When I first moved to England, I don’t think I had even heard of Yorkshire. Then I met this guy at university and long story short and 30 years later I’ve now been to Yorkshire more often than any other part of the world. My in-laws still live there, and we visit several times a year, wherever in the world we happen to live.
Although at first I thought it was rather bleak, cold and too rough to call it pretty, over the decades I have taken Yorkshire into my heart and come to know some great historical sights and truly spectacular natural backdrops – such as Aysgarth Falls. I have walked hundreds of miles across the Yorkshire Dales, visiting beautiful towns and countless villages, hamlets and small market towns – all of which are worth seeing and all of which tend to have a great little pub.
There are some really lovely and very charming market towns in the four counties of Yorkshire, which consist of York, West Yorkshire, East Riding and North Yorkshire.
Here are some of my favorite little places, all of which I can highly recommend.
Richmond is a picture-perfect market town in the Yorkshire Dales, complete with a Norman Castle dating back to 1071. Here you’ll see small cobbled streets, cute cottages nestled alongside gorgeous Georgian architecture, and the largest cobbled market square in England. Every Wednesday and Saturday, the beautiful square is filled with stalls and comes alive. But even when the market isn’t on, Richmond offers wonderful shopping with lots of small individual shops and so many cafes that you have to stop a few times. Afterwards, visit the Friary Gardens with their 15th-century clock tower, and the somewhat eclectic Richmondshire Museum, which has exhibits from the Stone Age to partial sets of the famous TV series All creatures great and small.
Pro tip: Check out what’s playing at the movies when you’re in Richmond. As it is located in an old train station, you can also take a nice walk along the River Swale just behind it. The river meanders through most of North Yorkshire, with rapids and falls along its route.
Knaresborough, with its arched viaduct over the River Nidd and riverside cafes, is so charming it hurts. Picture-perfect with its stone cottages, river reflections, cobbled streets and bustling town centre, this is a wonderful place to see that Yorkshire is anything but gloomy. Records claim that friendly Knaresborough’s daily market has been running since 1206, making it the longest continuously running market in the entire country. A ruined fortress presides over the town, dating back to the 12th century. Nidd offers great walks along the river in both directions and you can continue to Mother Shipton’s Cave, the hiding place of Britain’s most famous prophetess. If you’re lucky, you’ll even see an old-fashioned steam train whizzing over the viaduct during your ride.
Pro tip: For a lovely stay close to the water, book yourself into Teardrop Cottage, with views over the viaduct, Nidd Gorge and the castle.
Hawes is one of my favorite towns in the area because of its busy high street and the gurgling River Ure lined with old stone cottages. Between the many tea shops offering very decent afternoon cream teas and hot tea cakes – with good Yorkshire tea in a big pot – and the small antique shops, there is always something that follows me home. Market day here, England’s highest market town, is on Tuesdays when the main street is filled with stalls. Once upon a time, not so long ago, farmers brought their cows and sheep here. Then they closed the streets, but now they have a dedicated auction hall a little way away. Hawes is best known for Wensleydale cheese. If you’ve ever seen Wallace and Gromit, the fabulously funny clay animation set in Yorkshire, you’ll have heard of Wensleydale cheese. If not, pop into Wensleydale Creamery for a taste.
Pro tip: Should you miss the market, head to Hawes Market House, where there is usually an indoor market, concert or exhibition of some kind.
This is the hometown of my parents-in-law. Not the prettiest, admittedly, but it is the largest market town in Wensleydale. People come to Leyburn from far and wide for the Friday market, stocking up on food and other goodies. Leyburn is a small town which even has a small tourist office, a couple of good supermarkets in the town square, a decent fish and chip shop and three or four pubs. There are even a couple of charity shops. One of them, St. Theresa’s Hospice, always has a large selection of used books upstairs. Leyburn is a great base for exploring nearby Middleham, with its castle which was the childhood home of King Richard III. You can also take in Forbidden Corner, a unique park filled with follies that delight young and old, and the beautiful Bolton Castle. In addition, there are countless great trips that range from more challenging hill climbs to easier river trips.
Pro tip: When my in-laws’ guest bedroom is already occupied, I tend to stay in this lovely little cottage just off the square. You get the whole property to yourself and are steps away from everything, yet on a quiet street.
Whitby is a charming town on the estuary of the Esk on the North Sea. Famous for its fish and chips and the Gothic ruins of Whitby Cathedral on the cliffs opposite the town – which inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula — this is also a market town with several opportunities for good shopping opportunities. On various days of the week, weather permitting, you’ll find the local farmer’s market opening outdoors in the Market Square. While at Abbey Wharf, you’ll find an indoor arts and crafts market. On Sundays you usually have several stalls and car boot sales in and around Whitby. But even without the markets, Whitby is a great place to visit, with wonderful beaches nearby, stunning views from the old cathedral ruins and a bustling town center – which gets very busy in summer and weekends and is best explored during the week.
Pro tip: This is where you can eat seriously good fish and chips, the traditional seafood in England. The most famous restaurants are probably Trenchers of Whitby or Hadleys Fish Restaurant. Personally, I prefer to queue at the Magpie Cafe and then take my food to a bench overlooking the sea and eat there, getting my fingers sticky.
York may not be a small market town, but it is definitely full of charm. York warrants inclusion in this list for its many different markets, ranging from antique markets, farmers markets, Christmas markets and more. In the historic streets of the Shambles you will find a daily market selling everything from food to arts and crafts and great souvenirs. Close to the lovely York Minster you will find the many antique shops. While on Parliament Street and St. Sampson’s Square, where the Christmas market takes place during the festive season, you’ll find daily food trucks and stalls selling everything from fresh cinnamon rolls to grilled sausages and pies.
Pro tip: When you’re in York – or Harrogate or Northallerton – you must pop into Betty’s Tea Rooms for great food, cakes, coffee and tea. Betty’s is a Yorkshire institution and nothing beats their cinnamon toast, scones with cream and jam or toasted tea cakes. That said, their breakfasts are also very good.
This small town lies at the confluence of two rivers, the Laver and the Skell, both tributaries of the Ure which flows through Hawes. Ripon is actually a town, one of England’s smallest, and has endless charm. The poet Wilfred Owen came here and the writer Daniel Defoe was enchanted by it, reportedly saying: “Ripon is a very neat, pleasant, well-built town, and has not only a pleasant situation on rising ground between two rivers, but the market-place is the finest and most beautiful to be seen of its kind in England.” And yes, the Thursday market, which has taken place here since the early 13th century, is beautiful. It is surrounded by beautiful architecture, including half-timbered houses marked with an obelisk. After shopping for fresh groceries, head to the cathedral where Lewis Carroll, av Alice in Wonderland fame, was canon. Look out for the many strange and beautiful carvings along the chancel.
Pro tip: Don’t miss out on visiting Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monastery, which was founded in 1132 by Benedictine monks, is unfortunately now in ruins. But it is set in the glorious grounds of Studley Royal Water Garden, a National Trust property, and the whole place is perfect for a walk along the Skell and a picnic on the banks.