Masham

The largest market square in the UK, with two of the most historic family-owned breweries in the country.

Market Square, Masham, North side

Georgian buildings, Market Square, Masham1


Masham (pronounced ‘mass-um’) is a small market town in Wensleydale, in North Yorkshire. It sits alongside the River Ure at what was once a ford across the river. The town boasts one of the oldest Markets in the UK, first granted in 1250, with lovely Georgean buildings surrounding the Market Square.

The town is not only famous for its markets though. Two of the UK’s oldest family breweries were founded in Masham and remain there today – the ‘Theakston’s’ and ‘Black Sheep’ breweries. Both have visitor centres, which provide tours around the breweries and shops to buy both the beer and all kinds of branded souvenirs.

In brief

  • Oldest market square in the UK, dating back to 1250
  • Great base for touring Wensleydale and the North Yorkshire Moors
  • Home of the Theakston’s and Black Sheep breweries
  • Wensleydale Railway and the Forbidden Corner close by
  • Variety of events held throughout the year.

A bit of history

The town sits on the River Ure, it’s name coming from the Anglo-Saxon “Mæssa’s Ham”, meaning the homestead belonging to Mæssa. The Romans had a presence in the area, as they did across much of England, but nothing that could be called a settlement. The Angles were the first to build a village here followed by the Vikings. Around 900 AD Vikings swept through the region, burning the church and generally causing devastation in both Masham and the surrounding area. However, they also settled here, introducing the sheep farming for which the town is famous today.

Market day, Masham

Market day, Masham2


Masham’s market grew out of sheep farming, with the sheep fairs in Masham selling up to 80,000 head and attracting flocks from the nearby powerful Jervaulx and Fountains Abbeys.

Following his 1066 victory, William the Conquerer handed out spoils of land to the noblemen who fought with him. The ‘realm’ of Masham was given to Nigel de Albini as his reward and it was De Albini’s son, Roger de Mowbray who gifted Masham to the Minster of York. As the Archbishop didn’t fancy the long journey north to see to the town business, the parish was designated a ‘Peculier’ which meant it was granted its own ecclesiastical court and governed its own affairs. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the jurisdiction of the Peculiar Court was handed to the masters and fellows of Trinity College Cambridge. From then on the Peculiar Court was located in College House, on College.

Theakston’s Brewery was founded in 1827 by Robert Theakston and is still owned by the Theakston family. Another member of the Family, Paul Theakston, founded the Black Sheep Brewery in 1992. With the local focus on sheep farming, it is no surprise that animal feed mills were established in the town. l’Anson Brothers started business over 100 years ago and W E Jameson set up in 1930.

In 1875 the railways came to Masham with a branch line to the town built and operated by the North Eastern Railway. Sadly, the line was a victim of the ‘Beeching cuts ’ and was closed in 1963.

Masham today

Masham today is a thriving small town attracting visitors from all over the world. It is a great centre from which to experience the Yorkshire Dales and North Yorkshire Moors. There are markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays and a large Sheep Fair is still held annually in September. There are also several arts and other events throughout the year.

St Mary’s Church

St Mary's Church, Masham

St Mary’s Church, Masham3


Best guess is that St Mary’s Church was originally founded in the 7th century. Certainly it was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. It was located on was called Cockpit Hill, close to the present town hall. The present church is mainly Norman but it does have some Anglo-Saxon stonework and the stump of an eighth-century prayer cross, along with some 15th century additions. Masham was given to York Minster in the mediaeval period but was designated a ‘peculiar’ when the Archbishop didn’t want to travel north to oversee the town’s affairs. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s, the jurisdiction of the Peculiar Court was passed to Trinity College Cambridge. From then on the Peculiar Court was located in College House, on College. The Peculiar Court still sits to this day, but now focuses on helping charitable causes.

In 1988, human remains were discovered during the building work nearby. Excavations revealed 58 burials. It’s thought that the original early Christian burial ground could extend under many of the present surrounding buildings – nice thought if you live in one of the properties! It was used between 679 and 1011 AD. The skeletons were reinterred in a marked grave in the present Masham Churchyard.

Theakston’s Brewery

Theakston’s Brewery was originally founded in 1827 in The Black Bull, a hotel on Silver Street. It was later expanded into their current site, in the area known, perhaps appropriately, as Paradise Fields. In 1984, after a family fallout, the Theakston family lost control of the business which was taken over, first by Matthew Brown plc and, 3 years later, by Scottish & Newcastle plc. In 2003, the heirs of the original founder, Robert Theakston, bought back the company and it continues to produce some wonderful beer at its Masham site.

One of the best known beers produced at the brewery is ‘Old Peculiar’ paying tribute to the designation given to Masham when the Archbishop of York decided he was unable to travel to the town. The beer is dark and full of favour, but take care, at 5.6% ABV, it is very strong.

More information about Theakston’s brewery

Black Sheep Brewery

Paul Theakston was part of the Theakston family who ran the original Theakston’s Brewery. After the acrimonious family battle which led to the sale of T&R Theakston in 1984, and after a lot of thought, Paul decided to branch out on his own. The Black Sheep Brewery was launched in Masham and has gone from strength to strength.

The name ‘Black Sheep’ was a recognition of both the sheep faming heritage of the area and the fact that the company was going up against the multi-national brewing companies that dominate the industry.

More information about Black Sheep Brewery

Festivals in Masham

Masham hosts a number of events through the year some of which are:

White Bear Midsummer Beer Festival

Held over a weekend in mid June, the festival showcases over 30 Cask Ales, live music all weekend and a barbecue.

Masham Steam Engine and Fair Organ Rally

Usually held in the 3rd week in July, this is a traditional Steam Rally celebrating the finest of this country’s engineering and agricultural heritage.

Summer Festival of Yorkshire Ales

Held at the end July. 25 locally sourced ales, food, music.

Masham Sheep Fair

Held at end of September. Some 70,000 sheep change hands at the fair which remains a fundamental part of Masham’s heritage. The Fair is also great day out for all, raising money for charity whilst entertaining all visitors with fun, entertainment and exhibitions.

Masham Arts Festival

Held in October every 2 years, the Arts Festival is an eclectic mix of workshops, exhibitions, fairs, performances, music and the visual arts.

Where to stay

There are plenty of place providing accommodation to suit everyone’s budget. Here’s a selection.

Hotels & Pubs

Swinton Park Hotel
The White Bear Hotel
Kings Head Hotel
The Black Swan

Bed & Breakfast/Guesthouses

Millgate B&B
Bank Villa Guesthouse
The Garden House B&B

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1 © Copyright Gordon Hatton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
2 “Masham” by Jamesfcarter – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
3 © Copyright Bill Henderson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence