Doncaster – A Jewel of the North

Liz Gill pays a visit and discovers a renaissance of cuisine and culture

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There are 16 fish and seafood stalls alone. There are game specialists and cheese specialists and greengrocers selling at least two vegetables I’ve never seen before. So where am I? Harrods food hall maybe? London’s Borough market? The clue might be in a stall adjoining one of the spectacular fish displays. For this one sells – tripe, the butt of many a musical hall joke but once a staple of Northern working class life. Nearby are black puddings and brawn and serried ranks of pork pies.

For this is Doncaster Market, an extraordinary combination of tradition and innovation.  It’s where you get cockles from The Wash next to mussels from New Zealand, taramasalata next to beef dripping. In the National Association of British Market Authorities awards it last year won Best, this year it won Favourite.

It’s not hard to see why. There’s been a market on this site for nearly 800 years so they know something about the subject. As well as food, there are hundreds of other stalls selling everything you could think of. Some are outdoor, others are housed in historic gems like the Corn Exchange with its wonderful vaulted ceiling and ornate cast iron decoration.

Then there’s the banter and the warmth. The fishmonger pulling funny faces for my photo;  the woman selling the mystery vegetables commandeering a customer to give me a recipe for what I learned was turia.

Being a Yorkshirewoman I wasn’t surprised by the friendliness but I was surprised by Doncaster. For me, as I suspect it is for countless others, it’s always been a place to pass through on the train and barely give a sideways glance. If we think of it at all, we know it has a racecourse but surely not much else. Its image is of drabness and decline, a poor relation of buzzy Leeds or beautiful York.

After only a day there, however, I’m happy to admit I was wrong. The market alone would be reason enough to go as increasing numbers of people are discovering. Shoppers now arrive by the coachload from all over the North of England and although it does not promote itself as particularly cheap, prices are probably at least a third less than they would be in the South – and the town is only an hour and half by train from London.

But there is a lot more to Doncaster. Its history dates back to the Romans who named it Danum; the remains of the original Roman wall are still visible and the museum is home to one of the few soldier’s shields still in existence. Richard I gave it its first charter in 1194 and it subsequently grew in importance as a place of trade and a key staging post on the Great North Road from London to Scotland. During the Civil War it was captured and recaptured several times.

The glory days were probably during the Georgian era when its prosperity and regional importance was reflected in fine buildings like the Mansion House, one of only three in Britain (the other two are in York and London). Built in the Palladium style as a residence for the mayor and a place he could entertain visiting dignitaries including royalty, the Mansion House is still a working building but it opens to the public on certain days when it is worth seeing the elegant rooms and fine furniture, portraits and silverware.

Even more splendid is the Minster built by Sir George Gilbert Scott, architect of St. Pancras and the Albert memorial, after the original mediaeval church was destroyed by fire in 1853. Its organ, we were told, is the largest ever built by the renown German organ builder Edmund Schulze. I’m afraid the name meant nothing to me but as we stood below those soaring Victorian Gothic arches and the light poured in through the lovely stained glass, someone began to practice for a concert later that day. The effect was spine tingling – the name will certainly mean something from now on.

The industrial revolution transformed the town again. There were rich coal seams here and railway engineering expertise meant two of the most famous steam trains ever, The Flying Scotsman and the Mallard, were both built at the Doncaster Works. The end of mining in the 1980s though meant that the town struggled with unemployment and other manifestations of post-industrial malaise.

Today there are significant signs of recovery: the slag heaps have been grassed over and transformed into amenities; the new Robin Hood airport (Sherwood Forest extended right up here and legend says Robin and Maid Marion were married in a local church) is the first international airport to be built in the U.K. for 40 years; the area’s excellent road and rail links are helping it position itself in logistics and distribution – Amazon, IKEA and Next all have warehouses here – and there is growth in the financial, retail and tourism sectors.

The latest visitor attraction is the Yorkshire Wildlife Park just a few miles to the east which has creatures great and small ranging from the enchanting meercats to three prides of lions rescued from appalling conditions in Romania following a massive fund-raising and publicity campaign. There are also two Siberian tigers, among the rarest in the world, and three of the similarly endangered Amur leopards. Walkways and viewing platforms give you excellent insights into all these big cats’ spacious territories but it is also possible to get up close to lemurs and wallabys in special walkabout enclosures. I could hardly believe how relaxed wallaby mothers were, even with the little joeys peeking out of their pouches.

For something completely different there’s Brodsworth Hall, about four milesoutside the town. It was built from coal wealth as a Victorian country house in the Italianate style, although the architect never actually saw it, deterred, he wrote, by the ‘inclement weather’.  It was lived in by the same family for 130 years and at its height would have had 15 servants. The house and its fortunes declined over the years with subsequent generations closing off rooms until its last resident, the twice widowed Mrs. Sylvia Grant-Dalton, lived there with one servant and an assortment of pets.

English Heritage took it over in 1990 and made the decision to conserve it in an ‘as-found’ state rather than attempt wholescale restoration. The result is a fascinating combination of some fine rooms and some melancholic ones: an uncleared junk room, for example, housing old sports gear and stuffed animals; bedrooms unused after the First World War; unmended subsidence cracks caused by building too near the mineshafts which had once made the family rich.

It felt slightly Miss Haversham-like to me but actually it was the inspiration behind another Dickens novel: apparently some long drawn out court battle involving the house inspired the interminable case of Jarndyce v.Jarndyce in Bleak House.  The author was a regular visitor to Doncaster, in fact, lured by the twin attractions of a mistress and the races.

A visit to the races does in fact crown any trip and since there are a higher than average 32 meetings a year there’s a good chance you can catch one. The course is home to the St. Leger, the oldest classic horse race in the world, first run in 1776. The four day St Leger festival in September now draws crowds of 60,000 but there steeple chases and flat races throughout the year.

I caught a recent Friday afternoon meeting but lost a few quid on a horse that romped home – last. I consoled myself with a generous slice of the pork pie I’d bought from the market and found my spirits instantly lifted.

More information:

www.visitdoncaster.com
www.doncaster.gov.uk/markets
www.doncaster.gov.uk/mansionhouse
www.doncasterminster.org
www.english-heritage.org.uk/brodsworth
www.yorkshirewildlifepark.co.uk
www.doncaster-racecourse.co.uk

Article and images copyright Liz Gill

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