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23rd July 2019 Joe Willis

Arts and culture in North Yorkshire and the Dales

For centuries artists have been visiting the coast, moors and dales seeking inspiration from the stunning scenery, the pretty towns and villages, and the proud people. This has led to a wealth of arts and culture in North Yorkshire and the Dales.

Famous local wordsmiths

Celebrated painter JMW Turner, known as the painter of light, travelled around the county frequently during his life after first visiting in 1797, aged 22. He sketched and painted at many locations including Whitby, Scarborough, Malton and the North York Moors and across the Dales, with Richmond, West Burton, Ripon, Aysgarth Falls, and Bolton Abbey among his favourite haunts. You can find out more about Turner’s visit to the Yorkshire Dales at turner.yorkshire.com where there are tourism Turner Trails which can be downloaded and include audio guides and activities.

Poet William Wordsworth, famous for his connection to the Lake District, regularly went walking in the Yorkshire Dales, too. After a visit to Wharfedale in 1807 he wrote the poem The Force of Prayer, which tells the Story of William de Romilly, who, as legend has it, died attempting to jump the Strid at Bolton Abbey. It was this same visit to Wharfedale that inspired Wordsworth’s narrative poem The White Doe of Rylstone.

Malham North Yorkshire and the Dales arts and culture

The beautiful landscape has inspired many a famous wordsmith

Today, the county is a haven for those with a creative spirit. Painters, writers, craftspeople, musicians – artists and artisans of every kind have made it their home. The result is that from the largest towns to the smallest hamlets you will find galleries, workshops and studios packed with pieces of art made with passion and skill by local people. Often the artists themselves will be on hand to talk about their work and share their enthusiasm for the places and people which have inspired them.

To discover artists working in the Northern Dales, follow the Swaledale and Wensleydale Arts and Crafts Trail. They are a diverse group working with a wide variety of materials including wood and wools, metal and glass, clay and candle wax, rope, felt and copper. The artists’ workshops can be found at Muker and Reeth in Swaledale, and Hawes, Hardraw, West Burton and Wensley in Wensleydale. The Wensleydale Longwool Sheep workshop in Kelberdale Court, Leyburn, which produces knitwear inspired by the seasons, is well worth a visit.

Museums and Festivals

Over in Swaledale, Reeth has become an enclave for artists in recent years. The Dales Centre is a collective of designers and makers in working studios and workshops. They include sculptor Stef Ottevanger who makes individual sculptures of pets, sheep, horses and wildlife cast in bronzed resin.

Another sculptor based at the Dales Centre is Michael Kusz at Graculus Sculptures, whose work is inspired by the magical and mythical, while the nearby Nutmeg Company produces 3D cross stitch designs. Just outside the Dales Centre, photographer Debbie Allen’s gallery Scenicview can be found. Details of all artists on the trail are available at the area’s tourist information centre.

For those younger visitors who like horses, author Hannah Russell, who has written a series of books about her adventures with her miniature Shetland pony, Alf, has a shop in Leyburn.

Swaledale Festival

Trouvère Medieval Minstrels performing at the Swaledale Festival

The Dales Countryside Museum hosts many fascinating and thought-provoking exhibitions throughout the year in the John Richard Baker Exhibition Hall. Local, regional and nationally-recognised artists and makers are featured exhibiting all mediums of work including photography, paintings, sculpture and installations. Exhibitions are included with the admission ticket to the museum.

For music lovers, the Swaledale Festival has been attracting crowds to the Dales since the early 1980s. It features more than 50 events spread over a summer fortnight, including classical, folk, jazz, brass bands, poetry, drama, art exhibitions and guided walks. Events take place in churches, chapels, pubs, village halls and fields throughout Swaledale, Wensleydale and Arkengarthdale.

Musical maestros

Household names often appear at Grassington Festival, which has been running for more than 30 years, providing a lively mix of music, dance, street theatre, workshops, talks, walks and creative challenges. The two-week festival in June attracts visitors and locals in their thousands. The annual Hardraw Scaur Brass Band Festival was first held in 1881. The contest takes places in the natural amphitheatre at Hardraw Force near the Green Dragon Inn near Hawes.

Brass bands, ranging from the small village band to the championship section, present short concerts throughout the day and are judged both on the standard of their music and on the selection of their concert programme. The day is brought to a traditional close with a short concert by the massed bands.

Grassington Arts Festival North Yorkshire and the Dales arts and culture

Time your visit to coincide with Grassington Arts Festival

Sedbergh, which has been given the title of England’s book town because of the number of book shops and book-related businesses it contained, holds several literary festivals and events throughout the year, including a festival of books and drama in September. Sedbergh is also home to Farfield Mill, an arts and crafts centre which features workshops, exhibitions, resident artists, shop and cafe. Richmond has a number of excellent galleries, including those of painters Mackenzie Thorpe and Lucy Pittaway, who both have large followings around the country.

The town plays host to a number of popular festivals throughout the year, including the Walking and Book Festival, which takes place every autumn. The Georgian Theatre Royal is Britain’s most complete Georgian playhouse. As well as a unique place to see a show, the venue runs regular tours which go behind the curtain and reveal its many secrets.

The Station in Richmond has regular art exhibitions and there’s a three-screen cinema. Alternatively, there is a large Empire cinema down the road in Catterick Garrison. Leyburn Arts and Community Centre has a lively programme of theatre, music and films, while the Garden Rooms at Tennants Auctioneers, also in Leyburn, has regular shows often featuring well-known names.

Cultural icons

Ripon Cathedral is a beautiful church with a history reaching back to the 7th century. It is open every day and is free to enter. The cathedral runs several choirs which perform at public events and concerts. The church is also the venue for the Great North Art Show, an annual exhibition in August and September which featuring contemporary art by professional and emerging artists with connections to the north of England. The Mercer Gallery, in Harrogate, is home to the town’s fine art collection which consists of some 2,000 pieces, mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a hugely impressive collection and free to enter.

The fully restored late Victorian Harrogate Theatre boasts a main auditorium seating over 500, as well as a more intimate studio theatre, with a full and varied programme throughout the year. Rural Arts, in Thirsk, aims to bring creative opportunities to rural areas of North Yorkshire. It has a network of venues and volunteers. Find out more about its work at its headquarters, gallery and cafe at the Courthouse in Thirsk. The Joe Cornish Gallery features the work of the celebrated photographer, as well as pieces by other photographers, artists and craftspeople.

Ryedale Festival

The Ryedale Festival is held in spectacular venues in the area

Also in Northallerton is The Forum, which features a cinema and hosts regular theatre, music and comedy nights. The North York Moors has a vibrant arts scene with numerous venues and events planned throughout the year. The annual Ryedale Festival, which takes place in July, welcomes performers from all over the world, both established and emerging. The festival makes use of spectacular venues in and around Ryedale, including Castle Howard, Hovingham Hall, Duncombe Park, Birdsall House and Sledmere, as well as in Ampleforth Abbey and Scarborough.

Seaside towns

For a small town, there are lots of creative things happening in Helmsley. The arts centre has a full programme of theatre, music, dance, talks and cinema, plus exhibitions, classes and a range of creative activities for children. The Saltbox Gallery, in Castlegate, is an independent gallery packed with interesting artwork, including bronze, glass and ceramic pieces.

The Milton Rooms in Malton is a relatively new venue for professional and amateur arts that has a full programme of music, theatre and comedy. As well as regular temporary exhibitions, Scarborough Art Gallery, in The Crescent, houses the borough’s collection of fine art, which has grown through gifts, bequests and purchases since its beginnings in 1947.

Saltbox gallery

Take a trip to the Saltbox Gallery

If you get chance, go see a show at Scarborough Open Air Theatre. Elton John, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Status Quo are just three of the big-name acts to have performed at this unique venue in recent years. The theatre was built in the 1930s but closed in 1986. It was then reopened by the Queen in 2010 following a major refurbishment. Taking advantage of a natural amphitheatre, the stage is set on an island in the middle of a small lake.

Whitby Pavilion is set above the beach with visitors able to take in stunning views of the North Sea. The venue has a cinema as well as regular theatre shows and a weekly tea dance. If you are looking for a unique piece made by a local artist, Whitby Galleries, in Church Street, is likely to have something suitable.

Up the coast from Whitby is the small fishing port of Staithes, which holds an annual art and heritage festival in September. During the weekend over 150 artists in over 90 cottages and public spaces around the village, become temporary art galleries in a unique selling exhibition.


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Image credits: ©Gerard Collett/Ryedale Arts Festival; Grassington Festival; Guy Carpenter/Swaledale Festival; Saltbox Gallery; Malham/Shutterstock.com

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