more circuitous route, or turn right and descend to Wensleydale via West Witton and thence homewards. But the sun is already flirting with the summit of the (possibly) Height of Hazely and discretion prompts a retracing of steps down Common Lane, past the grisly wind-cured moles.
Here is the walker's dilemma. The way is unclear on the map - do you now push on through the fields towards Tupgill Park, where in 1765 Isaac Cape reputedly became the first trainer based in Middleham, and then on to James Bethell's hilltop eyrie at Thorngill, skirting the strange labyrinths of tunnels that comprise tourist attraction The Forbidden Corner, or do you take the hard high road, less interesting but a surer and arguably shorter way home? Reader, I took the road, because my feet were hurting.
The road – quiet Coverham Lane – winds past Cotescue Park on the left and the ruins of Coverham Abbey on the right, tending upwards as it skirts the lower reaches of the Low Moor.
On the left-hand side of the road lies Pinker's Pond, its surface spangled with small birds and glinting like old silver plate in the dwindling light. Students of racing history may experience a frisson of recognition here – in 1962, at nearby Catterick, a horse named Pinker's Pond provided Willie Carson with his very first winner.
Behind Pinker's Pond is a path leading back up to the Low Moor and from there it is an easy walk to Middleham town centre, downhill all the way. By now you'll be needing a drink; I was.
The fire is lit in the White Swan, the lights are low, the murmur of conversation soothing and as studded with mention of horses and racing as a bun with currants. The local Black Sheep Ale is just the thing; rest and be thankful.
How to get there Middleham is on the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. From north or south the A1 is the road to ride, turning on to the A684 at Leeming Bar, taking the A6108 at Leyburn. Those arriving from the south may prefer to take the distinctly more picturesque A6108 from Ripon, easily accessible from the A1.
Parking In the centre of Middleham
Walk distance approximately eight miles, but it can be easily shortened. Length: roughly three hours, add an hour for comfort if you're planning to saunter
Difficulty 3 out of 5. If you can walk you'll be fine, although there are one or two breath-robbing hills
Refreshments none en route (take Kendal mint cake) but plenty of good pubs around the town square; the nearby Wensleydale Heifer in West Witton (wensleydaleheifer.co.uk) and Blue Lion in East Witton (thebluelion.co.uk) come recommended
Points of interest Middleham Castle, the Rubbing House, various stoneclad racing yards, the unmatchable scenery
Ordnance Survey Map OS Explorer 30 Yorkshire Dales Wensleydale & Swaledale
1. Stand at the cross at the top of the car park in Middleham, follow the road uphill and out of town.
2. On reaching the gate guarding the Low Moor, on the right-hand side of the road, trace your own path over the moor heading west, tending to the right-hand side (Wensleydale side).
3. At the far side of the Low Moor there is a T-junction with Spigot Lodge on the right arm of the T. Go straight on, up the steep hill, follow the road around to the left until turning sharp right up Common Lane (no sign evident).
4. Follow the rising Common Lane (disused quarry on right) until coming out by the Rubbing House and the High Moor gallops.
5. Retrace steps down Common Lane, turn right away from Spigot Lodge towards Agglethorpe (after about a quarter of a mile a signpost indicates a footpath to the left that leads to Brecongill and Ashgill, later turning right and reaching Coverham Lane).
6. Alternatively, follow the road to Agglethorpe, turn left at the three-way signpost and follow the farm track down to Coverham Lane, turning left for Middleham. Coverham Lane leads back to Middleham.
7. After Pinker's Pond on the left, climb back to the Low Moor, turn right and follow your nose back to the town centre.