Darlington-County Durham

PUBLISHED: 15:59 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2013

Post House Wynd

Post House Wynd

Darlington is a major market town that attracts visitors from many miles around. But it's not just the main High Street retailers that draw people in<br/><br/>Words and pictures by Andrew Smith

Darlington's impressive High Row, Northgate and Cornmill Centre boast most of the names of the giants of the retail world, as is befitting the largest market town in the middle reaches of what is now termed the Tees Valley.

The big stores attract shoppers from across South Durham and North Yorkshire and someone whose bank account isn't entirely remote from my own reckons that the designer brand department of House of Fraser beats similar outlets on Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside for choice and bargains.

But it is not only the main shopping beat that makes Darlington such a pleasant place to shop. Indeed, part of its appeal surely lies in the fact that just around the corner or hidden discretely through an access no wider than a doorway is a labyrinth of yards, wynds and alleyways where small, specialist shops prosper on passing and returning customers who know, for certain, that they'll find just what they're looking for.

Thanks to the sympathetic development of Darlington over many decades, these little streets have survived along with their quaint, almost Dickensian names - Buckton's Yard, Mechanic's Yard, Clark's Yard, Abbott's Yard, Burn's Yard and Post House Wynd. Walk down these alleys on a misty winter's night and Fagin or Bill Sykes themselves might creep up alongside you to beg a shilling.

Sorry, I digress. Today, and tonight, I assure you, no harm will come to you in Darlington's yards. They are busy with people browsing safely or cutting through from High Row to Skinnergate, Duke Street and Grange Road, themselves a haven for cosy bars and restaurants, and more of the specialist shops that discerning customers love to linger over.

The latter, Grange Road, attracts footballers' wives and the like to its designer outfitters and dress agencies. Here you can buy new or nearly new everything that is feminine, as well as goods for cooks and kitchens, Eastern furnishings, bridal wear, lingerie, coffee, cakes and, if the desire takes you, playthings of an adult nature.

Margaret Wray has run her dress agency, Coco, at Grange Road for 12 years. 'It's the best location in Darlington,' she says. 'I live in Darlington and I love it. People come in time and again for new and very nearly new clothes and accessories they can't get anywhere else.'

Walk from Grange Road along Skinnergate and everything from aromatic oils and candles to Christian books and body piercing is on offer.

Take a right turn into Clark's Yard and one of the first outlets you reach is BJ Upholstery, run by Barry Griffiths. He has replaced the upholstery in vintage Rolls Royces but now prefers furniture, or boats. 'I try not to do cars these days,' says Barry, whose wife Joanna also works in the business. 'They're too much trouble.'

Further down Clark's Yard, the scent of 120 varieties of cheese draw you into The Cheese and Wine Shop, where Terry Farr has kept shop for ten years. 'Children come in and say "oh, I don't like the smell". That's cheese, I tell them.'

It could also be tinged with the aroma of rare breed bacon, Italian flatbreads and other exotic produce from around the world. Your personal choice in fine wine can be ordered by the bottle in the unlikely event that it's not in stock.

The yards are also home to shops selling war games, fishing tackle, military supplies, silverware, computers, cameras, baby clothes and shoes, cycles and gifts, although the place to find the gift that you probably hadn't thought of is Bliss Gifts, just around the corner on Duke Street.

Nicola Reading has run Bliss Gifts for six years. 'I was involved in a wedding business at the start but the gift shop was more successful,' she says. 'We've established a good business in an up-and-coming area, with good restaurants and an excellent gallery nearby. I like Darlington. It's a nice atmosphere.' Nicola, who lives in Norton, has recently relaunched her website - go to www.giftsatbliss.co.uk.

Back on Skinnergate, nobody can escape the almost endless frontage of H Taylor and Sons, "Beef and Pork Purveyors". Now that's what butchers should be called. Their premises also contain "The Noted Pie Shop". It does exactly what it says on the sign.

There might not be mechanics in Mechanics' Yard or an abbot in Abbott's Yard these days but in every other respect these little haunts deliver what they promise, timeless shopping as it used to be.

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