Middleham, A Champion Place
David McVey is in the North Yorkshire town where horses and heritage combine.
MIDDLEHAM is a small, stone-built town in North Yorkshire, on the south bank of the River Ure in lower Wensleydale. Here, the Dales start to calm down before the Vale of Mowbray and the A1 corridor.
It’s a historic place that echoes with memories of kings, Laurence Olivier
(sort of), battles long ago, Wallace and Gromit . . . and Dante. But not the Dante you’re thinking of, if you’re a mediaeval scholar.
We recently stayed in a small hotel overlooking Middleham’s cobbled square. Like everyone else in the town, we got a very special wake-up call each morning.
From around six a.m. the streets echo with the brisk clip-clop of dozens of racehorses. They’re heading from several local racing stables (mostly tucked away off-street) to the gallops on the moors above the town.
It was these magnificent equine sporting stars that attracted us to Middleham. There are public footpaths up on the moor from which you can watch their gleaming forms glide swiftly past and feel through your feet the thrilling
baddaboom, baddaboom of the hoofbeats.
Gemma Hogg’s book “Stable Lass”, an account of life in one of the yards in the town, has been a surprise hit in 2018 and has put the town even more in the spotlight.
Our visit was also a kind of family history quest. Our pony, Fizz, has a lot of thoroughbred ancestry.
And one of her ancestors is Dante.
Dante is as much a Yorkshire hero as Amy Johnson, Jessica Ennis, Freddie Trueman or the Kaiser Chiefs.
Trained at Middleham by Matthew Peacock, he won the 1945 Derby.
He’s still the last Yorkshire-trained winner of the Derby, in fact the last northern winner. An important race at York racecourse in May is named the Dante Stakes, held during the Dante Meeting.
The training complex where Dante lived is still informally known as the Dante Yard, and his former box is marked by a plaque. He was born in Middleham, at Manor House Stud just behind the village.
After he retired from racing he did his bit in producing the next generation of equine superstars at Theakston, barely a dozen miles away.
Racing is a global industry now, but back then Dante was very much a local lad and Yorkshire is still very proud of him.
When we walked out of our hotel and turned left we came to a pub called, inevitably, the Dante Arms. The pub sign showed the lad himself – a handsome bay with a white star and a white near-hind hoof.
We feel very close to him because our Fizz has identical markings. The
BBC should base a special “Who Do You Think You Are?” on Fizz’s search for her ancestry. Imagine a shot of her, looking up at an inn sign of a horse that looked just like her.
It’s worth stating that the Yorkshire-trained Derby winner prior to Dante was Pretender, in 1869. He was trained in Middleham, too. Racing hoofbeats echo down the centuries here.
But there is much older history here, too. Behind the houses, pubs and hotels on the south side of the square, narrow alleys lead to Middleham Castle. It dates from the 12th century, but there are traces of an earlier castle on the hill behind.
During the 15th century it came into the hands of Richard of Gloucester. Yes, “this glorious son of York” as described by Shakespeare in “Richard III”, who fell at the Battle of Bosworth and is usually given the rap for the murder of the Princes in the Tower (though his defenders stoutly resist the charge).
Perhaps the most familiar image of Richard is in the 1956 film of the play, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.
The castle is a ruin, but a substantial one with plenty to see.
It’s a good one to take children to as it has a high keep, spiral staircases and everything you need to fire young imaginations.
In the Visitor Centre you can see a replica of the Middleham Jewel, a gold pendant found nearby in 1985. The original is in the Yorkshire Museum in York.
In the grounds there’s a sombre modern statue of Richard III, looking a bit like Laurence Olivier, with a wild boar at his feet.
The wild boar was Richard’s symbol. We were occupying the Richard III room in our hotel, in which we were welcomed by a wild boar cuddly toy on the pillow.
Perhaps the abiding memory of Middleham, though, is the sight of sleek, magnificent thoroughbreds emerging from the mist and the exciting rumble of their hoofbeats. While you’re there, try to imagine that legendary Yorkshire hero with a white star and one white hoof.
He knew these gallops, too.
A typically tranquil view across the Yorkshire Dales .
The inn sign showing the lad himself.
The town has a unique wake-up call.
Future winners appear from local stables.