Thirsk sits snuggled in North Yorkshire, in the heart of what the tourist board is anxious to call Herriot Country. It’s an old-fashioned market town built around an imposing square and has a population of 4500 which doubles when the neighbouring villages of Sowerby and Carlton Miniott are included. And triples when the races are in town.
The Yorkshire Dales are to the west, the North York Moors are to the east and a whole lot of pubs and sheep are in between. It is the birthplace of Thomas Lord (he of the cricket ground), was mentioned in the Doomsday Book and is home to a 90-year-old Ritz cinema and a 500-year-old church. Most famously these days it was the inspiration for the town of Darrowby in the books of James Herriot. Market Square, where the main business of the town has been carried out since early medieval times, is reminiscent of French town squares – or Kelso if you are fortunate enough to have had the pleasure. On busy days – race days, market days or the entire summer – you take your life in your hands trying to cross the square such is the volume and pedestrian-hating nature of the traffic. However the quest is worth it if you can find a table outside a pub and watch the world go by.
As well as Mr Lord and Mr Herriot, Thirsk was home to coiner and murderer Thomas Busby, whose ghost was thought to haunt the Busby Stoop Inn at the crossroads where he was gibbeted for his crimes. For more than 20 years no-one would sit in the chair that now hangs in a local museum kitchen for fear of the dreadful fate said to await anyone who braves Busby’s curse. There is something similar at Ye Olde Three Tuns where one seat bears the inscription “Barry’s Chair” and some dreadful fate probably befalls anyone else who sits in it.
Where To Eat
An oasis amidst the culinary desert of North Yorkshire is Charles Bistro, an elegant little establishment half-hidden down Bakers Alley, just off the main square. Surprisingly and gratifyingly, this is perhaps the only establishment in the whole county which doesn’t offer every dish served in a big foxtrot-oscar Yorkshire pudding. Praise the lord. Instead they serve up food as the rest of the world agrees to be appropriate – and very tasty it is too. The Plumbers would recommend the Beef Wellington or the fillet steak with a pernod and escargot sauce. Add to this an excellent cheeseboard and you can’t go too far wrong. The Thirsk tartlets looked very appetising too but we didn’t indulge.
Elsewhere in Thirsk you will find a host of pubs in and around Market Square offering ‘traditional pub grub’. It really doesn’t matter which you opt for because it will all be the same. Gird your loins, kiss your bottom goodbye and choose from steak pie, lasagne, Cumberland sausage or fish and chips – each and all served in the obligatory foxtrot-oscar pudding. If the whole world is a circus then eating out in Yorkshire is the lion-tamer’s pants.
Yet even amidst the desert there is a dry spot and special mention must be made of the Saddle Room Buffet at Thirsk Racecourse. If you like your food to be cold, insipid and preferably orange then this is the place for you. Possibly the only place in the western world to serve orange steak pie. We would recommend starvation as a viable alternative.
Where To Drink
There is no shortage of public houses in Thirsk, no less than seven of them dotted around the cobbled Market Square in the heart of the town. There you will find The Golden Fleece, The Black Bull, The Three Tuns, The Black Lion, The Blacksmiths Arms, The Royal and The Darrowby Inn. Drink your way round that lot and the square will be going round and round. Of the above, we’d recommend the Darrowby and the Black Bull but each to his own. If you don’t like one, try another. In fact try another one anyway.
Ye Olde Three Tuns is on Finkle Street, just off the square and if you are happy to put up with a bit of smoke and run the risk of depression on account of the darkness then there is a decent selection of ales. The Cross Keys in Kirkgate doesn’t serve food so that’s a definite plus given the standard elsewhere. It looks a bit grotty but the beer is well-looked after.
Where To Stay
Well we stayed in York and travelled in for the day so we can’t make a proper judgement on any of Thirsk’s hotels. However the fact that we stayed out of town is a reflection on the number, if not the standard, of places to stay here. That being said, The Three Tuns and The Golden Fleece look fine and there are a number of B&Bs. Out of town there are country inns such as the Nag’s Head at Pickhill or The Forresters Arms at Kilburn.
What To Avoid
If it is at all possible, avoid the entire township of Thirsk on days when rampaging Geordies and Mackems come to town for the racing. These, lest you have any doubt, are young gentlemen from the cities of Newcastle and Sunderland respectively, identifiable by designer clothing, aggressive demeanour, short foreheads and being absolutely bladdered. They will almost certainly be shouting to each other at the top of their voices and challenging passing children to fights. They will be using the language of vocabulary-challenged troopers and generally being as much of a pain in the neck to everyone else as they can manage before urinating where they stand and passing out.
The Geordies and Mackems are no doubt fine people, the salt of the Earth, when alone or with their womenfolk, but when in packs they are outstanding candidates for extradition to the colonies. Spend too much time in their company (around two minutes in the Black Bull should do it) and you find yourself turning into the kind of person who wants to read the Daily Mail, drive a Nissan Micra, bring back capital punishment and thinks a spell in the army would do Geordies the world of good.
Well, we don’t know if you could exactly call it cultural but the Bearded Lady of Thirsk is a must-see for every visitor. This may prove difficult during particularly busy periods for the North of England pornography business or in the run-up to Christmas but the effort should prove worthwhile. On Thursdays around 1.00 she can usually be found at the bus stop near Tesco on Station Road. Nary a finer beard has been seen on the face of any lady since Uncle Albert Trotter had the HRT. If they were alive today, Barnum and Bailey would be at her door waving vast wads of folding money and then sitting back to count the profits.
From the sublime to the veterinarian. Thirsk’s main tourist attraction is The World of James Herriot in Kirkgate, a recreation of the 1940s and 50s animal husbandry surgery that housed Alf Wight, author of the eponymous vet. Thirsk was the Darrowby of the books, films and long-running TV series and the author lived and worked in this house. They’ve clearly spent a lot of time, money and effort on getting this place right and it seems to have paid off. If you once spent Sunday evenings watching Christopher Timothy et al shoving their hands up cows’ derrieres then this should prove an interesting hour or so. Apart from the restored living quarters, there are exhibits about the life of Alf Wight, TV sets and a veterinary museum. You even get the chance to shove your hands up a cow’s arse, just like Peter Davison.
National Express have direct services between Thirsk and London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cambridge, Leeds, Nottingham, Hull and other destinations. Full details and tickets from Thirsk Travel Centre or via the National Express website. ARRIVA provide train services to Northallerton, Middlesbrough, Darlington, York and beyond with connections to GNER and Virgin Cross country services at York and Darlington.
Teesside Airport (MME) is about 30 minutes drive from Thirsk with scheduled services to Amsterdam and London amongst other destinations. A direct train service connects with Manchester airport and Leeds – Bradford Airport is about 1 hours drive.
Getting To The Course
Getting the train to Thirsk Station may seem like a good idea but you should be warned that it is misleadingly named. The station actually sits in the middle of nowhere (or Carlton Miniott as it is known) about a mile from the racecourse and a mile and a half from the town of Thirsk. It is not too much of a hardship on a dry day but a taxi is a better option when it is raining or on the windy road back from the pub. Thirsk(ish) station sits on the main York-Newcastle line and that brings the mixed blessings of easy travel and drunken Geordies. Twenty minutes will get you here from York and a further 45 minutes from the Toon. There is plenty of parking in Thirsk so taking the car is definitely an option. There’s free parking in town (behind the Kirkgate) and the course is only a short walk away.
About The Course
Thirsk is a left-handed oval track about a mile and a quarter long joining the six furlong straight about half a mile from the finish. The track is undulating and the turns tight so it makes for interesting racing when Jamie Spencer is around. There are something like 14 meetings per season with a liberal sprinkling of evenings for those who have to work for a living.
What To Wear
There are two camps here really. The members’ enclosure operates a strict dress code where males are expected to wear a jacket and tie. Ties can be purchased in situ by the forgetful or affluent. Presumably, this effort is well rewarded by the accompaniment of some decent food. On the occasion of the Midnight Plumbers’ visit, not a tie was to be had between the four of them so off to the plebs area they had to go.
In the Tattersalls area, things are much more informal with the only noticeable dress code being the one operated by the Geordie and Mackem brigade. The uniform in question being the T-shirt. Climate would not seem to be a factor in this matter.
The Travel Guide recommends: Iain’s Domestic Services, Rosedene, Knayton, Thirsk, North Yorkshire YO7 4AZ Tel: 01845 537181.