There were once plans to link it to the sea, but the attractive town of Bedale remains a bustling backwater with some of the region’s most bizarre buildings. Echo Memories sucks in some of its strange history

AT first glance, Bedale is an attractive little town of cobbles, cars and an awkward crossroads where plenty of cross words have been spluttered over the years.

But aside from the wide Yorkshire main street, lined with fine Georgian townhouses and punctuated by a tall market cross in the middle and a powerful church tower at the end, there are some remarkable backwater curios: a landlocked harbour, a house for leeches, and an ancient murderercum- rapist who escaped on a rudimentary flying machine which he strapped to his waist.

The crossroads were probably the making of Bedale as a market town, and markets are still spread out on the cobbles every Tuesday, augmented by a large car boot sale on Bedale Hall park every summer Saturday.

The hall is in the north end of Bedale, which is the town’s old heart where St Gregory’s Church incorporates a 9th Century Saxon place of worship.

St Gregory’s is surprisingly light and airy once you pass through its forbidding and fortified tower, which was built around 1340 as a place of sanctuary from marauding Scots. You can still see the channels – most unusual for a church – down which the portcullis slid to keep the raiders from the door.

One of St Gregory’s treasures is a 10th Century carving that tells the Weland story, a myth probably of pagan origin that is known across northern Europe. Weland was a master craftsman captured by King Nithad who sliced his hamstrings so he couldn’t run away and set him to work on an island surrounded by a fast flowing river.

There Weland fashioned fabulous luxury items for the king out of gold and silver.

Weland was also skilled at revenge. When the king’s two sons visited, Weland murdered them, scooped out their brains and set their empty skulls in gold as drinking vessels which he presented to Nithad for his delight.

Then the king’s daughter, Beaduhild, came calling to get a precious gold ring fixed. Weland drugged her, raped her and impregnated her before leaving on a winged flying machine he had designed to attach to his belt.

This violent little story – which is only commemorated in two other churches in the country – was important to Christians and pagans alike, teaching them of the dangers of greed, of the importance of patience and of how good will eventually triumph over evil.


Another of St Gregory’s treasures is the alabaster figure of Sir Bryan FitzAlan who rests his feet on a lion next to his titchy first wife Muriel, who rests her feet on a dog. Sir Bryan was the lord of the manor who lived in the castle over the road. He was a close friend of Edward I (1272-1307) who made him Custodian of Scotland.

His castle evolved into Bedale Hall, a grand Georgian building that turns its back on the town centre and looks out over its parkland. It was the home of the Peirse family, whose Henry was MP for Northallerton for 50 years until his death in 1824.

Henry seems to have been in permanent opposition in the House of Commons, so his political career did not progress very far. As a racehorse owner, he was far more successful, particularly in the St Leger Stakes at Doncaster, the oldest of the classic races.

His horse Ebor won in 1817, and the following year he owned the first four home, including the winner Reveller.

Going for three consecutive victories in 1819, his Wrangler ended up in a fearful wrangle. The race was won by a horse called Antonio but a re-run was ordered.

Antonio didn’t take part and Henry’s Wrangler romped home, but for some unfathomable reason, Antonio was awarded first place.

ONE of the last aristocrats of this family to live in Bedale Hall was the splendidly named Sir Henry Monson de la Poer Beresford-Peirse, Bart, in the 1890s. Since 1951, the hall has been owned by the local authority and offers a very grand setting for weddings and exhibitions.

But it is the snickleways off the main street that are the most interesting part of Bedale.

A wander west down The Wynd, for instance, brings us to Wycar, a triangular green with a 19th Century pumphouse and one of the oldest bowling clubs in the country.

This peculiar name, Wycar, apparently comes from an Old English word “wic”, meaning “dwelling”, and there is indeed one very curious dwelling overlooking the green. It has a huge coat-ofarms, a sturdy wooden front door, Far Eastern arches and an open, turbaned tower. Now a private home, it was once a grammar school.

Bedale’s first grammar school was founded in 1588 with an endowment of £7 11s 4d from Queen Elizabeth I. To celebrate its 500th anniversary, it was rebuilt in 1888, a characterful mixture of a Victorian Gothic architect designing a traditional Tudor building.

More intrigue lies in the snickleways to the east. Emgate, for example, tumbles off the market place down to Bedale Beck.

It is crammed with low houses and back yard workshops where weaving, dyeing, cloth fulling and tanning took place.

Emgate takes you down to the beck. The town seems to continue on the other side of the beck, but this is really Aiskew, a community as distinct as Gateshead is from Newcastle. However, Aiskew seems to live permanently in Bedale’s shadow – when the Wensleydale Railway was built along the Aiskew bank of the beck in 1855, it came to a halt at a station called Bedale.

On the beckside just beneath the station is the Leech House, an 18th Century brick hut that has been restored by volunteers. It is believed the beck was diverted to run through the Leech House where, in some form of permeable containers, were kept leeches.

Leeches have been used medicinally for more than 4,000 years, but the golden age of leeches was the middle of the 19th Century when millions were employed every year around the world sucking diseased blood out of ailing humans. They were even used to suck the soarness out of throats, being placed deep inside the mouth in a leech glass.

Unfortunately, several would slither down the oesophagus into the stomach, which cannot have made the cold-stricken patient feel any better.

The apothecaries, druggists and doctors of Bedale must have fully embraced the latest leech technology to require such a house in which to keep their suckers fresh, but hungry for blood.

Enthusiasm for this particular branch of medical practice faded as the 19th Century drew to a close.

A short stroll along the gently flowing beck from the Leech House brings the visitor to Bedale Harbour.

Here in 1767 – right at the height of the canalmania that was sweeping the country in the pre-railway age – a canal basin was dug to create a deep-water port big enough to berth four Humber keels. It was the start of a £25,000 canal that was planned to run roughly four miles through a lock to the River Swale near Leeming. From there, a boat from Bedale would be able to paddle down to York, on to Hull and out to sea and the wide, wide world beyond.

After a couple of years of digging, the money dried up.

Bedale was left an attractive backwater, the mooring rings cemented into the harbour wall never used to tie up a boat.

And so to today’s transport difficulties: the cross words at the crossroads in the town centre. A bypass is planned to go around Bedale, but the cost has risen from £25m to £39m and there are fears that it, too, will be scuppered by a lack of money.

Two-hundred-and-fifty years after the canal plan was sunk, Bedale, for all its charms, won’t want to be left high and dry again.