Mid­dle­ham, A Cham­pion Place

David McVey is in the North York­shire town where horses and her­itage com­bine.

The People's Friend Special - - OUT & ABOUT -

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.

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