Historic Market Town in east Cumbria
Wagons rolled into Gallows Hill (now called Fair Hill). Horses thrashed about in the Eden River, and bonfires were lit. Townspeople and strangers milled about. It was an invasion, but a peaceful one, as gypsy wagons descended on the old market town of Appleby-in-Westmoreland for a week of feverish activity: trading and racing horses, dancing, and drinking.
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The 300-year-old tradition continues today as modern caravans converge on the town each June. It all began in 1685 when King James II granted the town’s mayor and burgesses its second market charter, a “fair or market for the purchase and sale of all manners of goods, cattle, horses, mares and geldings”.
Set in the lush green Eden Valley, caught up in a great horseshoe sweep of the river, the narrow entrances into the town provided a natural defensive position. From earliest times the town’s location on this north-south route to Scotland played a role in its history. The Celts, Romans, and Vikings all passed this way, and traces of a Roman road from Appleby to Carlisle are still visible. In spite of its seemingly secure location, the town suffered Scottish border raids. One, in 1388, destroyed the town. In 1598, another kind of enemy, the Black Death, stole into town, killing 128 persons.
The town’s potential as an economic and administrative centre was recognized in 1092 when King William II gave Appleby to Ranulph de Meschines. The first market charter was granted in 1174. On Saturdays carts clattered into town loaded with corn, coal, and other provisions, and cattle markets followed bi-monthly.
Ancient lime trees shade the river and the historic main street, Boroughgate, framed by the12th century St Lawrence Church at its lower end and the square Norman keep of Appleby Castle at the top of the hill. The age of the town is echoed in the heritage of the street’s architectural styles, ranging from Jacobean to Georgian to Victorian.
Sitting square in the middle of Boroughgate is Moot Hall, a 1596 black and white town hall. Town councillors still continue the tradition of meeting here as they have for centuries past. Once occupied by butcher shops, the Hall now houses the Tourist Information Centre.
St Anne’s Hospital, a group of almshouses, built c1651 for 13 poor widows, is set in a cobbled courtyard and framed by an archway. It was named after the founder, Lady Anne Clifford, owner of Appleby Castle, which dates from Norman times.
Surrounded by two moats, the 12th century stone keep and castle face each other across a courtyard. Founded by de Meschin several years after he took possession of the town, the castle passed to the Crown; then the Scots invaded and took control from 1136 to 1157, after which the English regained the castle. It was Hugh de Morville who, in 1170, built the keep, considered one of the best preserved in Britain.
The powerful Clifford family took over ownership of the castle in the 13th century, retaining it for the next 400 years. It was much rebuilt by Thomas Lord Clifford in Henry VI’s time, then neglected.
During the Civil War the Royalists surrendered the castle to the Parliamentarians, turning over to them “5 knights, 25 colonels, 9 lieutenant colonels, 6 majors, 46 captains, 17 lieutenants, 6 coronets, 3 ensigns, 5 pieces of cannon, 1200 horses, and 1000 standard arms”, not to mention all their baggage.
Described as an "ornament of her age and country", Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Pembroke, was an unswerving loyalist. After the Civil War, she re-occupied Appleby Castle and celebrated the return of Charles II to the throne. It was said that she "thought not her gates then wide enough to receive her guests, which before had been too wide for receiving armies of soldiers." Two town crosses, one at each end of Boroughgate, now mark the places where high scaffolds were used for the festivities she hosted. The 17th century High Cross is inscribed “Retain your loyalty, preserve your rights”. The Low Cross is an 18th century copy of the 1600’s one.
In 1651, Lady Anne Clifford set about restoring the castle, which was further improved by her grandson, the Earl of Thanet after her death at the age of 87. Between 1686-88, he removed stone from his other castles, Brough and Brougham, for use at Appleby. He built an east range, with its great hall, staircase, oak pannelling and paintings of the Clifford family. During this time the exterior of the building was faced with dressed stone, turning the castle into a family mansion.
At the bottom of Boroughgate, a Gothic arcade leads to the 12th century Church of St. Lawrence. The oldest part of the church—the lower part of the tower—vies for attention with the early 14th century porch with its dogtooth moulding. Burned by the Scots in 1174, the church again suffered under the Scottish raid of 1388. It was altered in the 14th century when the tower to the nave was opened. In the 17th century, Lady Anne Clifford restored much that was burned.
The church is a hodgepodge of styles from its Perpendicular exterior to its Early English and Gothic Revival interior. The Clifford Chapel houses Lady Anne’s altar tomb. An alabaster effigy of her mother, Margaret, lies alongside. The church boasts the oldest (c.1542) working organ in Britain, brought from Carlisle Cathedral in 1683. Three volumes of “Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of the Martyrs”, chained to a box in the church date to 1631.
Across the ancient three-arched stone bridge and up a steep hill is 12th St Michael’s Church (now in private hands). It was once the centre of worship for the Bongate (sometimes called Sands) part of Appleby. Lady Anne Clifford rebuilt this church in 1658, and it was much altered in 1885, when the low tower was added. Still visible is a Saxon hogback gravestone used as a doorway lintel. The scenic Settle-Carlisle railway line station lies on this side of the town. A county gaol and courthouse, built in 1770-71, further reflects the past.
Originally the County Town of Westmoreland, Appleby became a part of Cumbria in 1974. Sheltered from the east by the High Pennines and from the west by the Lakeland Fells, the quintessential market town sits snugly in its past. Its Norman castle, 12th century church, a wide medieval main street, and historic connections with a famous family radiate the magic of this little bit of heaven in Eden.
Tourist Information Centre
The Moot Hall
Cumbria. CA16 6XE
Tel. 07683 51402
Conservation Centre for rare breeds of farm animals.
Horse fair always ends the second Wednesday in June. It begins 7 days before that date.
This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine.