Home Coming: Richmond, North Yorkshire
An intimate tour of a writer's home town, one catastrophic facial injury at a time.
Photos: Chris Bethell
If you come from a small enough town, then one day – just for one day – you'll be the talk of it. You might have broken up with the doctor's son, or perhaps you came out as gay or stole from school funds (or both). You might have accidentally drunk someone's piss at a house party, or you might have driven drunk on a country lane and knocked down a dry stone wall. On boring days, you might not have done anything at all – but people will still say that you did.
Richmond, North Yorkshire has one of the largest cobbled marketplaces in England. In 2013 and 2015, there were two separate scandals when contractors repairing the historic cobbles did a poor job. If you've watched the 1996 adaptation of Jude the Obscure, you’ll catch Richmond in a one-minute scene that our teacher forced us to watch in English class. A lot of cobbles, Jude and the fact our Georgian theatre is one of the oldest (but not the oldest!) in the country – these are Richmond's claims to fame.
For the first 15 years of my life, there was nothing to do in Richmond. There are two types of shop in the town centre – charity and sports – and, recently, even places where you can buy walking boots have been shutting down at alarming rates. But in 2007, the old station – which had closed in 1969, become a garden centre, and closed again – was remodelled into a cinema, café and ice-cream parlour. There are now three things to do in Richmond.
"Nothing to do" is a cliché – a whine that escapes teenage lips, a failure of adolescent imagination. But honestly, truly, there was shit all to do. In the summertime, the schoolchildren of Richmond would jump off the town's waterfalls into the River Swale. One summer, a boy landed on a rock, smashing his face and losing multiple teeth, leading to years of expensive and painful facial reconstruction surgery. Perhaps you will believe there is nothing to do in Richmond when I tell you: people carried on jumping off the falls.
When you live in the countryside, most of your teenage milestones take place outside. Once – in the park behind the Co-op where everything important happened – a boy broke up with me by declaring that Richmond didn't have "enough poetry" to "support" our relationship. This is a ridiculous thing to say to anyone about anywhere, but is an extra ridiculous thing to say about a town with a 948-year-old Norman castle.
Yet as annoying as it is to admit, he was right (not about breaking up with me, obviously, what a blunder). When you spend too much time with something beautiful, you start to notice patches of ugliness, like the hardened yellow plaque on the bottom teeth of someone you've finally slept with. Richmond is classically beautiful – the castle's battlements are often tickled by a grey mist; expanses of green trees and greener hills are visible wherever you turn – but its teeth are undeniably rotting.
There is a newsagent right in the middle of town that has been shut for a decade. The only mainstream shops we have are a Boots and a WHSmith (RIP Dorothy Perkins, overly-floral home of every Year 11's Big Night Out Outfit for almost ten years).
A new restaurant in Richmond has a shelf life of roughly one year, during which everyone from the town visits it once and seemingly vows never to again. As a waitress in one of these restaurants, I ended up serving two of my exes' mums in the same week. There are that few places to eat, there are that few places to work, there are that few boys.
And so, like many small and decaying towns, Richmond loves the Conservatives. From 1989 to 2015, William Hague was our MP, and about the only useful way to get a flash of recognition when I told someone where I was from ("No, it's not that Richmond, it's up north").
Unsurprisingly, for a town with an older than average population and multiple cobble scandals, Richmond is an extremely safe Tory seat, and the Leave campaign secured 56.8 percent of the vote in 2016 (presumably because there aren't any jobs for anybody to lose).
Still, I'm embarrassed that I hate something so beautiful. The town's only nightclub (which was once a hotel, and then became a hotel again, and then shut down for good) is an imposing red brick building with actual turrets.
To complain about it seems undeniably privileged and out of touch (see turrets! See Grade-II listed night out!), but as the only place to go out in the town past midnight, everything terrible happened there. The floor was so sticky that it was allegedly mopped just once a year – during/after the annual foam party – and everyone you ever knew was there at all times. It's now empty, but there is a gigantic red remembrance poppy stuck on the outside, which can be symbolic if you like.
If you come from a small town, you are the you that you always were. There are no first impressions – because you made them when you were eight – and there are no opportunities for reinvention, because everyone knows who's really under that box of Garnier Nutrisse 4.6 Red. In a small town you give up all anonymity: if you wear sweatpants to the shop you will inevitably bump into your mortal enemy; if you go to the cinema with a boy, ten women named Sue will ring your mum.
Except, over time, I've had to accept that my views of the town are coloured by my own angsty adolescence. For many people – who I've never met and who have never traded my deepest secrets – it is simply a beautiful, old-fashioned place to live, complete with a gushing river and higher than average numbers of old people/sheep. I have to accept (as my mum insisted when I set about writing this piece) that I am an unreliable narrator – that there's a great chocolate shop, and it's a great place for walkers! I am biased from spending a lifetime in a place that it's better to spend an August weekend.
And yet, I am not alone in being a young person disenfranchised with Richmond. In the late 2010s, there were a series of young male suicides and drug deaths that shattered my year group. In 2017, the North East (where Richmond sits) was the English region with the highest rate of suicide – with the Office for National Statistics reporting that men in the area were three times more likely to take their lives than women.
I can't speculate why anyone takes their own life – mental health is extremely complex, and suicide is rarely attributable to one cause – but my time trapped in Richmond as an adult with no opportunities for employment was incredibly depressing. In general, people from my school fell into one of two camps: people who wanted to stay there forever, and people who wanted to leave as fast as they could.
When starting this piece, I wanted to tell the story of the town Co-op (which shut down in 2017, but is now a Lidl). It was my memory that, in the early-2000s, an elderly, dying man donated his field to the town under strict instruction that it became a playground for children. Naturally, the town agreed – but as soon as he died, they constructed a Co-op on the land.
Except, my memory was wrong. There was no old man, and instead (the town clerk Heather informs me, in a friendly email) the land was always owned by North Yorkshire County Council, and people protested simply because they wanted it to remain a luscious green field. I thought Richmond was the kind of town that spat on an old man's dying wish and built an empire of BOGOF Quavers on his grave; it is actually the type of town that mildly protests a new Co-op before ultimately giving in because otherwise the nearest supermarket is half an hour away.
When a town is as small as Richmond, every corner holds a memory. It doesn’t matter that this building is listed, or those cobbles are next to more cobbles, which make them an impressive number of cobbles. Castle Walk – a winding, cliff-edge path around the Norman castle, overlooking the Swale – is a breathtaking place for a walk, if you don’t have haunting memories of being fingered there.
So much of life is searching for a "better" that doesn't exist – the idea that if you put down your phone you'll write a book, or buy an exercise bike and become a goddess. Yet if you live in a small northern town where there is nothing to do but break your face on a rock, I promise you that there are so many "betters" out there, waiting for you to exist in them.