Yarm, North Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 10:34 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:37 20 February 2013
It's the haunt of footballers and their WAGS, classy shops, inviting hostelries and, as Brian Page discovers in Yarm, talkative and welcoming people
It is said in some quarters, and not always in withering tones, that Yarm is Teesside's very own version of the Cheshire 'golden triangle' - a busy little town sitting in beautiful countryside with a rich diversity of shops running up and down its broad high street.
It is a town where you will see immaculately-groomed ladies who lunch in a wide variety of smart restaurants and bistro bars; where you might catch a glimpse of star footballers or their wives, jumping in and out of expensive automobiles. But is this really what Yarm is all about?
Footballers' wives and bistros and boutiques? Well, not quite... Certainly there is a dash of glitz and glamour. And yes, it's the home of footballers and their wives. And yes, it is one of Teesside's most affluent areas. But it is not this that makes Yarm so special. There's more to Yarm than meets the eye.But let's take you there and you can judge for yourself.
It's a beautiful sunny early autumn afternoon and the high street is bathed in brilliant sunshine - glinting off the shiny cars that occupy just about every possible parking spot. Sadly, visitors to Yarm soon discover that parking is a valuable and scare resource. In fact, finding a space involves playing a game that's a cross between Wacky Races and Death Race 2000 - and requires beating off a series of gesticulating women wrestling the wheels of giant gasguzzing 4x4 monsters.
Still, once we've successfully parked (and stopped shaking) the tour can begin. We start with David Rigg, the high street butcher who also sells parking disks to those lucky enough to have found somewhere to be able to use them. David's shop is a treasure. It's a proper butcher's shop with delights ranging from home-made steak pies up to choice cuts of sirloin.
And David looks like a proper butcher, emerging from out the back in a traditional straw boater. His family has run this business since 1924. 'I've been here all my life like my father and his father before him,' he says. 'There's not many of us traditional butchers left now.'
It's from David that I learn that not so long ago Yarm High Street was voted the best in the country in a BBC 'chops and socks' competition - meaning you could buy virtually anything you could ever need from its shops. And it's true; there's hardly a chain store name to be seen here.
Virtually every shop is individual and independent. 'Well,' David explains, 'the properties are all relatively small and it's a conservation area is this, so you can't go knocking them about. That means that there isn't anywhere big enough for the big chains to be interested in. That's why they are highly individual shops.' Indeed. A short stroll reveals a catwalk of designer clothing stores, a browse of antique shops and a fragrance of florists. All of them individually owned and run.
And no-one is more individual than Peter Moore. I meet Peter while I am gazing into the window of John McNeil, gentlemen's outfitters. Or rather he meets me. He bounces out of the shop and asks what I'm writing about. Er, Yarm, I say tentatively. 'Come in, come in,' Peter replies, 'I can tell you all about Yarm.' And indeed, he can.
In the next 15 minutes Peter, who has owned and run this shop 'six days a week for 40 years' not only recounts Yarm's history, waxing lyrical on the charms of the area, but our conversation then stretches through newspapers,
'I like the Darlington and Stockton Times'; famous footballers 'Kevin Keegan, he used to come in here, lovely man'; fashion 'classically modern, that's what we offer here'; to the economy 'it will recover, it always does', and so on and so on. I wouldn't say Peter could talk for England but he certainly can for Yarm. He is hugely passionate about the town and the surrounding area.
'There's nowhere like it,' he says. 'People come from all over the world to Yarm. And it's not just the shops.We have some of the very best eating places, some really good pubs and I recommend trying them out.' Ah Peter, he knows the way to a journalist's stomach. But where to choose?
For a start there are enough pubs to turn a crawl into a stagger. The Bluebell over the bridge, the Ketton Ox, The George and Dragon, the Union Arms, all of them waving a welcome at me.
And then there are the restaurants. Check out, for instance, the menu at Chadwicks Continental Caf which includes new season Shetland mussels, saut chicken livers with bacon and marsala cream or perhaps a cassoulet of duck and pork with sausage and beans. It's a similar mouth-watering story on both sides of the high street, the choice is remarkable. Caf 85, Starters, Ciara's and Santoro's wine bar and restaurant. The words 'spoilt', 'for' and 'choice' come to mind.
In an effort to end this torture by choice I slip down the little lane that is Danby Wynd - and discover torture of another kind, Andrea Cook and her underwear. Lest you think we've come over all salacious, perhaps I had better explain. When we first spotted the Bizou lingerie and beauty boutique, bashfulness at first prevented us from entering the premises. In the interests of research, however, and as a sacrifice on behalf of yourself, dear reader, we allowed Andrea to show us her full range of glamorous (and in some cases downright sexy) underwear - which includes her own creations.
Andrea and her sister Christine recently designed their own line of underwear. 'I'm really thrilled,' she says, 'they have become really popular, they're selling really well. We are getting internet orders from all over the world. Poland, we have lots of customers in Poland.' And, Andrea reassured me, there is no need to be bashful.
'We have a lot of male customers,' she says. 'Men today are a lot less shy about buying lingerie for their wives and girlfriends.' The art of seduction, of course, requires more than silk and lace. Never heard of the food of love? Yes, I know, some people think it's music. More sensible people, however, know it comes in a less ethereal form (or at least it does in our house). So what a delight to step across the narrow Wynd to be seduced by a selection of the sea's finest fruits.
'This is not just sea food, this is Mark's sea food,' says the board outside Hodgson's wet fish shop. It might not be an original slogan but it is certainly true. Packed on ice under the glass counter is a delightful collection of the more exotic offerings from Davy Jones' locker; Pacific oysters, black sea bream, sword fish, dog fish, clams, crabs and lobsters...
Mark Falkingham is celebrating 15 years running this wonderful shop, which specialises not just in supplying regular customers but in producing fresh platters for dinner parties and celebrations. They are long days for Mark. He lives in Hartlepool and is at the quayside at six in the morning to select the freshest fish. 'If I can't get it fresh I won't sell it,' he says.
He not only sells the stuff, he knows how to cook it and is delighted to pass on recipes and tips to his customers. 'We have a lot of regulars, some of them bring in recipes they've tried for me to pass on to others,' he says, pointing to leaflets advertising the delights of steamed fillets of red snapper with courgettes and shallots and sea bass with sizzled ginger, chilli and spring onions.
So how does a Hartlepudlian take to Yarm? 'Oh, it's great place,' he says. 'It's got this reputation as being very affluent but it's not snooty at all, they are very nice people here. Very friendly.' And, as if to prove the point, as I am leaving he calls to me and points at the window display in Bizou. 'By, you get all the good jobs, you,' he laughs. 'Can you get me a job an' all?'
And it's as I take my leave of Mark, and of Yarm, that I begin to realise what it really is about this place that makes it so special. Yes, the countryside is great, yes the shops are brilliant, yes the pubs and restaurants and coffee bars are wonderful. But most of all it is the people. They are what makes Yarm so special. The wonderful friendly, passionate people.